Movie Review: In the Heart of the Sea
The One That Got Away
Ron Howard’s latest film, In the Heart of the Sea, is every bit the polished film that one would expect from the distinguished director. The visuals are well done, the acting is solid, and narrative moves along surprisingly well for a story about being stranded in life-boats for 90 days. The nautical elements harken back to a tradition of “man versus the sea” films that once dominated the cinema, but have of late become nearly as rare as a big screen western, likely for many of the same reasons. Much of this film feels like a modern update of old film classics such as Mutiny on the Bounty. Ultimately, In the Heart of the Sea feels too familiar for its own good, unable to craft a new and unique experience that would capture the imagination and breath life into a beleaguered genre.
A Fateful Trip
The story is split between a frame narrative where a young Herman Melville is attempting to interview the last surviving crew member of the ill-omened Essex in order to gain enough material to craft a story (which will ultimately go on to become his magnum opus, Moby Dick,) and between the recounted events of the doomed vessel as it tracks and confronts an enormous white whale. After encountering the whale, the ship is lost at sea, and the surviving crew must attempt to survive the elements aboard three whaling skiffs which they retrofit into life-boats, while still being stalked by a creature of almost supernatural power.
Fortunately, Howard has crafted a movie that is of stouter construction than the Essex. The cinematography is gorgeous, making ample use of beautiful wide shots. The views of Nantucket harbor from the sea and of the Essex as it encounters storms, tropical isles and thrashing pods of whales are all sumptuously captured, and the CG effects are used with restraint and care. While I did not feel the same outright awe as I experienced during Mad Max: Fury Road, this film manages to blend its elements in much the same manner to good effect.
The actors are called upon the supply much of the tension in the film, as the white whale itself is an elusive element rarely seen, much like the villain in a good horror film. Chris Hemsworth and Benjamin Walker play the first mate and captain of the Essex, and their animosity (grounded in a class struggle between the wealthy Captain Pollard and the hard-scrabble landsman Chase) is palpable and believable…though the old cannard about a brash and stodgy captain losing the trust of his officers has become cliche (and grafted in, since in the novel the two men were old friends.) Overall, the characters are engaging, even if they are mostly cribbed from well-worn archetypes.
A Terrible Aspect
The Whale itself is a riveting creation, an avenging spirit of natural fury that plagues the crew (and after we watch them hunt and harvest a whale with great relish, not an entirely unsympathetic one at that.) The only problem with the whale is that we get so little of it…or perhaps too much of it. Herein lies the problem at the heart of this film: we really have two stories here, and neither have enough heft to carry a film when smashed together. The story of the vengeful whale and its haunting of one ship is a compelling story…as told in Moby Dick. In the case of the Essex, the whale was merely one of many tragedies that struck the ship. The story of the rigors of maritime life in the early 1800’s is harrowing and instructive, but once again more ably conveyed in other sources, once again Mutiny on the Bounty springs readily to mind (and as a neat historical aside, the survivors of the Essex very nearly washed up on the same island that the survivors of the HMS Bounty sought refuge on…they were even still living there when the Essex was sunk!)
Full of Sound and Fury…
In the Heart of the Sea is an ably crafted film that just fails to rise to the level of greatness. An over-reliance on staid and true elements of the genre it is attempting to resurrect lead to the project feeling like a ghost of a larger story. As entertainment, I enjoyed my time with it, but the experience left me hungry for a more robust story. In the final accounting, Ron Howard may have finally accomplished what so many English teacher’s failed to: making me want to actually sit down and read Moby Dick!