"It was hardly to be doubted, that several vessels reported to have encountered, at such or such a time, or on such or such a meridian, a sperm whale of uncommon magnitude and malignity, which whale, after doing great mischief to his assailants, had completely escaped them; to some minds it was not an unfair presumption, I say, that the whale in question must have been no other than Moby Dick."
Thus Herman Melville wrote in 1851, in a book I bet you can guess the title of, making clear what Ahab and company pursued: a leviathan so cunning and cruel as to transcend flesh and blood, becoming "the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung."
Melville shows up early in Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea, Hollywood's latest riff on Moby-Dick. Based on Nathaniel Philbrick's book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, the film aims to tell the true story that inspired Melville's novel. Here Melville is played by Ben Whishaw, who bribes grumpy old drunk Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), an Essex survivor, to tell his tale. So Nickerson grumbles, takes a shot, and we flash back to when he was a wide-eyed kid (Tom Holland) serving the Essex's scowly first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), and naive captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). Pollard, an idiot, promptly steers the Essex directly into a squall, and things get shittier from there—particularly for Nickerson, who, along with Howard's camera, gets shoved inside a dead whale's reeking carcass to ladle out ambergris.
That claustrophobic, stomach-churning sequence is the best part of In the Heart of the Sea—it has guts, literally and figuratively. The rest of the movie tries to do a bunch of things, none too well: On the surface, it exploits the familiarity of Moby-Dick, but instead of Ahab, Ishmael, and Queequeg, all it offers are stiff clichés. (And at least one stiff cliché who can't decide where he's from—judging by Hemsworth's accent, Chase is sometimes from Australia, sometimes from Asgard, and sometimes just wants to lighten the mood with a Mayor Quimby impression.)
In the Heart of the Sea also tries to be a monster movie—its trailer advertises a star turn from a giant, murderous CG whale, more or less promising Godzilla Goes Sailing. But it's a bait and switch: The film's adherence to history leaves little room for whaling among all the waiting, bickering, panic, and starvation. The one through line is that the whole film feels both drawn out and rushed, lurching from scene to scene. In the Heart of the Sea clocks in at only two hours, but those two hours feel long enough to reread Moby-Dick.
Given that many of the horrific events in the film, you know, actually happened, one can't criticize the story—but one can note that, in constantly cutting away to show Melville scribbling notes, Howard makes it impossible to forget there are more engaging stories to be taken from the Essex. In book form, that would be Moby-Dick; in film form, it would be Jaws. (Howard knows it, too—in rare moments of fun, he borrows a shot or two.) It would be foolish to expect In the Heart of the Sea to be as enjoyable as Spielberg's movie, or as engaging as Melville's book. But maybe that's the problem with telling a crappier version of a story everybody already knows: It can't help but be compared, and it can't help but fall short.