In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland
Just Keep Swimming
By Mason Manuel
The tale of the Essex is one that will live in infamy thanks to the fictionalization of the tale by Moby Dick scribe Herman Melville. So naturally, it was only a matter of time before we got a movie adaptation. But I had hope. Apollo 13 director Ron Howard was manning the helm, and I thought if anyone could do the larger than life story justice it would be him. We even have a star studded cast with Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Cillian Murphey (Batman Begins) and Ben Whishaw (Skyfall). Sadly, this film would have fared better if it had stayed in the depths. While there is plenty of sea faring adventure to behold here, In the Heart of the Sea never captures the true soul of the men who came to battle with the legendary white whale. The recounting of the Essex is just that, a recount. Almost the entire movie is in the form of a flashback as we watch a fictional meeting between a desperate Herman Melville looking for a story, and the last survivor of the Essex, Thomas Nickerson, played in adulthood by Harry Potter’s Brendan Gleeson and in his youth on the ship by future Marvel Spiderman by Tom Holland. The scenes between the writer and survivor are easily some of the best the film has to offer. Melville is terrified that he won’t get a story and Nickerson is similarly terrified to tell one. The two actors bounce wonderfully off each other and make their characters’ desperation palpable. Eventually, we are told a story that has a distinctive three parts. First we see the sailor’s lives before they cast off, then we move on to the actual voyage itself and the eventual climactic battle with the whale, and finally end with the survivors being adrift. While it is said that the tale of the Essex is the tale of Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and first mate Owen Chase (Hemsworth), we never get to really see the two butt heads save for the first few minutes. Most of their disagreements stem from a clash of social class rather than principle which results in their inevitable bonding later in the film feeling artificial. Sea’s supporting characters mostly follow suit, with many of its big names fading into the background.
Marketing suggests that the tale of these sailors is a high octane adventure, full of action and whale fights but that is hardly the case. Though there are fight scenes, the movie trades what could be a surface level action film for a more in depth look into the psychology of survival. Despite the protesting alpha male inside me, this move is for the better as it helps make up for the shoddy character building early in the film. There is the titular battle with the mighty Moby Dick but it never feels built up to. Rather, the battle itself is a build up to the third act focusing on the sailors being marooned and where the story finally finds its strength. If it didn’t take so long in doing so, we would have been given a solid film, but instead the pacing problems make the entire picture feel lacking and a missed opportunity. Telling the tale of the Essex is no small feat in that there is so much detail and background history to explore for some moments to hit with the desired force, but whether it be due to poor direction or just a lack of time, we never get enough explanation.
The actors themselves seem have a bit of trouble identifying with their characters as well. Hemsworth stands out in that he never seems to be able to choose an accent; one second he’s got a Tennessee style southern drawl, the next he’s a proper Englishman. Neither of these make a lick of sense since he’s a poor sailor from Nantucket. Walker’s Pollard shows little to no emotional depth. The best scenes for both actors is when they are on screen together. They play well off each other and do the most they can with the material they’re given. But those scenes are the minority and the film suffers for it.
In the Heart of the Sea tries it’s hardest to give us the ins and outs of the whaling world but never delivers it with style or grace. With a hodgepodge of iffy performances and some odd direction choices, Ron Howard’s latest sadly leaves much to be desired. RDR gives In the Heart of the Sea a 5.8 out of 10.