The late science fiction author Ray Bradbury used to tell a wonderful anecdote about his time writing the screenplay for John Huston’s 1956 film version of “Moby Dick.” One day he received a telegram from the front office demanding that the writer work a sizable female role into the film, in essence putting a woman aboard the Pequod. Bradbury stormed and agonized and pitched a fit — and then noticed Huston, who had sent the telegram as a joke, doubled over in laughter.
“In the Heart of the Sea” plays as if the joke was real and everyone on the production had caved in. The result, as a movie, is a joke.
There’s no high seas love interest in Ron Howard’s glib and glossy adaptation of Boston native Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 book, a fine historical bestseller about the real-life voyage that influenced the writing of “Moby-Dick.” On the other hand, there is a giant sperm whale that doesn’t merely attack and sink the whaleship Essex, as happened on Nov. 20, 1820, but that then stalks the survivors over months of drifting at sea, occasionally surfacing and wreaking further mayhem. Psycho cetacean, qu’est-ce que c’est? After a while, you wonder why they don’t put a hockey mask on the beast and call him Moby Jason.
The rest of “In the Heart of the Sea” isn’t all that hot, either. The main problem is a shallow screenplay (by Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver) and a lavish, heavily digitized production design that emphasizes Hollywood hokum at the expense of realism or grit. Early-19th-century Nantucket has never looked so sanitized.
Chris Hemsworth, who was excellent in Howard’s race-car movie “Rush” and is very likable as the current incarnation of Thor, has been instructed to bring as much strappitude as possible to the role of Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex and the movie’s manly hero. Hemsworth also works hard at a period New England accent that quickly devolves into fisherman’s stew. In fact, all the accents in this movie sound as if the actors had been coached to talk like Red Sox fans magically transported to the 1820s.
That there were tensions of social class and professionalism between Chase and the ship’s young captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker, last seen traducing history in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) gives the filmmakers excuse to work up a righteous “Mutiny on the Bounty” vibe in the first half of the movie, before the ship hits the fin. The suspense ratchets further during an early squall but is set aside for a bloody, high-speed whale hunt — the best scene in the movie, it illustrates both the nearly lunatic bravery of the whalemen and the savagery of their work.
All human relationships are then nullified by the attack on the Essex by the great white whale — mottled, really, as if he’d had a bad paint job — and three months of floating at sea that leads inexorably to bouts of PG-13 rated cannibalism. (“No right-minded sailor discards what might yet save him,” Chase observes pragmatically.) Awaiting them back in Nantucket are Owen’s knockout of a wife (Charlotte Riley) and an early American corporate coverup.
Framing this story is an even sillier one in which the insecure young Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) tracks down the last surviving crew member of the Essex, Thomas Nickerson, who is played by Brendan Gleeson as a traumatized rummy. (Tom Holland plays the character as a young man.) It’s a fair trade: Nickerson absolves his guilt by telling his story and Melville gets over his inferiority complex about Hawthorne. The world is made safe for “Moby-Dick” as well as parboiled Hollywood reductions of the tale that inspired it. They should have titled this movie “Nantucket Slayride.” Better still: Call it fishmeal.
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA
Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, based on the book by Nathaniel Philbrick. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Reading and Natick. 122 minutes. PG-13 (intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, thematic material, serial-killer whales).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.