In the Heart of the Sea

Posted by Joel Copling on December 10, 2015

In one corner, we have the whale--a "demon," as one character states, a hundred feet long and pure white in color. The story that the whale inspired, Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick," always posited that the whale stood in for nature. In the other corner, we have the whalers--the human counterpart of the allegory, arrogant in its notion of ownership over that nature and irrevocably flawed in its approach to control it. "In the Heart of Sea," in spite of some half-hearted attempts to connect to such allegory, inadvertently ignores all of it to concoct an old-fashioned blockbuster. This would be fine if the action sequences were directed by Ron Howard with anything resembling coherence.

Instead, the bit with the whale--the centerpiece sequence--is relegated to being an afterthought because the visual effects used to create the creature fail to distinguish it from any of the other whales, apart from two instances of seeing its fin splash waves of muddily digital water over our heroes. The Essex, its captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), his first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), Owen's oldest friend Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), and the other, more anonymous members of the crew are thrown about deck until the ship as a whole becomes a fiery wreck at sea. The focus of the film's point of view is Chase, about whom we learn little beyond that he's the orphaned son of a disgraced farmer and that his wife is carrying his child when he leaves.

We also learn that Pollard is the arrogant heir to a legacy of whalers that extends backward a few generations. He is chosen as captain of the vessel on these grounds, but he's a vain, arrogant man whose orders widely put the crew at risk of death. They hear tell of said bestial whale and head directly toward it, hoping to come back with hundreds of barrels of whale oil in answer. The problem, of course, is that they find this a good idea. It is not one, and the ensuing sequences of destruction are so without rhythm that they merely become repetitive. Charles Leavitt's screenplay (adapted from a book detailing the real events of the tragedy by Nathaniel Philbrick) is also a mess of form.

It's a subtle thing, though, and it can be found in the film's framing device, which finds Melville (Ben Whishaw, admittedly quite good) researching "Moby-Dick" by interviewing Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), whose younger self followed the Essex on its voyage to find the whale. It makes little sense in context to set the story to narration (only providing a reason to shoehorn the author into the narrative) and even less that Chase is the focus when it's the younger Nickerson whose point-of-view would make more sense. This is only one problem of a half-dozen from "In the Heart of the Sea" suffers, but it's a major one that drains all of the significance out of the story.

Film Information

Chris Hemsworth (Owen Chase), Benjamin Walker (George Pollard), Ben Whishaw (Herman Melville), Brendan Gleeson (Tom Nickerson), Cillian Murphy (Matthew Joy), Michelle Fairley (Mrs. Nickerson).

Directed by Ron Howard and written by Charles Leavitt, based on the book "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" by Nathaniel Philbrick.

Rated PG-13 (intense action/peril, brief startling violence, thematic material).

121 minutes.

Released on December 11, 2015.