Rating: What do you do when you want to make an adaptation Moby Dick, but don't want to deal with all the pressures and pitfalls of actually adapting Moby Dick? You dramatise the story it's based on, of course. Ron Howard's film about the real life event that inspired Herman Melville to write his epic piece of American literature is quite obsessed with that novel, framed by the author learning the story from its last living survivor and pivoting on the true life moments that obliquely parallel or diverge with the text. It makes for a nice companion piece for sure, but I just couldn't stop asking myself why Howard just didn't bite the harpoon and do Moby Dick fully (all you lose, really, is one dark but literally undernourished subplot). It certainly would have cleared up the film's biggest problem - in stark contrast to Moby Dick, widely read as being about man's hubris, the film is only really engaging when dealing with the white whale. When the 100 foot beast is smashing about, slapping its tail into the ocean and sending sailor's to their death in mesmerising scenes of destruction, the film is great. Howard shoots action in a peculiar way, using slightly unreal CGI to craft epic set pieces whose gargantuan scale perversely make them more grounded. It's infused with some great futility subtext too - Chris Hemsworth's sailor whispering to himself "It's just a whale" as he stares into the monster's massive eye, harpoon in hand, is as awe-inspiring as the monster taking down a massive sailing ship. In calmer waters, however, the film just doesn't bring the drama. The opening half hour, which introduces the key characters in the most cliché way possible, is an absolute chore, full of wooden performances, unconvincing 1800s towns and an underlying sense of self-importance. That the film wins us back is testament to those whale bits, although even when the heroes are stranded at sea the film suffers from ill-defined characters whose role in proceedings are oddly (perhaps purposely) vague. Old Tom Holland (Brendan Gleeson is what retired Spidey looks like apparently) is the narrator but the young actor only gets moments of focus. Instead, Chris Hemsworth is the lead, yet every one of his relationships - bro-love with an underused Cillian Murphy and clashes with his captain - are as underdeveloped as his American accent. There's an attempt to make the human elements impactful, but the film can never decide what the point of it all is (I'm reminded of the countless parody misreadings from the works of Matt Groening, certainly not the Homer the film wants to invoke). Not actually being Moby Dick should have offered real freedom, but there needs to be something in lieu of it. All we really get though is a fumbled human perseverance narrative and some very forced modernising with a look at the oil business (the ruthlessness of the whale one and the emergence of crude), which is so wink-wink the nice idea behind it feels soured. In The Heart Of The Sea is a whale of a time, but only when the whale is about. Otherwise it's a rote castaway drama featuring characters we barely care about. I may sound like Captain Ahab here, but it needed more whale. In The Heart Of The Sea is in US cinemas now and UK cinemas from 26th December.
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