The first of this winter’s three unabashedly macho movies arrives Friday with “In the Heart of the Sea,” Ron Howard’s grand maritime adventure about the whaling ship Essex, whose fate helped inspire Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” Later this month we’ll see Alejandro Inarritu’s “The Revenant” and Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” each of which, like Howard’s film, contains approximately one major female character. For now, “In the Heart of the Sea” is the manliest movie in theaters.
It begins with Melville (Ben Whishaw) arriving at a Nantucket inn to interview Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who sailed the Essex as a boy (Tom Holland) and is the crew’s last living survivor. Melville desperately wants to hear the story — he senses potential — and Nickerson, played as a glowering old seaman by Gleeson, reluctantly agrees to relive the nightmare. This stormy-night framing device is old as the hills and corny as heck — and it hooks us like fish.
In the winter of 1820, when whale oil was as valuable as today’s crude, the Essex set sail helmed by a well-born rookie, Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker), and his more experienced first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth, “Thor”). The two hated each other, but they eventually found a common enemy: a massive whale, “white as alabaster,” oblivious to harpoons and seemingly bent on revenge. From there, the film becomes a thoroughly engrossing tale of unimaginable wreckage, grim survival and that ever-powerful taboo, cannibalism.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is a Hollywood movie in the best way. It looks spectacular, with roaring storms and underwater explosions, but it also looks alluringly unreal. (The Oscar-winning cinematographer is Anthony Dod Mantle, of “Slumdog Millionaire.”) Shot partly in a giant tank, the open-water scenes have a heightened, ultra-vivid feel that recalls the intensely-lit style of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The movie’s paucity of women (Charlotte Riley plays Owen’s little-seen wife) may strike some as a throwback, too. Still, “In the Heart of the Sea” works as top-notch entertainment thanks to its literary sensibility (it’s based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction book) and a strong emotional undercurrent (the shutdown Nickerson resembles a traumatized war veteran). Subtle questions about the price we pay for natural resources gives this old-fashioned movie just the right touch of modern relevance.