Director Ron Howard’s latest, In the Heart of the Sea, is based on the true story that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Is truth stranger than fiction? Or would we have been better off with an adaptation of the novel instead?
The film really tells two stories. It does indeed tell the tale of the whaling ship Essex, but it also tells a story in its framing device of Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) trying to get the Essex’s story out of the last living survivor, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson)—the younger Thomas is played by brand-spanking-new Spider-Man, Tom Holland. After some cajoling from Thomas’ wife (Michelle Fairley), he tells Melville the tale. The story centers on Essex first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and her captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). Chase was promised a command, but Pollard comes from a prominent sailing family and though he is inexperienced, he is given command of the vessel. The Essex sets sail in search of whales in order to bring whale oil back to Nantucket for their heating and lighting needs. Chase has been given a deal from his employers that if he brings back 2000 barrels of the stuff, he will have his command. Pollard and Chase clash immediately and form a contentious relationship. However, they must work together when they discover that whales are harder to come by than they’d anticipated. During a stop in a port of call, they learn of an area where there are hundreds of whales, but they are defended by an enormous white whale that took a captain’s arm and scuttled his ship. Desperate, Chase and Pollard see no alternative but to go to this hunting ground. Predictably, they run into the white whale and their lives are changed forever.
In the Heart of the Sea is definitely a pretty film to look at and the action is thrilling—when it actually happens. However, the lead up to that action seems to take forever and what happens in the interim isn’t all that exciting. There’s definitely an interesting story here, but the film that Howard has chosen to make doesn’t really compel the audience to watch. The special effects on the giant whale are great, but it’s not enough to distract from the fact that these characters just aren’t that well-developed. And the sad part is that there was plenty of opportunity to do this, considering the predicaments the crew finds themselves in once they lose a fight with the whale. The problem is, the framing device takes up too much time and slows the film’s momentum to a crawl in places—the whole endeavor feels way longer than its two-hour runtime. It’s a shame, because I like all three of the actors featured in those scenes, but it unnecessarily pads the film’s length, when those precious minutes could have been used to tell us more about the conflict between Pollard and Chase, or hell, introduce us to more than just two other crew members. The other problem with the framing device is that it is inherently flawed. Old Thomas tells Melville parts of the story that he never could have known because he wasn’t present for them. It’s a little disingenuous and on the whole, the framing device sucks a lot of the tension out of the film. It also doesn’t help that I was rooting for the whale for a lot of the film. When you see what was done to these whales in order to harvest their oil—it’s barbaric and I wanted to see that boat smashed. Sorry.
As I mentioned, the film is definitely pretty to look at, except for the fact that it employs some completely unnecessary and distracting 3D throughout. If you do choose to see In the Heart of the Sea, avoid the 3D showings. It’s complete garbage.
The acting is good, but I have to say, some of the accents are terrible. Chris Hemsworth has got to stop trying to do an American accent. He failed miserably in Blackhat and doesn’t do much better here. At least his overall performance is good in this one, because Blackhat was one of the worst films of the year. Walker is also good as Pollard and he is a good foil for Hemsworth’s character. I also wasn’t impressed with Holland’s accent, which doesn’t bode well for Brooklyn-born Spider-Man, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. The kid is good in the film otherwise. One actor who nails both his scenes and has a consistent accent is Cillian Murphy as Chase’s old friend and shipmate, Matthew Joy. I would have liked to have gotten to know him a little better, because it’s clear that there are some deep issues with Joy that go unexplored in this film.
Overall, In the Heart of the Sea has to be chalked up as a disappointment. I was expecting a seafaring epic and instead I got a story with interesting elements, but was mainly plodding in pace. There was definitely an exciting story here, but I think Howard just chose to tell it the wrong way. Maybe just read the source material by author Nathaniel Philbrick.