March 2023

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

in-the-heart-of-the-sea-teaser-trailer-1280DIRECTOR: Ron Howard

CAST: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson


In the Heart of the Sea got a lot of promotional mileage out of its loose connections to Herman Melville’s literary classic “Moby Dick” (it’s based on the true incident of the 1820 sinking of the Essex that in turn inspired Melville’s magnum opus), but at least as brought to the screen here, the true story is less compelling than its fictional counterpart.  The studio pushing its release date back from the original March to December, presumably to put it in awards contention, seems ill-judged and pointless.  The movie might have fared better in March, and risks getting lost in the shuffle in November-December’s crowded and highly-anticipated field of movies.  There are things to appreciate for fans of seafaring adventure, but the movie isn’t Oscar material, and there’s a generic, by-the-numbers feel that holds it back from ever becoming as powerful or compelling as it feels like it should have been.

We open and periodically flash back to an unnecessary framing device of young writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviewing a surly, haunted man in late middle age named Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) about the true story of what happened to the Essex, a whaling ship that sunk when Nickerson was a teenage greenhorn.  The official story is it ran aground, but Melville has heard tales of a white whale and, fascinated by the rumors and in desperate need of something to get his writing juices flowing, offers a hefty paycheck to goad the reluctant Nickerson into sharing long-held secrets.  Through Nickerson’s narration, we flashback to 1820 Nantucket, where a 14-year-old Nickerson (Tom Holland), an orphan who grew up in the wharf and is eager to prove himself, sets sail aboard the Essex.  The leads of our story, however, are two clashing older men.  Experienced seaman and whaler Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), finds the captaincy he was promised pulled out from under him when the whaling company owners hand it instead to George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker), who comes from a prestigious whaling family (and is the son of one of the company patrons) but is an inexperienced sailor.  Captain Pollard and First Mate Chase instantly butt heads, with the laidback second mate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) trying to play mediator.  Tension mounts, especially when Pollard’s inexperience and disregard of Chase’s advice leads the Essex into nearly sinking in a typhoon.  In fact, the only thing the two men agree on is to get the job done as quickly as possible so as not to spend any more time in each other’s company than is necessary, sailing beyond the reaches of the known world pursuing a rumored massive pod of whales 2,000 miles from the coast of South America to quickly fill their hold with valuable whale oil.  It is there, however, that they encounter an enormous white sperm whale as big as the Essex herself, who rams and sinks the ship, then later vindictively stalks the surviving boats.  Thousands of miles from land, with meager provisions, Chase and Pollard and their men are faced with the burning sun, starvation and dehydration, growing hopelessness, and the horrifying lengths men in survival situations must sometimes turn to to survive.

In the Heart of Sea understandably filled its trailers with footage of the Essex’s one-sided “battle” with the white whale, but those drawn in by this action-packed preview should be aware that the centerpiece confrontation with the whale is a fairly minor part of the movie.  The sinking occurs roughly halfway through, and after that, it turns into a survival story of men adrift at sea.  The whale pops up a couple more times, but the emphasis is not man vs. whale, but sun-scorched emaciated men laying listlessly in the bottoms of boats losing hope of rescue.  Unfortunately, this is not inherently stirring cinema, and the generic, paint-by-numbers job by Ron Howard does little to make these scenes stand apart from various similar ones we’ve seen over the years.  There are all the expected tropes of headbutting officers, tension among the shipwrecked crew, a desolate island where they find questionable refuge, and everyone losing weight, growing scraggly beards and donning increasing amounts of sunburn makeup.  There’s a curiously flat and dull feel to a film that wants to be a rousing seafaring adventure/survival story, and the TV movie look doesn’t help (the movie apparently cost $100 million, but it doesn’t look it).  The framing device of Melville interviewing the older Nickerson, while drawing the Moby Dick connection, feels like an extraneous narrative device and sometimes interrupts the main story’s momentum; there is an unpleasant scene in which the young Nickerson, chosen for his small size, is given the unenviable task of crawling inside a dead whale to collect more oil, but rather than let the scene speak for itself, we almost immediately cut to the older Nickerson talking about it.  This is a recurring problem, when too much is told but not shown, undercutting even the moments that could have made an impression.  The characters are underdeveloped and mostly one-dimensional and comprised of archetypes: the cocky but likable hero, the arrogant but insecure captain, the young eager-to-learn greenhorn, and not fleshed out enough to rise above their types.  The dynamic between Chase and Pollard feels like a shallowly-developed pale imitation of other headbutting officers in better movies like Crimson Tide and K-19: The Widowmaker, and the deaths of supporting characters lack impact because we don’t get to know them.

While he doesn’t do much to enliven the proceedings in a more cinematic fashion, some of Ron Howard’s trademark technical attention to detail is in evidence.  Special effects-wise, some shots of whales are too obviously CGI, but others are fine.  While it doesn’t do as immersive a job as Master and Commander, it still credibly portrays life aboard an 1800s ship at sea.  The movie tastefully leaves the gory details offscreen when the men make the agonizing decision to survive by cannibalizing the body of a dead crewmate (the part of the story that has tormented Nickerson the most ever since).  Like even Ron Howard’s other weaker efforts, it’s still technically competently-crafted; alas, like the other misses on his hit-or-miss filmography, it’s curiously dull and inert and lacking a life of its own.

nuovo-trailer-italiano-per-heart-of-the-sea-le-origini-di-moby-dick-v8-238051While this isn’t an actor’s movie, Chris Hemsworth (reunited with Ron Howard from 2013’s fact-based sports drama Rush) is right at home as Chase, who doesn’t stretch Hemsworth out of his “cocky but likable hero” comfort zone, although the Aussie struggles with a New England accent.  After the sinking, Hemsworth also transforms into an emaciated, scraggly-bearded shell of his former strapping, hunky self (by the end he looks less like Thor and more like Tom Hanks in later parts of Cast Away).  It’s a bit of a shame that the significant weight loss and physical rigors Hemsworth put himself through for his part weren’t in the service of a better movie.  Benjamin Walker (previously somewhat ignominiously best-known for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) doesn’t make much of an impression.  While part of his performance’s stiffness is almost certainly intentional, it keeps Pollard at a distance and Walker lacks Hemsworth’s charisma, leaving us not feeling much toward Pollard one way or another.  No one else gets much to do.  Young British actor Tom Holland, soon to make his debut as the next Spider-Man, makes the young Nickerson likable enough to the extent his scant character development gives him the chance, but his thin role here doesn’t give much to go on for viewers trying to form any pre-judgments about his Peter Parker (along with his film debut in 2012’s The Impossible, this is the second time Holland has played a character in a water-based survival situation).  The rest of the cast includes some familiar faces, like Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, and Ben Whishaw (also currently appearing in theaters as Q to Daniel Craig’s Bond in Spectre), but none of them get much to do and Murphy in particular is wasted in an insubstantial role.  Small roles include Frank Dillane, who some might recognize as a teenage Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince or the junkie son in The Walking Dead spin-off series Fear the Walking Dead, Paul Anderson (who also co-stars with Cillian Murphy on the BBC gangster series Peaky Blinders), Charlotte Riley (another Peaky Blinders cast member), and Game of Thrones‘ Michelle Fairley.

In the Heart of the Sea has engaging moments, but its fairly slim two hour run-time seems insufficient to properly develop everything onscreen, which has a feel of abridged narrative and truncated character development, and especially in the sluggish second half, it does little to set itself apart from various other movies we’ve seen with similar “stranded at sea” survival story aspects.  Fans of high seas adventure may find enough here to wet their appetite, but there is the sense that the movie scratches the surface and skims over a potentially deeper and more powerful and compelling tale.  The sinking of the Essex may have inspired one of the great American novels, but at least as brought to the screen here, this pedestrian retelling of a harrowing true survival story doesn’t leave as lasting of an impression.

* *  1/2