Most of the story takes place 30 years prior to the 1850 meetings between Melville and Nickerson. As a teen cabin boy, Nickerson (Tom Holland during the 1820 sequences) sets sail with Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), Second Mate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), and the rest of the Essex crew. Whale oil was like gold in that era and the Essex is in search of it. Headstrong Chase and his questionably-qualified captain don't get along, adding a bit of personal tension.
There are some thrillingly-staged sequences once the crew encounters the fabled white sperm whale that eventually sinks their ship. The CG whale is impressively realistic, but it's hard to care about the human drama as the stranded crew copes with life adrift in the doldrums. The committed cast went on crash diets to thin out, but Charles Leavitt's screenplay is equally thin in terms of character development. As is often the case, all the special effects money and top notch production design in the world can't save a poorly-told story. If Howard's desired effect was to make audiences empathize with the hopelessness (and purposelessness) felt by the Essex survivors, I guess he succeeded in part. There are very difficult decisions made by those men (think about what, exactly, men adrift in the ocean would eat) and, at times, In the Heart allows us to glimpse their pain. But the tension slackens too often and, in the end, the story fails to truly grip.
As mentioned, In the Heart of the Sea is available on Blu-ray in 3D (as it was in theaters). I screened the 2D version and Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography looks pretty darn good. There were some apparently intentional stylistic choices made during post-production that give In the Heart a highly stylized look. Colors are generally muted and there's a harsh sheen to the film's look that gives it a strange look. Definitely a unique looking film. The exciting DTS-HD MA 7.1 surround mix is at its best during the whaling sequences (predictably, given that much of the non-whaling material is extremely sedate from a sonic standpoint).
There's plenty to investigate in terms of special features, with five featurettes (mostly running ten minutes or less) shedding light on the production and source material. The most interesting piece is the longest, the half-hour "Lightning Strikes Twice: The Real-Life Sequel to Moby Dick" that focuses on historical fact. Ron Howard contributes a ten-part series of "Captain's Log" segments and there is a generous selection of deleted and extended scenes.
Unlike Ron Howard's Rush (2013; also starring Chris Hemsworth), which seemed to come and go with little very little attention paid, it's not terribly hard to see why audiences largely avoided In the Heart of the Sea. I can't be the only one who groaned at the prospect of a Moby-Dick movie, with flashbacks to high school English class flooding my mind. Maybe it's just me, but I've never actually met anyone who claims to have enjoyed reading (or trying to read) that book. This isn't an adaptation of Melville's novel but rather of Nathaniel Philbrick's 2000 non-fiction book In the Heart of the Sea, but the connection is obvious. Plus, it's probably fair to say that most present-day Americans look on the practice of whaling with great distaste. So the movie wrestled with some very real marketing challenges to begin with. The real killer, however, is the general lack of passion in the storytelling.