Whale of a prize in the Pacific Ocean

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3 out of 4 stars

Somewhere, in the Pacific Ocean without a sliver of land in sight, In the Heart of the Sea finds its true identity: what begins as a story about man’s greed to take a life morphs into a tale about the depths he’ll sink to save his own.

Don’t be fooled by the trailers featuring the coolest whale to ever grace the screen. In the Heart of the Sea isn’t just the next chapter in Hollywood’s quest to use CGI to take a magnificent creature and make it bigger, stronger and more ferocious; it’s simply another studio turning yet another book into a movie. Some books, like The Help, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and The Fault in Our Stars, are augmented. Others, like Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby and The Maze Runner, should have remained on the shelf.

Chris Hemsworth proves he can play more than Thor as he stars as a whale hunter in In the Heart of the Sea. (Warner Bros.)
Chris Hemsworth proves he can play more than Thor as he stars as a whale hunter in In the Heart of the Sea. (Warner Bros.)

In the Heart of the Sea offers a mostly real-life account of the Essex, a Nantucket ship that was smashed to pieces by a gigantic sperm whale it was hunting in 1820. The tale of tragedy and survival at sea is adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s best seller, but at its core, is basically Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick on steroids.

And that’s when those who have read the line “Call me Ishmael” will pick sides. Can a literary classic be repackaged as a 3D action movie respectfully? Or will it leave Melville wanting to rise from the dead and throw director Ron Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt overboard?

The story’s premise is simple: some dudes on a boat are trying to kill the biggest whale they’ve ever seen for its valuable oil. But the manner in which Howard tells it elevates a staple of high school English classes.

The film starts with Melville (Ben Whishaw), showing up at the residence of former seaman Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who has turned to the bottle to drown his sorrows of the horrors he experienced at sea 30 years earlier. Melville throws a wad of cash at him and basically says, “Tell me everything you know about what the crew aboard the Essex endured during your voyage.”

Instantly, the audience is whisked back to 1820.

Like seemingly all survival at sea movies, there’s turmoil aboard the ship. Nickerson — then a rookie seaman played by Tom Holland — and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) clash with George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker), whose captaincy was more inherited than earned. Pollard proves all his critics right from the start, steering the boat into a massive storm. But instead of returning to shore to fix the vessel, Pollard pushes the crew — and the damaged boat — into deeper waters in an attempt to bag a whale of a prize.

It’s basically the same conflicted as in 2000’s The Perfect Storm, when Capt. George Clooney placed his ego over his crew’s well-being and everybody ended up fish food.

In the Heart of the Sea’s whale is the coolest leviathan to ever grace the big screen. (Warner Bros.)
In the Heart of the Sea’s whale is the coolest leviathan to ever grace the big screen. (Warner Bros.)

What happens aboard the Essex is pretty similar, as the vast majority of the movie is filmed at sea with effective CGI. The whale hunting scenes are very well done and so is the whale, which is longer than the Essex trying to kill it.

The lethal leviathan, which isn’t a threat to anyone not armed with a harpoon, is the star of the show, as part of you is glad he damages the Essex beyond repair, forcing his tormentors to flee into life boats and float aimlessly in for 90 days.

Sometimes, the hunters become the hunted and some things aren’t mean to be killed.

What the crew does to survive during three months adrift isn’t for the squeamish, as every death seems crueler than the one that preceded it.

Just as in Moby DickIn the Heart of the Sea touches on defiance, friendship, greed, duty and perseverance.

But instead of spending weeks reading and taking quizzes, you’ll learn the whole story in two hours.