Alibi V.24 No.50 • Dec 10-16, 2015 

Film Review

In the Heart of the Sea

Ron Howard spins a whale of a tale through choppy waters

“O ye whales.”
“O ye whales.”

In the Heart of the Sea

Directed by Ron Howard

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson

Since the guy grew up in show business, it’s no surprise to see Ron Howard has developed into a workmanlike director. Whereas films by Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan and other “name” directors have a distinctive look and feel, there’s nothing in a Ron Howard film that really stands out in a crowd. His films never rise above or sink below a certain level of professionalism. But you’d have a hard time picking a Ron Howard film out of a lineup. Rush, The Dilemma, Frost/Nixon, The Da Vinci Code, Cinderella Man, The Missing, A Beautiful Mind, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Ransom, Apollo 13, Backdraft: They’re all decent, watchable films. But few of them linger in memory beyond the movie theater lobby. His latest—the epic, historical drama In The Heart of the Sea—at least has the distinction of being Howard’s most visually dynamic.

The film is based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. The story of the Essex was so well-known in maritime history that it served as the major inspiration for Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick. In fact, In the Heart of the Sea actually casts Melville as a character (played by Spectre’s Ben Whishaw). In a somewhat contrived wraparound sequence, young Mr. Melville hunts down aged Essex survivor Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) and browbeats him into spilling the beans about the sinking of the legendary whaleship. (In real life, Melville wouldn’t need to do that. Both Nickerson, a cabin boy on the Essex, and first mate Owen Chase wrote accounts of the ill-fated voyage.)

Howard’s misty, soot-covered images of old New England are an evocative recreation of time and place and set an appropriately downbeat mood for Nickerson’s narrative. In flashback we’re treated to the story of upstanding Nantucket seaman Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth, biding his time between Avengers movies). Chase has been promised the captaincy of a whaling ship, based on his skill and experience. But the company he works for slips him into the first mate slot aboard the Essex so that the inexperienced son of a wealthy investor can be installed in the more prestigious position. Chase immediately clashes with the bossy and aristocratic George Pollard (Benjamin Walker from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). For a long while, it looks like In the Heart of the Sea will be hijacking its narrative from Mutiny on the Bounty with cruel captain and earthy first mate battling it out for control of the ship. (In real life, Chase and Pollard had served together before and were a successful whaling duo.) But Chase and Pollard eventually agree to a truce. They’ll put up with one another for as long as it takes to fill the ship’s hold with whale oil. This gives Chase time to befriend a 15-year-old cabin boy named Tom Nickerson (played in younger years by Tom Holland, who’s eagerly waiting to take over the Spider-Man franchise).

Unfortunately, the Essex runs into a stream of bad luck. The crew spends more than a year searching fruitlessly for sperm whales and ends up rounding Cape Horn to push its luck out in the vast reaches of the South Pacific. For the bulk of its runtime, In the Heart of the Sea presents a fairly accurate portrait of life aboard a whaling vessel in the very early 19th century. As anyone who’s actually read Moby-Dick knows, whaling was an exceptionally bloody and brutal business. In the Heart of the Sea doesn’t shy too far away from the ickier details of whale hunting. As a result, the film’s main subject matter—the archaic and barbaric slaughter of whales—makes it a bit of a tough sell to modern-day audiences. Still, it’s a historical fact, and the film brings the industry to vivid life—thanks largely to some epic special effects. The film even has a 3D cut that adds a certain vertiginous reality to life among the masts, sails and riggings of a 19th century sailing vessel.

Eventually, of course, nature provides its comeuppance in the form of a gigantic white whale that smashes in the hull of the Essex and appears to stalk the survivors across the Pacific. Here In the Heart of the Sea starts to take on the form of an ecological horror film, with Mother Nature fighting back against the hubris and greed of mankind. Chase, Pollard and the other survivors endured incredible privations on their ensuing trek back across the Pacific. It remains one of the most incredible stories of survival in maritime history. Despite its claims of being a true story, In The Heart of the Sea does play fast and loose with the facts of the case, turning the infamous whale into an almost demonic figure of vengeance and ignoring other realities in favor of dramatic convenience. Still, the director puts just enough mythic spin on things to keep the the film from sinking.

Visually In The Heart of the Sea works. Howard manages to get just enough salt spray off the page and onto his lens (in many cases literally) to put audiences in the moment. The film’s attempts to wring drama from an unfortunate series of true, tragic events, however, are somewhat less successful—relying on imaginary conflicts and a lot of expository dialogue to drive things forward. Like an intricately carved piece of scrimshaw, In the Heart of the Sea looks great—but it doesn’t necessarily serve a purpose.