In the Heart of the Sea Review
A WHALE OF A TALE (KIND OF)
Call me Ishamel!” comes the famous opening line from Herman Melville’s literary masterpiece Moby Dick. Written back in 1851, Moby Dick (originally called “The Whale” before changing to the more definitve name of Moby Dick) recounts the fictional tale of a sailor (Ishamel) and the obsesse-driven quest of his captain (Ahab) for revenge on a great white whale named Moby Dick. With its literary- Shakespearean prose, common themes and detailed descriptions of whale hunting (amongst various others aspects), Moby Dick went on to become a true fictional classic, with countless reprints of the book over the years from different publications. Even the basic premise of Moby Dick has transcended beyond Melville’s written work, with characters like Captain Ahab and Moby Dick appearing in various media facets (cartoons, films, TV, and other literary works). Now director Ron Howard retraces the true life account that which inspired Melville’s work in the movie In the Heart of the Sea. Is it a compelling non-fictional movie or is and is it an uninspiring “There she blows”?
The movie is primary set as a flashback memory of Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who has been asked to recount the events for writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw). In the year 1820, a lifelong whale named Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) is eagerly waiting his inevitable offer to take command of the vessel Essex, and fulfilling his dreaming of captaining his own ship. Unfortunately, Chase’s dreams aren’t shared by the Nantucket “big wigs”, offering him a first mate position under the Captain Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker), a man whose family’s lineage runs deep whaling. Setting sail in search of a massive haul of whale oil, the Essex’s crew struggles to finding a rhythm between their captain and first mate, including second mate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) and young cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland). Fighting through storms and the lack of leadership, the Essex soon encounters a pod of sperm whales, hastily slaughtering a few to begin their long and arduous mission. However, after hearing rumors of a large prey in the sea, the crew is lead into disaster, where a mighty and aggressive whale wreaks havoc upon the men, threating to sink their ship and abandon them in the middle of the desolate ocean.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
I hate to admit this, but…. I never actually read Melville’s Moby Dick (it’s true). I have heard of the story through various media outlets (cartoons, TV, and movies) enough to understand the basic premise of Melville’s classic story. I remember hearing talk of Ron Howard teaming up with Chris Hemsworth again for a sea adventure / period piece and then I saw the first trailer for the movie (wasn’t impressed), but it wasn’t until the movie’s final trailer was released that it peeked my interest to see the feature when it came out. Now, after seeing the movie, I felt that In the Heart of the Sea, while intriguing, fails to express a whale of tale for this cinematic adaption.
Director Ron Howard, famous for directing such films as Far & Away, Apollo 13, and The Da Vinci Code, uses Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 non-fiction book of the same name (which details the accounts of both Nickerson and Chase in the voyage of the Essex in 1820) as a guide map in order to capture a “real life” adventure inspired by Melville’s Moby Dick to work as a big budgeted movie experience. This results in a movie that’s a passable as fans of Melville’s work will be intrigue by it (even though some of historical facts have been retooled and repurposed to make the movie more dramatic). Much like how Melville’s Moby Dick is set up, the whale in the movie isn’t the most horrifying challenge that the crew of the Essex face during their ill-fated voyage. In truth, In the Heart of the Sea is about the frailty and endurance of man through adversity, facing being stranded at sea, starvation, and dissention at all most every turn. That being said, those looking for an epic sea battle between man and whale will be disappointed.
To me, its biggest disappointment comes from the hurriedness of the movie. The story, which does have ground (or sea) to cover, is quickly glossed over at various points. Certain aspects of Nantucket’s history, the history of Whaling, and several character backstories are thinly shallow, to say the least. Even though the film has a runtime of over 2 hours long, the movie could’ve been longer (or perhaps extended as a TV mini-series), allowing the narrative to breath and give its viewers the proper insightful backstory information to its various characters and settings. Even the rivalry relationship between Pollard and Chase, which the movie clearly states a rivalry, still quickly established and then suddenly dropped. In addition to this, the movie’s third act (where the crew of the Essex is stranded on small whaling boats) comes to crawl and seems very lackluster in comparison to the film’s more engrossing second act. Similar to Unbroken, the time spent on this portion of the movie is rather dull and slow. I actually started to fall asleep at this point because it just came boring. All of this proves that Ron Howard has a hard time in trying to find a proper balance for In the Heart of the Sea, straggling a feature that’s too loose on its “real life” account” and too light on action-adventure premise.
As production quality goes, In the Heart of the Sea is top notched, sparring no expense to create this whaling / fisherman world of the 1820s. Rather than romancing the time period, Howard dirties it up with a more realistic approach, splattering grime everywhere with faded and / or dull coloring to the film’s aesthetic color palette. Even the business of whaling isn’t romanced in the movie, portrayed as a brutal occupation for the seamen, with blood being misted in the air and the gruesome dissecting of a whale carcass (bludder being cut, organs being removed, and whale oil being extracted from its inner bellows). As a side note, the camera usage in the movie is pretty good, skimming the water level as the camera dips and dive underneath the sea. A nifty trick for the movie’s cinematography.
Actor Chris Hemsworth plays the central character In the Heart of the Sea. Hemsworth, most famous for playing Thor in the recent Marvel movies, does his best in the lead role of Owen Chase, but, unfortunately, the role is commonplace amongst countless leading seafaring heroes that have come before this movie. In short, Hemsworth’s performance is good, but it isn’t a particular memorable one. Besides Hemsworth, Brendan Gleeson’ performance of the older Thomas Nickerson is definitely noteworthy. Gleeson gives a very emotional performance in this picture, one that helps solidify the gravitas of the story as he hauntingly wears fear and shame through subtle facial expressions in retelling the tale.
The rest of the cast is good, but just is more of stock supporting characters. With a wide cast of characters to keep up with and no time for them to shine, these secondary roles are thinly conceived and outlined. Roles like Benjamin Walker’s Captain Pollard, Cillian Murphy’s Matthew Joy, and Tom Holland’s younger version of Thomas Nickerson (all who are talented individuals) are expressed good through the actors’ portrayal, but are just shallow characters that lack depth. To me, the only minor character that shines is Ben Whishaw’s Herman Melville, who’s time in the movie is paired with Brendan Gleeson. As a side note, it’s good to see Michelle Fairley (Lady Catelyn Stark from Game of Thrones) again as Mrs. Nickerson.
Those looking for a new insight into the Essex disaster account or Moby Dick or those who were enticed by film’s trailers (I was) will be slightly disappointed with In the Heart of the Sea. Ron Howard’s latest film is an odd mixture of a movie that plays to the spirit of Melville’s Moby Dick, but ultimately fails to encompass its seafaring tale in its entirety. While its core story is indeed palpable and the overall production quality of the movie looks expensive and detailed, the film can’t escape from being mostly bland with a lackluster third act and shallow understand of its characters and the world they inhabitant. Personally, it was an okay movie that only met half of my movie-going expectations. Indeed, Ron Howard chose an ambitious project, but, sadly, In the Heart of the Sea will probably end up being an unmemorable and forgetful adaptation.
3.2 out of 5 (Iffy Choice / Rent It)
Reviewed on December 7th, 2015
In the Heart of the Sea is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material