In the best of all worlds, I would be able to set aside preconceptions when encountering a new movie. I am not usually up to the task, though, and seeing Ron Howard’s name on a movie leads to certain expectations. It won’t suck, it won’t be great, it will be inoffensive but probably entertaining enough, and I won’t care about it after it’s over.
A couple of times, Howard has surprised me, although even then it’s more a case of “like” than “love”. (My favorites are Cinderella Man and Frost/Nixon.) In the Heart of the Sea has a modicum of ambition, with some big action sequences. But it has a framing device which doesn’t work, and while it’s based on a non-fiction book, I sense it is “based on a true story” the way most such movies are, i.e. it plays fast and loose with the true story when necessary.
The central story of In the Heart of the Sea is the sinking of the whaling ship Essex in the early 19th century. The primary culprit behind the sinking is a white whale so big it is legendary. I found the special effects hit or miss, but the whale is pretty impressive, even if it often looks like the actors are working in front of a screen. The framing device is drawn from the fact that Herman Melville supposedly found inspiration for Moby-Dick in the story of the Essex.
A movie that stuck with the whaling action would have been a bit mundane, but it would have entertained, and it would have been over in 100 minutes, tops. But the frame adds another twenty minutes, and it’s silly. Herman Melville comes to interview the last remaining survivor of the Essex, in order to get information for the novel he is writing (yep, Moby-Dick). The survivor tells the story, and Melville dutifully writes it all down. These scenes interrupt the rest of the movie, which is bad enough. But the real crime is the suggestion that arguably the greatest novel in American literature grew out of interview notes. There is no feel for what Melville brought to the story.
And while Melville fills his novel with symbolism, Howard’s movie is by the numbers. It works on the level of a simple adventure story, but there is no hint of anything deeper.
Which is often the case with Ron Howard movies. He is a real professional, almost incapable of turning out a bad movie. (OK, Backdraft was pretty bad.) But I rarely see any inspiration behind his work. 6/10.