I’ve never read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (it’s one of those “on the list” classics), but that didn’t stop me from being intrigued by In the Heart of the Sea. Based on the award-winning non-fiction book of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick (throw this book on the list too), the film tells the harrowing tale of the American whaling ship Essex, which inspired Melville to write Moby Dick in the first place.
The trailers certainly made the true story look very promising. Directed by Ron Howard, the film had the look and tone of a grand sea epic with that 1800s grit and a touch of the fantastical. It’s got a magnificent cast headed by Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) and Frank Dillane (Fear the Walking Dead). And for those who want to get to know the new Spiderman a little in advance of Captain America: Civil War, the film also stars Tom Holland as the youngest crew member of the Essex (sadly, he grows up to look like Brendan Gleeson…).
For some reason, however, the release of the film was pushed back from March to December, with Howard offering a vague explanation about the marketing people wanting to maximise the movie’s potential. Whether that’s legit or because execs were pessimistic about its performance or overly optimistic (it opens a week before Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the US and as December tends to be Oscar season) we’ll probably never know. In my humble opinion, the film probably would have done better in March because it was riding more hype at the time and simply because Star Wars is going to annihilate absolutely everything in its path. So don’t be surprised when In the Heart of the Sea turns out to be a box office flop.
That said, while I don’t think it’s an Oscar-worthy flick deserving of Howard’s pantheon of great movies, I do think In the Heart of the Sea is a very solid, well-made, occasionally breathtaking and sometimes heartbreaking film. It never quite reaches the epic status it aims for and falls short when delivering its most climatic moments, but it’s definitely still good enough to deserve your time, especially on the big screen (though I doubt the 3D — I watched it in 2D — is worth it). The special effects are spectacular, giving the film a sense of danger and tension a sense of groundedness it otherwise might not have had.
In adherence with my non-spoiler philosophy, here’s just a basic outline: Whishaw plays Moby Dick author Melville, who tracks down Thomas Nickerson (Gleeson) in the mid-1800s and tries to entice the reluctant middle-aged man into telling him the “true story” of what happened to the Essex about 30 years ago. And so like Life of Pi, the majority of the film is told in flashback, with a 14-year-old Nickerson (Holland) recalling the experience of going out into the ocean to look for “whale oil” (I had no idea such an industry existed). The initial focus of the film is the uneasy relationship between the Essex’s experienced first mate, Owen Chase (Hemsworth) and its green but privileged captain George Pollard Jr (Walker). Murphy plays Matthew Joy, Chase’s childhood friend and a crew member on the ship. All of these characters, by the way, are real people.
Now of course you know that the Essex encounters a whale, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say it’s just a “whale movie”. Yes, whales play a pivotal role, but they actually don’t occupy as much screen time as you might imagine. The story goes way beyond just whales, and for those who don’t know the fate of the Essex and its crew I’d recommend avoiding that knowledge to get the most out of the experience. A big part of why the movie is so compelling comes from not knowing what will happen next and who will survive.
As with all good films, In the Heart of the Sea is about the characters, and it doesn’t take long for us to get a good feel for each of them. I do think Captain Pollard’s character could have been a little stronger (he was a little one-dimensional), especially at the beginning, but by the end I did feel like I understood them all quite well.
Having said that, the movie never quite soars like I wanted it to. Despite the impeccable effects, it lacked the sense of awe I think it needed to elevate the emotional punch to the next level. One of the problems is that these men are all whalers, and whaling is freaking cruel and barbaric. There’s just no way around it. Granted, people back in those days saw things differently and we get that, but for modern audiences it can be hard to root for characters who kind of deserve whatever is coming to them. As a result, it is hard to know how to feel toward the characters and the whale(s) they hunt.
This leads into the other issue I had with the film, which is that there is no clear moral to the story — at least not until the very end. And it’s the kind of movie that feels like it ought to have some deeper meaning because too much shit happens and it’s not obviously not just some fun popcorn adventure. Despite Howard not showing us the most agonising parts of the story, the film is undoubtedly a distressing experience, and because of that I felt there should have been a more profound message — the kind of message Moby Dick apparently has.
Notwithstanding the film’s flaws, Howard is too good of a filmmaker and storyteller for his film to suck. It’s perhaps not the memorable epic I had been hoping for, but In the Heart of the Sea still ticks enough boxes and has enough enjoyable, thrilling and dramatic moments to satisfy this viewer.
3.75 stars out of 5