In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
In 1822, the men aboard the Essex, a whaling ship sailing from Nantucket, Massachusetts, encountered a beast unlike any they have ever seen. Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and his first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemworth), were at odds throughout the voyage, that is until they encountered a 100-foot long white whale. The creature destroyed the Essex, forcing the crew to drift at sea and hope to find land, but the whale follows them as well. Tom Nickerson (Tom Holland as a young man, Brendan Gleeson as the older version) recounts this traumatic survival tale to author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), who is desperate to write this true story.
There’s an old-school throwback vibe to In the Heart of the Sea with its high seas adventure, but there’s just not enough attention to adventure, character, or even plot for this movie to really set sail properly. The first act feels so sluggishly long. It’s trying to set up life on a whaling vessel in the early 19th century but I didn’t feel like we got a coherent sense of life aboard the seas or how the various components worked. I didn’t know that whalers row out from the main ship, so there’s that. The opening act sets up the dull conflict between Chase and Pollard, which can be summarized as blunt upstart vs. unchecked privilege. The conflict doesn’t evolve from this dichotomy. Both men are boring in their unyielding simplicity. Hemsworth (Avengers: Age of Ultron) made a stronger impression in Rush, but a humorless movie role is not in his best interests as an actor. When the action does arrive, it can be genuinely thrilling. Director Ron Howard does a slick job of conveying the danger and destruction of the whale attack. Sadly, it’s over too soon and then the remainder of the movie is 45 minutes of a survival drama adrift in the ocean reminiscent of last year’s Unbroken. This period of isolation forces the characters to make some hard choices, yet we don’t feel the impact of those choices because the narrative, too, feels adrift. Implausibly, the giant whale has followed them for thousands of miles. Are whales really this vindictive? The documentary Blackfish makes me wonder but it still feels unbelievable. What was the whale waiting for? For the men’s spirits to be completely broken before it might attack again? We’re told this whale is a “demon” but who exactly are the bad guys in this story?
I believe another stopping point for this story is that the culture has moved beyond the acceptance of whaling as an honorable profession, to the point that I, and I assume others, was on Team Whale after witnessing a bloody hunt. It’s pretty gross, especially when they’re harvesting the whale body for the precious oil. Perhaps modern audiences, so far removed from hunting as an essential component of life have become more squeamish, or perhaps modern audiences just recognize something as barbaric when they see it. As a result, it’s hard to root for these guys. When the giant whale attacked it felt like retribution. My sympathies were more for the large mammal than the bipeds on ship. At the end of the film (some spoilers), the white-haired moneyed men of Big Whale Oil are worried what the truth will do to their industry. They want the surviving crewmen of the Essex to deny the existence of this gargantuan whale. This makes little sense to me other than awkwardly forcing a Big Business cover-up for relevancy. First off, whaling seems like a pretty unsafe working environment to begin with, especially considering voyages could last up to three years. Would the reality of one big bad whale destroy an industry? I doubt it since there is such money to be had. If anything it might rejuvenate the timber industry to reinforce the ships to make them more durable against larger whale attacks.
At first I thought a framing device was entirely superfluous; why do we need to watch Melville elicit this tale rather than simply just watching the tale itself? It seemed like a distraction, but as the movie progressed I understood that this framing device was its own sub-story and had its own complexity, namely the older Tom coming clean to the decisions that still haunt his soul. It’s an unburdening for both gentlemen, as Melville admits his deep fear that he is a mediocre writer (he’s no Nathaniel Hawthorne) and that he will be unable to tell this story as well as it truly deserves.
As these two men are allowing themselves to become more vulnerable and sharing their demons and doubts and worst fears, I started to realize that this framing device was weirdly more compelling than all the whale action. That’s because older Tom and Melville are the best drawn characters in the movie, which seems like a screenwriting mistake of sizable proportions. Obviously the nautical survival stuff should be the most compelling, and yet I as more taken with two men sitting by an oil lamp discussing their lives. Older Tom is infinitely more interesting than younger Tom; part of this is because young Tom hasn’t experienced the full effect of the events that shape older Tom, but most of this is from the very clear fact that young Tom is kind of a mute witness in this movie. He rarely speaks and is just kind of there, taking up space. There’s one personal harrowing moment when he’s thrust inside a hollowed out whale carcass to extract more blubber, but that’s the only personal perspective offered through young Tom. A question concerning the framing device: how is older Tom retelling events he had no participation or witness to? Another issue is that the characters on board the Essex are bereft of anything that would allow us to feel for them beyond simple human survival. Chase and Pollard are given one note to play and their eventual understanding and cooperation is fine but it feels like fleeting details in a story, lost to memory or disinterest.
From a purely technical aspect, this is one of the better Howard films. The cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) is rich and often breath taking, with plenty of stunning aerial and underwater images. The whale attack sequence is harrowing and thrilling. Howard finds ways to imply the harsher aspects of this life without going overboard, maintaining that PG-13 rating. While the look of the film has an enhanced color palate thanks to the extra boost of CGI filters, I still appreciated the vibrancy of the on screen images. As I said with the similarly boosted Mad Max: Fury Road, I’d rather have vibrant and bright colors than a drab and washed-out color palate. Even as the movie drifts and the characters fail to grab you, at least the visuals are pretty. While sitting through the second half, I started to rethink my own prejudices concerning Howard as a filmmaker, a man who lacks a distinctive style but has a definite feel for how to tell a story. I’m not going to excuse him for The Grinch and other misfires, or his tendency to settle for maudlin in place of subtlety, but the man is a born filmmaker.
In the Heart of the Sea is an old school movie that feels too sluggish, too underdeveloped, and too free of characters for the audience to invest in. When the framing device scores the biggest emotional pull, you better start rethinking your rip-roaring high-seas adventure. Master and Commander this is not. As the inspiration for Moby Dick, I wish I had just watched a remake of Melville’s actual novel (now with extra chapters about rope!). If you ever wanted a movie that ends on a blurb by Nathaniel Hawthorne as a payoff for Melville’s artistic neurosis, then your wait is over. In the Heart of the Sea feels like a whale of a tale that is hard to believe, which ends up inspiring a far greater story, which made me yearn for just watching that superior tale. Sometimes the “truth” behind famous stories is less interesting.
Nate’s Grade: C+