In the Heart of the Sea is not Moby Dick: The Movie. It's based on a 2000 nonfiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick about the crew of the Essex, a whaling vessel that sank in 1820.
But director Ron Howard knows people want it to be Moby Dick: The Movie, so Philbrick's book is mashed up with scenes of a fictionalized Herman Melville researching his famous novel, which I'm convinced nobody has ever read in its entirety.
The first half of the story is a marvelous, swashbuckling adventure about the whaling ship as it leaves Nantucket, crewed by the handsome but mealy-mouthed Chris Hemsworth and the newest Spider-Man (finally, a new Spider-Man!) Tom Holland. When one of the whales fights back and sinks the boat, I think it's supposed to be sad. But honestly, I was rooting pretty hard for the whale, because it did not ask for this war.
While the first half is full of boat and whale adventures, the movie's second half is just a group of shipwrecked men slowly starving to death. It's boring. Even when they start eating each other, it's hard to care because, of course, they'd have to eat each other.
Now that you've made up your mind about seeing the movie or not, let's talk about the hourslong Wikipedia wormhole of whaling that my research took me down. Holy shit, you guys, whaling.
Let's imagine together a time when we were so bad at lighting our houses that we looked everywhere for a clean-burning fuel for lamps. And I mean we looked everywhere—because nobody is starting a fuel search inside the head cavities of sperm whales. It is not easy to look inside sperm whales, because, well, they're fucking whales who live underwater. And I've been whale watching, where it's hard to find whales with a fleet of ships with motors and radios. These guys did it just by floating around.
Whale oil isn't even that good a fuel! Despite being incredibly popular, people hated how it gives your whole house an unpleasant fishy smell. Of course it does—-you're burning whale-brain fluid, but it was better than darkness.
It was enough to make sailors go on insanely dangerous, multiyear trips so they could harpoon majestic creatures, cut off their intelligent heads, bore a hole in the top, lower a bucket into their spermaceti organ and pull out this waxy oil the whale had previously been using to create echolocation sounds.
This was a massive industry until we discovered kerosene, which burns cleanly, doesn't smell like fish and doesn't swim away when you try to harpoon it.
Unsurprisingly, the white whale that sank the Essex wasn't the only one to attack a ship. At least one other vessel, the Ann Alexander, was sunk by a giant sperm whale ramming it. And lots of whales thrashed around after being harpooned and wrecked the little rowboats people whaled from. Again, I'm rooting for them.
Partly because of their aggressiveness, we left enough sperm whales alive that they're doing OK. That's not the case for right whales, of which there are only a hundred or two left in the world because they were just too easy to hunt. They (1) live close to shore (2) have lots of oil and (3) are super-friendly!
Right whales like to swim up to boats to see what's going on and to make new friends. Then they get stabbed. It's such a bummer.
If Moby Dick had been about a right whale, it would have been like, "Call me Ish—oh look, the white whale just swam up to me. Let me kill it."
Critic's Grade: [C-]
SEE IT: In the Heart of the Sea is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at most Portland-area theaters.