Review: In the Heart of the Sea – A tale of a whale

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In the Heart of the SeaA maniacal sea Captain devotes his life to the destruction of the giant white whale that sunk his ship. You think you know the story, but it turns out you don’t know Moby-Dick. The new Ron Howard film, In the Heart of the Sea, sets out to set the record straight, but instead further embellishes on the legend of the world’s most infamous sperm whale.

Loosely based on the same titled book, by Nathaniel Philbrick, this film changes up the narrative to convey the story of the whaling ship Essex as it might have been told to Moby-Dick author, Herman Melville. Unfortunately, the survivor telling the story to Melville approach is awkward and unnecessary and takes away from the otherwise spectacular true-life adventure.

As told in Philbrick’s excellent book, the true story of the Essex whaling ship is incredible and suspenseful enough without adding in the Moby-Dick-ish flights of fancy in this adaptation – even if the whale action does look pretty darn cool on screen.

Brendan Gleeson plays an aging Tom Nickerson, who, as a young man (played by Tom Holland in flashbacks), was a cabin-boy onboard the Essex and experienced the incident with the giant whale firsthand, as well as the subsequent survival at sea adventure. As the film begins, Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) pays the reluctant old man to tell him the story as it actually happened.

In the Heart of the SeaRight off the bat this particular storytelling device drifts off-course in that the flashbacks show details that Nickerson could not possibly have knowledge of, especially regarding the personal life and whaling politics of the Essex Captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), and its sea-seasoned First Mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth.) Not only does this weird narration place the film in troubled water, it simply makes no sense. Ron Howard knows better than this.

Eventually the Essex heads to sea on a months-long mission to procure whale oil and the story begins to borrow from films like Mutiny on the Bounty to create tension between the greenhorn Captain and his more experienced crew. This plotline is eventually abandoned though, once the whale catastrophe takes place.

The film contains many of the well-worn disaster-at-sea tropes, but the script by Charles Leavitt leaves out a lot of the nuances and hardships of the whaling life that made the Philbrick book such a great read; and it instead opts for additional attacks by the whale that never actually happened. Hollywood’s (and America’s) explosion lust probably accounts for these filmmaking decisions, but it is a shame that they abandoned a lot of the fascinating historical minutia.

A lot of the film, at least in the flashback body of it, almost looks like a live-action painting of 1800s’ seafaring life – though not necessarily the romantic aspects of it. The whaling action and the attack on the Essex are extremely intense, with breathtaking special effects and computer animation.

In the Heart of the SeaThere is some gruesome carnage to be had in this film, but with its PG-13 rating it is mostly toned down from what it could have been; and if the wanton killing of whales upsets you, you might want to reconsider this movie-going choice altogether, but just try to put it in historical context and consider the hardships these sailors went through to make a living and provide illumination to the world.

Hemsworth is good in the starring role, as is Cillian Murphy, who plays one of the ships officers and Owen Chase’s friend, but overall the acting here is not very remarkable. Brendan Gleeson in particular seems to struggle with the weak dialogue of the script.

I’m a big fan of true-life survival stories and although I ultimately enjoyed this film I’m disappointed in the way it was told and in the details that were left out to make way for more whale v man action. I was hoping this would be a Ron Howard masterpiece, but in the end In the Heart of the Sea has more sea than heart. Grade: 7.5

Photos © 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

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About the author

Bob Leeper

Bob Leeper is the co-owner and manager of "Arizona’s Pop Culture and Alternative Art Network," Evermore Nevermore. He is the co-creator of the pop culture events Steampunk Street and ENCREDICON, and is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society. He also curates the Facebook fan site The Arizona Cave – AZ Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and is one of the few brave and bold fans of Jar Jar Binks.