It's the proverbial whale of a tale from director Ron Howard — not a remake of Moby Dick as you might expect. Instead, In the Heart of the Sea, adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick's nonfiction bestseller, digs into the real story of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship destroyed by a humungous white sperm whale in 1820. The true saga of the Essex and its decimated crew (they resorted to cannibalism and worse) inspired Herman Melville to write his literary colossus. Now Howard, working from a stolid script by Charles Leavitt, brings it to the screen in all its retro, yo-ho-ho glory.
The problem comes when you make admittedly unfair comparisons between Howard's film and Melville's mythic tome. (Legend trumps fact damn near every time.) Plus, there's a swamp of setup to slog through. Thirty years after the Essex goes down, the young Melville (Ben Whishaw) harangues the sole survivor, the now aged cabin boy, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), to spill the beans. Nickerson resists just long enough to cue the flashbacks and for Howard to get some wind in his cinematic sails. You can feel the salt in your lungs, as young Nickerson (a terrific Tom Holland) reports for duty. The Essex captain, George Pollard Jr (the excellent Benjamin Walker), barely has his sea legs. Nepotism won Pollard his first command. That leaves the heavy lifting to first-mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), whose conflict with Pollard plays out along too familiar lines. And Hemsworth, so fine in Howard's racing drama Rush, struggles here with a wobbly New England accent and a woefully underwritten role.
Still, only landlubbers would resist the rousing action of man versus leviathan. Sure it's old-school. So what. Howard puts heart, soul and every computerized whale trick in the book into crafting a seafaring adventure to rock your boat.