In the Heart of the Sea, 2015.
Directed by Ron Howard.
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson.
Massachusetts, 1850. Young novelist Herman Melville visits ageing Thomas Nickerson, the only survivor of the Essex, a whaling ship sunk decades earlier by a great white whale. Nickerson recounts the remarkable true story of the Essex, her crew, and what they endured…
Everybody knows the story of Moby Dick. Even if you’ve never read Herman Melville’s novel published in 1850, you’ve probably heard of the great whale and Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest to defeat it. The less familiar tale is the one that inspired Melville to write his great American novel, a tale published by Nathaniel Philbrick in his 2000 book ‘In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex‘. You see Melville based the Moby Dick plot on a real life incident, that of the crew of the Essex out of Nantucket in the early 19th century, and it has all the hallmarks of a traditional blockbuster movie – a story of brave seamen, of triumph over desperate adversity, of man against nature, of the power of the ocean. Throw a star like Chris Hemsworth at In the Heart of the Sea and you surely have a slam dunk of a classic Hollywood drama, the kind you would expect from director Ron Howard. As it turns out, traditional is precisely what you get; while it looks impressive and holds the natural gravitas it needs for such a battle against the elements, the journey is enormously by the numbers for such a powerful tale. For a film about the sea, it oddly lacks a real sense of heart.
Hemsworth may be the leading man but he isn’t the man in charge on the Essex, rather first mate Owen Chase who must play second fiddle to Benjamin Walker’s straight arrow Captain Pollard, as their ship undertakes a year-long voyage to find whale oil. To the Nantucket populous, they aren’t callous hunters but rather saviours, heading out on the open seas to find the materials they need to survive. Amanda Silver & Rick Jaffa’s script uses an overarching, flashback story structure as Ben Whishaw’s young Melville seeks out the last surviving crewman of the voyage, played by Brendan Gleeson (and incumbent Spider-Man Tom Holland as a youth), in order to learn the truth about events that have almost passed into legend in the ensuing decades. Their script takes Philbrick’s facts and crafts a story around them of two men in Chase and Pollard, one the farmer’s son with the nautical knowledge overlooked because of status, the other given his first command due to family privilege over his skill on the high seas – yet bar one or two skirmishes, there exists barely any tension between Hemsworth and Walker throughout, both lacking the material and the acting chops to imbue their characters with multiple dimensions. Hemsworth just sounds like a seafaring Thor with a slightly drawn out accent while Walker is stiff without being bullish or particularly commanding. Holland does what he can with slim pickings, as do Gleeson & Whishaw, but even talented character actors like Cillian Murphy are left in the shade by a script more interested in visuals and spectacle than character.
Truth is, Howard does impress when it comes to how his big white whale and the Essex look on-screen; his set design for the ship itself is towering and detailed, allowing him to fling massive storms and fires at his actors and have them react on a real, sturdy vessel. Visually his film often looks sumptuous, enjoying the scope of the open seas and the isolated beauty of it. When we do finally see the whale that inspired Moby Dick, the ‘demon’ of the piece, Howard shoots it with lingering enigma while conveying the majesty of a protector almost of its kind, of the sea; indeed you kind of want the whale to win, simply because Chase & Pollard are so callous in their determination to complete their mission, and neither Howard nor his script really convey the idea both of these men were basically heartless whale hunters. In this story, they’re brave seafarers who ultimately must try and survive their encounter with a classic sea beast, facing loss, malnutrition and isolation in doing so. The problem is that even with all of these elements, even with the desperate journey the crew undertake to survive–and the desperate things they have to do along the way–it just feels hollow and distancing, keeping the audience oddly at arm’s length when you feel it’s trying to embrace them at the same time, becoming bogged down indeed in trying to make the Essex tragedy an important footnote in American history. It’s lacking investment in the long run, which prevents it being a truly memorable or powerful experience.
The DVD release from Warner Bros. is an even bigger disappointment, containing merely one scant seven minute featurette called ‘Chase & Pollard: A Man of Means‘, which sees the main players in front of and behind the camera do little more than clarify character and historical beats the script makes perfectly clear if you’re paying attention, delivering no real insight into the film’s production or backstory.
In fairness, the 3D and Blu-ray release holds a great deal more and is arguably far more worth the investment. It holds the following:
– Whale Tales: Melville’s Untold Story
– The Hard Life of a Whaler
– Chase & Pollard: A Man of Means
– Lightning Strikes Twice
– Commanding the Heart of the Sea
– Island Montage
– Deleted Scenes
– Ron Howard: Captain’s Log Journey’s End
– Ron Howard: Captain’s Log Editorial and Score
– Ron Howard: Captain’s Log Production Wrap
– Ron Howard: Captain’s Log Getting in Ship Shape
– Ron Howard: Captain’s Log Out to Sea
– Ron Howard: Captain’s Log Controlled Chaos
– Ron Howard: Captain’s Log Into the Tank
– Ron Howard: Captain’s Log First Day of Filming
– Ron Howard: Captain’s Log Location Scout
Ultimately, In the Heart of the Sea is a visually impressive but rather soulless experience. Directed well by Ron Howard, with a solid blockbuster story to boot, unfortunately neither his ensemble cast of talented players nor a quite bland, traditional script can elevate what should have been a grand, powerful and emotional epic, but rather turns out to be an occasionally damp squib. It looks the part but fails to stick the voyage.
SEE ALSO: Buy In the Heart of the Sea on AMAZON UK or AMAZON US
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.