Now we come to the curious case of Ron Howard. The Oscar-winning director and former actor is an astute filmmaker who works across an impressively diverse range of styles and genres, turning out meticulously crafted films with fine acting and top notch production values.
Yet, invariably, something is missing. Call it passion or inspiration or whatever you like, he leaves no trace of any artistic personality on the movies he makes. Craft always triumphs over art.
The current manifestation of this phenomenon is “In the Heart of the Sea,” an early 19th-century seafaring tale based on a true-life maritime disaster and a subsequent saga of despair, starvation and, ultimately, survival while adrift in the equatorial sea.
Indeed the claim is made here, as well in the best-selling book from which it draws, “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” by Nathaniel Philbrick, that this legendary incident inspired Herman Melville to compose his masterpiece, ‘Moby Dick.”
The two stories are really quite different but no doubt Melville knew the tale of the Essex, told and retold in those days in ports and towns throughout New England.
The story certainly has it all — adventure, drama, horror and suspense where men are at odds with each other, with nature and themselves. Yet for all the considerable and admirable efforts of an expert production and post-production crew, the film, though often engaging, never astonishes.
One admires “In the Heart of the Sea” but doesn’t thrill to it. This is unfair, I realize, but a comparison of this film to two other films coming out this holiday season about a man or men battling to survive against all odds is salutary.
One I like very much, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant,” a work of astonishing vision and power about the human spirit, and another I very much do not like, Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” which nevertheless grips a viewer in a nasty headlock and refuses to let go until the final image fades away.
The point is, love ‘em or hate’ me, these films come about because a filmmaker has a blood passion to tell these stories, to take a viewer on a cinematic journey to a place never before visited. A Ron Howard film simply feels like his latest Hollywood project.
Not that “In the Heart of the Sea” doesn’t offer up fascinating details about whaling, the Nantucket community, the rigors of the “edge of the Earth” that was the South Pacific then and a mammoth whale whose predatory instincts defied belief.
Without any exaggeration it can be said that the mythic sinking of the whaleship Essex was to the 19th century what the sinking of the Titanic was to the 20th.
The Nantucket whaling ship left port in August 1819 on her final voyage with 20 crew members aboard. In the middle of the South Pacific the ship was attacked by a leviathan —an angry sperm whale of singular size — and sunk.
The surviving crew drifted for more than 90 days in three tiny boats facing storms, hunger, disease and finally turning to desperate measures to survive.
Philbrick found forgotten documents including a long-lost account written by the ship’s cabin boy to recount the tale of this fatal voyage. The movie employs the conceit that Melville himself (Ben Whishaw, who plays Q in the current James Bond series), in search of his next novel, interviews this now aging seaman, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), about the events of 30 years past.
So the movie plays as a flashback as Nickerson (Tom Holland as the boy) bears witness to the tragedy of the Essex, which is, in his telling, the story of two men: Captain George Pollard and his first mate, Owen Chase.
Chase (Chris Hemsworth of “The Avengers” and Howard’s last film “Rush”) is a working-class guy, proven worthy to command of his own ship but passed over within the Nantucket caste system in favor of the inexperienced Pollard (Benjamin Walker), scion of an established whaling family.
They clash almost immediately with Pollard, either through arrogance or ignorance, foolishly ordering the ship into a squall that nearly seals the deal before the ship can meet the whale.
But telling such a long tale means shipping ahead months at a time in order to get to the first whale kill and then the seas of the Pacific where few whales are to be found. So the Pollard-Chase conflict appears to have gotten subsumed into the quotidian activity of a fruitless, debilitating search for prey.
A Spanish captain encountered in an Ecuador port tells of countless whales out on the “edge of the Earth” but fearfully warns of a great whale that killed many of his men.
Pollard and Chase are in agreement at least on this point: They ignore the warning and head for the edge. So the Essex’s encounter with the great whale happens exactly an hour into the movie.
Subplots are kept at bay by screenwriter Charles Leavitt (“Blood Diamond”) — story credit goes to Leavitt, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver — which renders most of the crew little more than dress extras.
Only Cillian Murphy’s second mate Matthew Joy and the lad Nickerson receive any attention on screen. The other actors merely rush about, climb sails, jump into whaling boats and then scramble to get out of the way when the whale rams the ship.
Unlike when John Huston boldly although not entirely successfully tried to film “Moby Dick” in 1956, in today’s cinema whaling and whale attacks can combine mobile cameras, amazing stunt work and lots of CGI. So the battle between men in boats and the beast is genuinely exciting stuff.
However, an earlier sequence where men in small boats in opens sea bring down a whale through extraordinary skill doesn’t come close to the vivid descriptions in Melville’s classic. Sometimes reading is better than seeing, I guess.
This second consecutive collaboration with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle by Howard does yield a brilliantly shot film which editors Mike Hill and Dan Hanley pull together seamlessly.
The movie’s account of the open-boat voyages of those three tiny boats turns the movie away from exciting adventure into the survival realm of Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken.” While quite harrowing with cannibalism, madness and self-sacrifice darkening the tragedy even further, this adaption misses one of the true tale’s great ironies.
When the Essex went down, the nearest islands, the Marquesas, were only 1,000 miles downwind. However Pollard chose the impossible goal of sailing over 2,000 miles upwind toward the familiar coast of South America.
Why? The Marquesas were reputedly home to savages. So Nantucketers’ xenophobia prevailed. And if they feared cannibals, as those savages were reputed to be, then in an even greater irony it turned out those Nantucketers didn’t need to leave their boats to encounter this “abomination.”
A more adventurous filmmaker might have chosen to deal with such intriguing issues. Howard is not that kind of filmmaker. He plays it safe, relying on actors and his crew to help him create often very good movies but ones lacking in the primal instincts of the great auteurs.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is an underwhelming adventure.
Opens: December 11, 2015 (Warner Bros.)
Production: Warner Bros. presents in association with Village Roadshow Prods. a COTT Productions-Enelmar Productions, A.I.E. co-production, a Roth Films/Spring Creek/Imagine Entertainment production
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland, Paul Anderson, Frank Dillane, Joseph Mawle, Edward Ashley, Sam Keeley, Osy Ikhile, Gary Beadle, Jamie Sives, Morgan Chetcuti, Charlotte Riley, Nicholas Jones, Donald Sumpter, Richard Bremmer, Jordi Molla
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Charles Leavitt
Story by: Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Based on the book by: Nathaniel Philbrick
Producers: Paula Weinstein, Joe Roth, Will Ward, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard
Executive producers: Bruce Berman, Steven Mnuchin, Sarah Bradshaw, Palak Patel, Erica Huggins, David Bergstein
Director of photography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Production designer: Mark Tildesley
Music: Roque Banos
Costume designer: Julian Day
Visual effects supervisor: Jody Johnson
Editors: Mike Hill, Dan Hanley
PG-13 rating, 121 minutes