In the Heart of the Sea (2015) / Adventure-Action
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material
Running Time: 121 min.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Brendan Gleeson, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Fairley, Frank Dilane, Paul Anderson
Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: Charles Leavitt (based on the non-fiction novel, "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex", by Nathaniel Philbrick)
Review published December 10, 2015
Based on the historical novel of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick, published in the year 2000, In the Heart of the Sea relates the story of a New England whaling ship known as the "Essex", which, in 1820, would meet with disaster when trying to take down a massive white sperm whale. The events were most notable as the inspiration for Herman Melville to write his most famous of books, 1851's "Moby-Dick".
The main story is framed by fictional scenes of Herman Melville (Whishaw, Spectre) visiting the Nantucket home of Tom Nickerson (Gleeson, Stonehearst Asylum), the last living survivor of the voyage of the "Essex". Nickerson is beyond reluctant to recount what happened, clearly still traumatized by an experience he deems to be unspeakable, but Melville's persistence, the insistence of Nickerson's wife (Fairley, Philomena), a tidy sum of money, and enough liquor to help him get through it, are enough to ultimately get him to open up and tell his story for the first time to anyone.
Nickerson, played as a young cabin boy by Tom Holland (How I Live Now -- aside: 60-year-old Brendan Gleeson isn't remotely passable as a man in his forties), relates of the story of "Essex" First Mate Owen Chase (Hemsworth, Vacation), a seasoned seaman worthy of being captain who had to settle for being second in command for one more adventure due to being "of low birth" as the son of a farmer as compared to the relatively less experienced captain of the ship, George Pollard (Walker, Flags of Our Fathers), who comes from a privileged family of naval adventurers. (another aside: How Nickerson knows of all of the events that led up to his actual participation when he never wanted to relive or discuss them with anyone is one of the problems with the needless narrative framing device). Their mission is to venture out and bring back 2000 barrels of whale oil, but Pollard is clearly over his head in command, and gets little help from Chase after chiding him for his social status persistently. Calamities abound, but they stubbornly refuse to come back without their full shipment of oil, which sends them off to the whale-rich waters of the southern Pacific Ocean, where they encounter the rumored 100-foot whale thought too massive for any whaling vessel to take down.
In the Heart of the Sea will likely be remembered for its impressive design and technical achievements, which are beautifully constructed, with a comfortable marriage of CGI and real-life elements, even if the use of green-screening is a bit more evident. But, for all of the effort that went into getting the right look and feel to the costumes, sets, and quality of the effects, there's just something so artless about the way director Ron Howard (Rush, Angels & Demons) develops this tale, presented in a straightforward fashion that lacks the kind of thematic subtext that has made Melville's spin of it so resonant and challenging for many generations of readers. As for the story, there really isn't much of a build-up to ratchet up tension, just a series of events, from massive storms to the enormity of the whales, until we get to the reasons why Nickerson finds the story to have been unspeakable for so many years, and even then, it is presented without any dread or fear, or even just a basic semblance of gravity.
For all of its visual splendor, where In the Heart of the Sea ventures into choppy waters is in its story elements, which are straightforward and not especially compelling, only notable for being the seed of inspiration for one of the great narrative works of adventure ever written in the English language. Melville knew well enough that only some of the events in the actual account lend well to good storytelling, so it's curious as to why Ron Howard and company would spend so much money and effort to bringing the original, less satisfying story to the big screen when "Moby-Dick" hasn't had a notable adaptation to the big screen since John Huston did it in 1956, in a film most film-goers today will not have seen, much less heard about. Other than this, it's also hard sympathize with the whalers, given that they are only out there to kill as many of these magnificent, intelligent and completely harmless creatures as they can in order to bring wealth to businessmen who have no regard for anything other than profit. When you're hoping that these men will be unsuccessful, if not suffer a tragic fate themselves, for what they're doing in the pursuit of riches, it's hard to view whatever tragedy that happens to them as anything more than just-desserts.
All in all, In the Heart of the Sea is a serviceable effort to tell the historic story, and not poorly made. There's really nothing wrong with it, technically speaking, other than it's a boring way to tell a tale. Perhaps with a bit more art and allusions within the story would help to contextualize, or even a sense of the hubris of humankind. Or, for broader themes relevant to today, perhaps the tying in of corporate greed that sees the exploitation and destruction of nature for pursuit of oil, and how it will end with us destroying our own livelihood in the process, could have made the entire movie an apt environmental allegory for the folly of our current climate (or 'climate change', as it were). Alas, it is merely a collection of events that aren't notable in and of themselves, except as inspiration for better interpretations, as you'll see much of this story done with more nail-biting suspense in Spielberg's Jaws, more haunting artistic flourishes in Ang Lee's Life of Pi, and more universally thematic resonance in, of course, Herman Melville's timeless epic, "Moby-Dick".
©2015 Vince Leo