IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (2015) review
written by: Charles Leavitt
produced by: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Will Ward, Joe Roth & Paula Weinstein
directed by: Ron Howard
rated: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material)
runtime: 121 min.
U.S. release date: December 11, 2015
I had hoped that “In the Heart of the Sea”, the latest from Oscar-winning director Ron Howard and his first film with Warner Bros., wasn’t going to be just another CGI fest. Having already read first mate Owen Chase’s harrowing account The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex years ago (the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick) – I knew that such a story would benefit from a more realistic approach without a heavy reliance on computer graphic images. Well, my hopes were dashed early on when the first underwater scene felt like something out of the old Killer Shark arcade game from the 70s and then the wide shot of the Massachusetts coastline looked so glaringly fake and distracting. It made me long for the glory days of matte paintings.
The movie opens in Nantucket, an island just south of Massachusetts of 1850, where we find writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) approach the home of a drunken recluse named Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) with the intent of gleaning material for an epic tale he has in mind involving a giant whale. Despite the hefty sum Melville offers, Nickerson is reluctant to recount the traumatic events of his time as a cabin boy on the whaleship Essex, which was destroyed by a sperm whale, killing crew members and leaving a handful stranded at sea. At the behest of his loving wife (Michelle Fairley “Game Of Thrones”), who has seen the anguish in her husband over the years, Nickerson relents and begins to tell his story in an effort to unload his burden.
We then dive into 1820, where we see coastal town of Nantucket teaming with the lucrative business of whaling. We meet veteran whaler and farmer’s son, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), who anticipates both the arrival of his firstborn with his wife, Peggy (Charlotte Riley) and becoming captain of the Essex. He is angered and disheartened when the financial backers assign the silver-spooned, George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker, “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter), in an act of social status and nepotism, but nevertheless agrees to the position of first mate with the promise of captaining his own vessel once they return with drums of whale oil, which is used for kerosene. As the crew – which includes second mate, Matthew Joy, (Cillian Murphy), a childhood friend of Chase’s – embark on their journey down the Atlantic, under Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean, they struggle to find their rhythm under the contemptuous working relationship of their leaders.
After the ship unnecessarily fights its way through a violent storm, the crew encounter a pod of sperm whales and quickly lower their boats to begin their slaughter. This is where a teenage Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland “The Impossible” and the new Spider-Man) is exposed to the extraordinary horrors of whaling, with the mists of blood that spray his face as the hide of the creatures are pierced, to be followed by the slicing of blubber and draining of every resource the giant mammal has to offer. When weeks pass with hardly the whale bounty they had promised their backers and with tension mounting between Pollard Jr. and Chase, the ship sails deeper into the southern Pacific where they find a larger source of prey.
It’s there where they experience the wrath of a giant aggressive and vengeful white sperm whale, who sinks the Essex and leaves the survivors stranded at sea on three boats for what would ultimately be over 90 days. The real trauma the elder Nickerson was reluctant to divulge was the abominable lengths to which he and the remaining crewman had gone to survive. Therein lies the true terror of their ordeal, one which after surviving the attack of an aggressive beast, leads to an exhausting endurance of human sacrifice (literally) and suffering.
The framing device of the elder Nickerson that Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt (“Seventh Son”) employs throughout the movie works for the most part and conveys the feeling of a classic folktale being passed on. There are definitely moments where it feels like going back to the conversation between Nickerson and Melville disrupts the action at sea, but Gleeson is always a pleasure to watch and here we see him portray such a man weighed with such understandable anguish. I would go so far as to say he “anchors” the film (sorry, couldn’t resist) and adds a needed humanity to the story.
The actual account of the wreck of the Essex, told in the aforementioned account by Chase and in the 2000 novel In the Heart of the Sea, written by Nathaniel Filbrick (which screenwriter Charles Leavitt adapts prominently from) are more engrossing than anything in this movie. That’s because – as you probably know – most of what we read and imagine in our head is much more horrific than the big-screen adaptations we see. You’re also probably aware that a two-hour movie can’t possibly cover all the details involved in whaling, sailing and being stranded at sea – not to mention being attacked by a whale – but in order to immerse viewers into the psyche of desperate men, the movie could’ve benefited from more moments where they questioned their own thoughts and actions.
We get some of that briefly in a fireside chat between Hemsworth’s Chase and Walker’s Pollard Jr. on uninhabited Henderson Island where Chase wonders who the monsters are – man or the whale hunted by man? Walker scoffs at the notion of such a question, stating “we are made in God’s image, designed to reign over his dominion” as if he had rehearsed such a statement over and over until he believed it. Such questions would be expected while adrift at sea for months and would’ve been welcome in this movie, but it just didn’t seem like there was any pause to reflect on life and death in the film’s emaciated third act. Howard is decidedly conservative in showing how the crewman are killed off – let’s just say their food had run out – cutting back to a grimacing Gleeson, in an effort to either leave more to the audience’s imagination or adhere to the film’s PG-13 rating.
Although Howard has crafted several solid “based on a true story” movies in the past (from “Apollo 13” to his last movie “Rush”), here he wedges an immediate distance between this survival tale and viewers that is unfortunately carried throughout the entire movie. This is primarily due to the technical choices made by Howard and his cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (who’s provided great work before with Howard and also in his collaborations with Danny Boyle). “In the Heart of the Sea” includes a combination of darkened-and-then-oversaturated blues, greens and browns with the inevitable use of visual effects (which should enhance the story – see Peter Weir’s “Master and Commander” not distract from it as it does here) provide a lacquered, phony appearance that pulled me out of the film. The world-building in such a film is crucial since it’s basically a historical piece, but the environments surrounding these characters here feels like a classic lit pop-up art book.
Then there’s the unnecessary 3D addition on top of all that which will leave you seasick if you haven’t already grabbed a paper bag. I’ve begrudgingly become accustomed to the use of the third dimension, but here it’s entirely too much and often just ridiculous – one 3D shot finds the camera seemingly positioned on a table peering beyond the legs of a chicken dinner at a character seated across from the entrée. It’s as if the movie was meant for 4D and we were intended to smell the chicken as well as feel the urge to reach out and grab a leg. One would think that in a movie like this, there would be 3D cameras circling around crewman climbing up masts and whales jumping out at viewers in their seats – there are those moments, yet – but also chicken dinner.
Howard deserves some credit for not romanticizing whaling at least, which can specifically be seen in the dissection of their captured prey. This process involves the crew fastening the whale carcass to the side of the ship as the men extract the valued material while fending off sharks feeding on the floating dead beast. There’s also the squeamish scene where Nickerson (being the smallest of the crew) is required to slip inside the hollowed out carcass in order to scoop out any valued innards. I can recall seeing such scenes in any previous cinematic depictions of whaling.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is more than just a man vs. whale picture, but that’s what Warner Bros. is understandably promoting and that’s what might get butts in seats – that and hunky Hemsworth, whose just find here, by the way. Howard and Leavitt expend themselves on the visual effects it takes to convincingly portray the whaling, but the film ultimately comes up short in convincingly deliver the psychological toil and mental anguish of being lost at sea. These scenes feel regurgitated from other movies and ultimately comes up empty. “In the Heart of the Sea” was supposed to come out last March, but Warner Bros. held off, presumably thinking it could be an year-end awards contender – it’s not and will predictably get swallowed up by more anticipated films.