In the Heart of the Sea, 2015.
Directed by Ron Howard.
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Ben Whishaw, Tom Holland, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Frank Dillane, Charlotte Riley, Paul Anderson, and Michelle Fairley.
Based on the 1820 event, a whaling ship is preyed upon by a sperm whale, stranding its crew at sea for 90 days, thousands of miles from home.
The overarching theme of Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea is one decidedly about man vs beast, framed around the hunt for oil that has lasted generations and caused many good people over the years to commit atrocities they are not proud of. Towards the end of the movie, we learn that oil has been struck underground for the first time, leaving the characters based on real life to believe that the horrors of husbands and fathers going away for years at a time at sea to murder these sperm whales are coming to an end.
Nah, we would just find something else to kill over oil, like real people.
Here’s the problem though, none of the darker, intellectually stimulating themes are explored until well over halfway into the movie, and unfortunately by that point you are ready to tap-out considering that much of the proceedings are bubblegum Hollywood action scenes designed to assault your vision with oncoming 3D. For clarification, the screening we were shown was in a standard format, but you don’t need to be an expert analysis on film to know what audience is being catered to here.
Forgettable action aside, the narrative is also quite a mess, with the decision to periodically showcase Herman Melville (Ben Wishaw) having a sit-down with an elderly Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) over the details of the 1820 sinking of the Essex (by the gargantuan whale nicknamed Moby Dick) to use as groundwork for his acclaimed novel, coming across awkwardly inserted. It’s evident by the narration that the events we see unfold are essentially a confession of the horrifically dehumanizing things these sailors had to do to survive while stranded at sea, and that the audience is supposed to empathize with all of this locked away emotional pain, but the meat of the film lacks far too much character depth and appearances from the famous whale.
One aspect In the Heart of the Sea gets right is the conscious decision to keep first mate Owen Chase’s (Chris Hemsworth) wife off-screen for the duration of the journey. Not only would you have overly dramatic manipulative scenes of a soon-to-be mother crying and grieving over the absence of her husband otherwise, but without her presence in the film, we can vicariously feel Owen’s longing of wanting to make it back home alive after becoming emaciated while lost at sea, thanks to one life or death encounter.
So that’s one instance of empathy, leaving the rest of the film surprisingly hollow and more committed to special effects sequences that yield no emotional impact. It’s not solely due to the weak characters the film provides, but also the result of some overly obvious and downright terrible green screen effects of whalers crashing over waves in tiny boats, directly looking straight out into the ocean. Furthermore, and this is something I won’t completely hold against the movie, but after having seen The Revenant the day before this screening, In the Heart of the Sea is simply pitiful execution at immersion. The former film was shot entirely on location with all natural light and absolutely no electricity or effects to enhance the weather or conditions.
What I will say however, is that the physical transformation of many actors involved, especially Chris Hemsworth, is absolutely commendable and properly elicits that these guys are truly suffering. As days turn into months, depriving each whaler further of food, they look considerably malnourished and weak. It’s the kind of imagery that will make you clutch that big bucket of popcorn next to you a little tighter.
Specifically touching on Chris Hemsworth, it’s also welcome that his protagonist is complex with a mixed personality of both likable and unlikable qualities. He’s very cocky during the first act (whether it be because he’s upset he is not yet a captain after being promised so, or reassuring his wife nothing bad will happen), but naturally becomes humbled over the course of the destruction costing many lives. We never lose sense that he’s a good meaning, well-intentioned guy that was ultimately just devoted to building a better life for his family, even at the risk of putting himself in harms way.
It’s really the supporting cast that is entirely forgettable and underdeveloped. Most notably is the captain of the ship, who is unqualified but born into the vocation. He is advised by his father to act as their superior rather than their friends, while Owen Chase is pretty much the antithesis of this, making for your standard good guy/bad guy archetypes. The captain is also humbled in his own way, but again, he’s not that complex a character to where you will care. Owen also has interactions with a younger Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland), but yet again nothing compelling comes from it.
The constant interruptions of his older self also ruin the flow, serving no purpose to the overall narrative. There’s even a grossly melodramatic moment where he mentions that he never admitted to cannibalism out of fear his wife would leave him for partaking in such an abomination, where afterwards she immediately consoles him. It’s just a way to gloss over darker material without actually showing it, which is probably because the one time a character is shown doing something shocking, such as committing suicide, you don’t care anyway. The person has made no impression on the viewer whatsoever for that death to mean something important.
Still, despite the disjointed narrative and forgettable characters, the most unforgivable flaw with In the Heart of the Sea are its 3D driven effects that feel far too manufactured and lacking in intensity, while only giving Moby Dick about 15 minutes of screen-time. At least Chris Hemsworth is great.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder – An aficionado of film, wrestling, and gaming. Follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook