If you must go see In the Heart of the Sea, avoid the 3D screenings.
I realize few people read reviews for critiques of the technical elements, but this sea story has some of the worst uses of 3D I have seen. Director Ron Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle love to shoot with objects between the characters and the camera. If ever a film begged for deep focus, this is it.
But alas: more than half the frame is frequently out of focus for large chunks of the movie. At first I thought this was an accident or something peculiar to my screening venue, but in at least one scene the focus shifts from foreground to background intentionally. And critics at other screenings in other cities mentioned problems with the 3D as well. I’m not a fan of 3D to begin with, since I think the glasses tend to wash out color, but the cumulative result here is a particularly drab, fuzzy picture.
The film’s visuals aren’t its only problem—just the most noticeable. The screenplay is a messy hodge-podge that can’t decide what kind of story it wants to tell or where its dramatic weight rests.
In the Heart of the Sea opens with a self-tortured Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) visiting a self-tortured Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). The author fears he will never be Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Spoiler alert: he’s right.) The last living survivor of the Essex fears that his wife will no longer love him if she ever finds out what transpired on that ship’s fatal voyage. That’s a lot of psychological torment dropped in our lap before the movie even gets out of dock. Nickerson wants to take Essex’s story to the grave, but his wife (Michelle Fairley, who manages to prompt the film’s only laugh) tells him they need the author’s money. She also thinks that maybe finally telling someone his shameful secret will do the old guy some good. All good literature is born out of amateur psychotherapy, it seems.
The frame story is an ill-chosen device that weighs the movie down and accentuates one of Howard’s most irritating directorial tendencies—a penchant for over-explaining. Several times, we get an overstated scene on the ship in which a conflict is depicted, followed by a cut to Nickerson explaining to Melville (and us) what the scene we just saw meant. Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) butt heads over class envy and personal resentments. The Essex was put out to sea late, and the pressure to perform pushes the Captain to cut corners. Young Nickerson, a petrified boy on one of his first voyages, is held by his ankles over the edge of the ship and later pushed inside a dead whale’s head to retrieve some premium oil. These scenes are neither particularly hard to understand nor fathom, so the constant cuts to Melville and Old Nickerson serve only to build anticipation for a truly horrific climax that comes so early in the movie we don’t even realize that was it.