If Melville were alive today, he'd spend a chunk of his $1,200 lifetime earnings from Moby-Dick on a ticket to Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea, a retelling of the doomed voyage of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship that sank after it was rammed by a whale. There, he would look up at the screen, at Benjamin Walker's George Pollard, and wonder, "What the hell did they do to my pal?"
This isn't a bad thing. Moby-Dick was a story of fever and obsession. Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt have rejiggered Pollard to represent nepotism and ego as an inexperienced captain who bought his way into a job and would rather put his sailors at risk than return home looking incompetent. (As fictional insults go, that isn't any worse than Melville transforming him into Ahab.) His foil is first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a romance-novel-worthy hunk who looks like Fabio and acts like Superman.
Howard continually reminds us that it's the big business of blubber that steers the ship. Whale oil kept the lamps lit and the machines running, and Howard lines the cityscape of New Bedford, Massachusetts, with huffing smokestacks. The big white sperm whale they chase is as scarred as Freddy Krueger, each cut a lesson that humans aren't friends. It's the villain of the film, and Howard shoots from its serial-killer p.o.v. But Howard is also great at capturing the timbre of the ship, the creaks and snaps and the whir of the hemp lines. Still, you sense his crowd-pleaser's need to turn Melville's dark musings into a story of heroism, the sort of thing that earns more than $1,200.