WRITTEN REVIEW – In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
In the Heart of the Sea
Directed by: Ron Howard
Written: Charles Leavitt
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland, Brendan Gleeson & Ben Whishaw
Music: Roque Baños
Release Date: December 26th 2015
Outside of Steven Spielberg it’s hard to find a director whose output has provided such variety as Ron Howard. Whether it’s prestige biopics (‘Apollo 13‘, ‘Frost/Nixon‘ and ‘A Beautiful Mind‘), low-brow comedies (‘The Dilemma‘), cult-fantasy (‘Willow‘…yes, Ron Howard DID direct ‘Willow‘), sports biopics (‘Cinderella Man‘ and ‘Rush‘), Christmas themed (‘How The Grinch Stole Christmas‘), mystery novel adaptations (‘The Da Vinci Code‘) and more, Ron Howard, while having mixed results in all genres, is an admirable director for tackling such diverse genres.
But for the first time, Ron Howard is going to direct what I like to call a “prestige blockbuster”; an awards-contender built with spectacle in mind such as ‘Gravity‘, ‘Life of Pi‘ or ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)‘. Here we have ‘In The Heart of the Sea‘ which was originally slated for a March 2015 release date but was delayed to December 2015 when Warner Bros. thought it could be a potential Awards-Contender. Based off the book of the same name written by Nathaniel Philbrick about the Whaling Ship Essex which inspired the Herman Melville novel “Moby Dick”, ‘In The Heart of the Sea‘ on-paper looks like a serious contender with Ron Howard steering the ship. Does it fulfil its potential or should this film be left adrift at sea?
In 1850, author Herman Melville (Whishaw) visits and old Thomas Nickerson (Gleeson), the last survivor of the Whaleship Essex from 30 years ago. Herman wants to know what happened to the infamous ship’s last voyage for a novel he’s writing and Thomas tells the tale of him as a young Cabin Boy (Tom Holland) on the ship with First Mate Owen Chase (Hemsworth) and Captain George Pollard Jr. (Walker). In the search for Whale Oil, the Essex gets destroyed by an enormous, vengeful white sperm whale leaving the survivors stranded in the Ocean for several months where the remaining crew have to resort to cannibalism to survive.
While ‘In The Heart of the Sea‘ has many merits, oddly enough the most effective segments of the movie aren’t the sequences out at sea where young men have to battle the elements, face conflict with the crew and try and survive. The most effective moments where when Herman Melville and an older Thomas Nickerson are talking in an Inn in Nantucket in 1950s (that was probably a bad sentence as it had a lot of “ins” and “inns”). Nickerson is suffering from a form of PTSD after what he went through and hasn’t told anyone what happened during the months lost at sea and what the crew had to do to survive and Herman offers Thomas cash in exchange for information, which Thomas’ wife convinces him to take.
Seeing Brendan Gleeson superbly play a broken down old man who feels extreme guilt and shame about what transpired over those unbearable months is emotionally powerful and with a slightly naive and youthful Ben Whishaw playing off of him as an actor is a great highlight. I actually wish ‘In The Heart of the Sea‘ focused more on the story of Thomas Nickerson, but the majority of the movie centres on Owen Chase played by Chris Hemsworth.
Owen Chase is an experienced whaler who was promised the position of Captain on his next voyage only to discover that the Captain of the Essex will be George Pollard Jr. because he was born into it, as opposed to Chase who wasn’t born with privilege and had to work his way up the ranks. This puts them at odds with each other in the beginning, but it feels like this sub-plot doesn’t see a resolution due to a giant white sperm whale interrupting the conflict. Maybe that was the point as petty squabbles don’t matter when it’s life-or-death, but it leaves the second half with little happening.
But speaking of the whaling, the first half of ‘In The Heart of the Sea‘ is very engaging as the audience actually learn a lot about the process of whaling. From the uses and importance of whale oil in the 19th century, how to search and hunt for the whales as well as how the tools were used and how to get the oil out. I can imagine animal-lovers or those who don’t like seeing violence against animals in film not enjoying the movie, but as a snapshot of history, ‘In The Heart of the Sea‘ is enlightening and oddly informative. And even then, I’m sure animal lovers may get a kick out of seeing Moby Dick deliver a can of whale-whoop-ass to the Essex.
But, despite it being the key selling point of the movie, once the Whale shows up and destroys the Essex in about two minutes, the movie completely loses its momentum and abandons many of the character arcs that were ongoing. Obviously any of the drama between the characters needs to take a backseat in the face of surviving without food and water until the few living crew members can find civilisation again despite being 2,000 miles away from land. But the way the movie is structured means that very little happens thematically outside of survival and since the only thing the survivors can do is absolutely nothing as they need to conserve energy, it means that the second half of ‘In The Heart of the Sea‘ is an absolute slog, at least until we cut back to Melville and older Nickerson.
The whale attack which feels like it should be the centrepiece of the entire movie is a great, pulse-pounding sequence, is superbly well-made and allows Ron Howard to flex his underrated technical film-making muscles, but it’s over way too quickly. The whale gets two good shots in, the ship catches fire and then all is lost. I wasn’t expecting a 20 minute stand-off against the Kraken like in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest‘ but those who saw the trailer and want an all-out war against an enormous white whale will definitely leave disappointed.
As a result, the movie has to rely on its central characters and ‘In The Heart of the Sea‘ definitely deals with archetypes. We have Chase who is a dashing swashbuckling whaler who, if we’re being completely honest here, has the type of flaws you’d say in a job interview; “I’m TOO good at my job”. And we have Captain Pollard who feels like he could be an interesting, fleshed out character but his arc comes to a halt in the second half. There is a scene where the two are on a beach on a deserted island and Chase is saying that humans are insignificant next to the power of nature but that theme has not only be done time and time again in movies and it didn’t need to be over-explained to the audience. The fact that a single whale messed up their ship should speak volumes about what this movie is trying to say and the lessons that need to be learned from the tragedy of the whaling ship Essex. We don’t need Hemsworth to look directly into the camera to explain that nature should be respected.
The performances are solid across the board but the acclaimed actors aren’t playing characters. Cillian Murphy is playing “Chase’s friend”, Tom Holland is playing “young kid”, Michelle Fairley is playing “wife”, Gary Beadle is playing “ship-mate”. There’s no dimension to these characters. If ‘In The Heart of the Sea‘ was an epic sea-faring movie about fighting a whale, then those characters might be enough but if the movie wants to be a character piece about survival and man vs. nature then we need to actually care about the people trying to survive because the spectacle isn’t there to compensate.
When the movie IS about travelling the ocean, whaling, battling the wind and rain in the first half then ‘In the Heart of the Sea‘ is enjoyable, but once the whale turns up to ruin everyone’s day then the movie isn’t able to walk the walk.
Thankfully, ‘In the Heart of the Sea‘ is mostly engaging because it’s a very well made film for the most part. Some of the CGI whales can be a bit off and 20-30% of the time the green-screen is very apparent, but the practical set they built for the Essex looks great and it’s awesome to see the crew set up the ship for departure and do all the cool-looking stuff that sailors get to do. There’s a lot of interesting camera angles that I’ve not seen anywhere on film before as the camera bobs and weaves throughout the rigging and there’s a shot where a camera is attached to a moving mast that looked awesome. It’s a great big-screen experience and Ron Howard hit this movie out of the park visually.
The scale of the Moby Dick whale is apparent from the moment it’s introduced. The movie smartly sets up the size of the Essex ship in the first half so that when the whale comes along later on and absolutely dwarfs it, it’s all the more effective. But once that initial introduction happens, Moby Dick just hangs around for another 40-50 minutes and hardly does anything which diminishes its impact. Seriously, once the Essex sinks, Moby just mopes around chillin’ out maxin’ relaxin’ all cool for the rest of the film so he can have a heavily foreshadowed and predictable departure. Though the sound design throughout the film is brilliantly done as was the music by Roque Baños. I actually stuck around during the credits to find out just who did the score and felt disappointed in myself for not hearing of Roque Baños before now. Special credit must also be given to the superb make-up team led by Academy Award Winner Mark Coulier (who worked with Ron Howard on ‘Rush‘) as well as the actors who were able to physically sell starvation at sea as well as intense sun-burns.
‘In the Heart of the Sea‘ is a great technical showcase for Ron Howard and the rest of the production team, but as an interesting and engaging narrative or character-piece it falls substantially flat. It also doesn’t work as pure, tense spectacle because the whale-attack sequence, which has been a key selling point in the movie, is over before it even really begins and then the whale just hangs around waiting for something to do for another 40-50 minutes. Its first half is an informative snapshot of history and the framing device revolving around Herman Melville and Thomas Nickerson is compelling, but you don’t care about the survivors in this survival movie and it really doesn’t have much substance to it.
I guess this is why Herman Melville felt the need to embellish the story for “Moby Dick”.
I give ‘In The Heart of the Sea‘ 2 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 28th Dec 15