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Good performances and special effects keep ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ afloat

"In the Heart of the Sea" - Living in present-day Phoenix, one does not have much need for whale oil. In fact, with a pair of recent documentaries – “Blackfish” (2013) and “The Cove” (2009) – uncovering and presenting the abuse and/or slaughter of marine mammals, I do not have the stomach for any sort of whale hunting.

In 1821, however, the nation consumed much whale oil, because its citizens used it for lighting their homes, and for the folks living on Nantucket Island, hunting these giant mammals is also big business.

Sailing out to an unforgiving sea and pursuing (and killing) these creatures takes an experienced hand, and in director Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea”, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) is that person.

Unfortunately, Owen has fallen victim to that timeless phenomenon known as nepotism, and George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) – with his decorated family name – takes command of a new whaling ship, the Essex.

Although at odds, the pair – along with a worthy and anxious crew – sail out to the Atlantic to fill a couple hundred empty barrels with whale oil, but they will find something nobody bargained for, a 100 foot whale who will fight back.

Howard delivers many stunning sights of the Essex on the open ocean, and these moments during the first 75 minutes of the film truly provide awe with serene, sunny days and the unholy churn of brutal storms.

Despite the predictable and routine conflicts between Pollard and Chase – which will obviously cause future problems with the ship – Hemsworth’s charisma and the oceanic visuals keep our attention.

Once the Essex finds troubled waters, CGI constructs of giant waves and wakes take over, and combined with loud crashes, the effects generate angst and worry for the audience.

Matthew (Cillian Murphy) and Thomas (Tom Holland) play Owen’s charismatic allies, provide a sense of appreciated camaraderie and come in handy during the first whaling scene.

Animal lovers will find the hunting and cutting up of the whale truly unpleasant, but the timing of much-needed humor helps us swallow the carnage, like adding a sugar cube to a dose of castor oil.

The storm and early whaling sequences are simply setups for a battle with the previously-mentioned mammoth whale, and this man vs. sea beast battle does not disappoint.

Again, the special effects provide some astounding and dangerous images, but immediately after the battle, the script takes a hard and sudden turn.

Howard’s picture feels like two different movies, and with a 2 hour 1 minute runtime, he is not afraid to take his time to deliver the story (or stories).

The second half is decidedly slower and not as engaging, but it did hold my attention. It should be noted the new drama for the crew is not 100 feet in length, but, quite frankly, the situation is infinitely more desperate.

Telling this big fish story – 30 years later in retrospect - is a middle-aged Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), and Gleeson’s skill in front of the camera gives this tall tale a realistic view and a true sense of danger.

Thomas’ audience knows - through his authentic apprehension – that his recollection is factual.

It is also factual that “In the Heart of Sea” does have its shortcomings, but its special effects and performances provide enough cover to make it a worthwhile movie experience.

At the very least, one will be thankful that we can enjoy artificial light in 2015 without the use of whale oil. (3/4 stars)

Image credits: Warner Bros. Pictures

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