Depicting the true story that formed the basis for Herman Melville's Moby Dick, In The Heart Of The Sea (Nathaniel Philbrick) is a story of tenacity and determination; not of David besting Goliath, but of the two eventually respecting one another. Yet it's also a story of man's arrogance, his inability to admit defeat, his lust and greed - an easy parallel to today's society of financial overreaching and environmental apathy.
Now Philbrick's novel has been adapted for the screen and directed by Ron Howard, rich with themes and leaden with psychology. Not only do we witness the story of First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) aboard the Whaleship Essex hunting for the demon of the seas, there's a structured narrative focusing on Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) as he recounts some years later his story aboard the ship as a young cabin boy directly to Melville (Ben Whishaw). There's a sense of catharsis, then, as Nickerson's supressed feelings about the voyage - the trauma of oceanic hell, specifically cannibalism in the face of death - are finally unveiled. Nickerson is able to let go of the past, just as Chase eventually lets go of his whale pursuit.
How reliable, though, is Nickerson as a storyteller? Is his account more fiction than fact? It's a concept that Howard never really explores, his film drifting unsuccessfully between dull, gritty realism and the fanciful surrealism of Ang Lee's Life of Pi.
The main issue with the film, though, is that its themes are spread too thinly, the epic narrative lacking the intense focus of Melville's novel. Whilst the Melville/Nickerson scenes create a parallel, they mostly interrupt the flow of the story, stalling what is already a slow and tiresome plot - something Howard has already shown an affinity to with the likes of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, as well as poor novel adaptations in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. That's especially disappointing after the thrill of Rush, also starring Hemsworth and with a far more grippingly fractious central pairing. For better or worse, In The Heart Of The Sea is perhaps the ultimate Howard film.
Further, we simply don't care for these men aboard the ship and that's as much the fault of the script as it is the acting. The only men given an ounce of characterisation are Hemsworth's Chase and Benjamin Walker's Captain George Pollard, a privileged man out of his depths who becomes as much Chase's adversary as the whale. Chase, meanwhile, is a man devoted more to his career than his family, driven by his desire to be captain and arrogant in the face of nature, displaying little compassion along the way. Hemsworth may be handsome and more likeable than the character he plays, but he simply doesn't have the gravitas to pull off this leading man role, lacking the substance and raw masculinity of, say, Russell Crowe. The remains of the cast only tick boxes for stereotyping, brim with overt manliness and deliver some dodgy accents.
It's ultimately the CGI whales that bring a sense of magnitude to the film, alongside Roque Banos' score. They're beautifully designed and the hunting action sequences are intense and brutal, though equally choppy and difficult to follow for both their close-up cinematography and a colour palette that may as well be black and white. When the whales are killed there's a sense not of elation, but of sadness, innocent creatures needlessly exploited. In this battle of David vs Goliath, I'm on the side of Goliath.
Watch: In The Heart Of The Sea is out now.