by Philip Price
Looking at director Ron Howard's latest, “In the Heart of the Sea,” from a broad perspective there is nothing seemingly wrong with it. It is a handsomely mounted film with charismatic actors playing dress up and tells an adventure story that, while it is said to be the inspiration for the tale that's come to be known as Moby-Dick, takes many of the same beats from this familiar story and applies them here. Unfortunately, if one is looking for anything more than a standard adventure/survival tale this is not the place to go. A director who has become more hit or miss as of late Howard only skims the surface of the conflicts and dynamics that could have been explored here. While I've never completed Herman Melville's crowning achievement and I'd not even heard of Nathaniel Philbrick's novel on which this is based prior to the film's first trailer, it is pretty easy to see where things are going the moment our two heroes step onto their boat. While this isn't always an issue given things have become more about the journey than the destination in this saturated movie market, Howard and his team simply don't bring enough insight or a fresh enough perspective to make this endeavor feel like it's worth joining. One wouldn't necessarily know or realize this as they watch the film unfold given it's just captivating enough, and just big enough to keep us entertained and wondering what choices certain characters will make, but as the film comes slogging to its conclusion it becomes more clear that's all the film is-just enough. Just enough isn't enough to warrant an emotional reaction though, and it's not enough to constitute a real investment in the characters or even their quest that seems so foreign at this point that it could have proved fascinating, but is more or less rendered irrelevant due to the fact the film’s only interest lies in the massive sea monsters rather than the men who come up against them. Seeing massive sea creatures on the big screen is never a bad thing-in fact, it's almost as inherently epic as one can get, but for it to mean anything more than just a moment of wonder there must be some depth to the waters surrounding them and “In the Heart of the Sea” is simply too shallow to come up with anything interesting to say.
Framed by the device of one man telling another his story with flashbacks giving us the meat of the narrative we are first introduced to Ben Whishaw's Melville as he ventures to Nantucket, Mass. in 1850. He is searching out Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the only surviving member of a ship called the Essex that was said to have been capsized by a giant whale. What he finds is a distraught and anxious man who doesn't like to talk of his experience-not even to his wife. Eventually luring the details out of him, Melville takes down each and every word beginning with the preface that if this story was about anything it was about the Captain and his first mate. Through this we are introduced to Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) who hails from a peasant family and is the son of an incarcerated man who has had to prove himself at every turn. He is expected to be named Captain on his next voyage, but when the founding family of whaling positions their son, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), for their latest and greatest ship there is no competition. Money outweighs actual worth every time. And so, Chase is made first mate and the two along with second officer Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), cabin boy Nickerson (Tom Holland) and a whole cast of other crew members set sail with the goal of filling 2,000 empty barrels with whale oil. It is when the lack of any real whale sightings occurs that both Chase and Pollard begin to feel desperate and take a tip from a fellow Captain at a stop in Ecuador about a large school of whales in an area that also happens to be further from land than any of them had ever traveled. Viewing it as a worthy risk, or maybe just being greedy, the Essex sets course for this destination near the equator. Upon arrival in this utopia of whales the sailors set out on their boats to spear and drain any whale they can. This angers one very large bull sperm whale though, as he rams and splits the Essex in half leaving its crew shipwrecked more than a thousand miles from land.
The real drama of the film should clearly come from the conflicts that arise between the crew members and especially the vastly different methodologies of Chase and Pollard that cause them to butt heads almost immediately. Even after the shipwreck these arguments and confrontations would be expected to rise in number and cause even more trouble meaning more inherent tension, but rather than dig into the reasoning of why different choices were made by these different men the film says just enough to logically move on to the next scene. As Chase, Hemsworth is an ideal leading man. The looks, the commanding voice, the stature-it all looks appropriate and Hemsworth is able to pull off the idea that this guy has been on a boat his entire life. Sure, the shots of him readying himself to throw a spear are a little hokey and may cause a slight snicker, but he probably looks cooler doing it than any of us would, so we let it go. There is no inherent issue with the character of Chase other than the fact there's nothing particularly exceptional about him either. We are fed the information at the beginning that he and his wife, Peggy (Charlotte Riley), are expecting their first child and that she wants him to return as soon as he possibly can making us inherently root for his survival. Almost immediately after setting sail Chase is forced to display how good he is at his job, but outside of these stock qualities the character leans too heavily on Hemsworth's natural charisma, especially considering he is to be our hero of the piece. Pollard, on the other hand, while unlikable has a far more interesting arc to play. When Walker first appears on screen we are given the impression he knows he isn't necessarily the deserving man for the job, but will of course be perceived to be the man with the silver spoon in his mouth. Given this introduction I was under the impression Pollard would work to defeat this stereotype, but rather he embraces it by sending his men directly into a storm for what he says is a test, but is clearly only a means to satisfy his own ego. That the Captain exemplifies a hypocritical nature towards others who abuse the power of family and keeps his arrogance intact for so long is somewhat surprising, but it does tend to make his eventual turn towards redemption all the more effective.
With less focus on the characters, Howard trains his camera on the logistics of navigating a ship of this scale and the "demon whale" that provides our main source of grief for the sailors. That said, the visual style that Howard employs here is rather interesting and adds a needed variation to this rather traditional tale. The period aesthetic combined with the yellow filter that drenches every frame make for a kind of glowing, surrealist tone that would have us believe this story is as bizarre and horrific as it would have been in reality. Conveying it in this fashion only serves to make the more difficult aspects of the journey easier to swallow (once you see and understand what I'm referring to, I promise that wasn't meant to sound as gross as it does). Howard also has a bit he defers to often where it looks as if he's placed hidden cameras all around the ship that help to capture the scope of just how complex of an operation manning and keeping the vessel afloat is. The sheer amount of people, facilities, and supplies necessary is kind of breathtaking in just how detailed the coordination must be. It is moments like this, small facets in the filmmaking approach that make me appreciate the film as well as something as simple as the gorgeous, water-based landscapes that warrant the IMAX screens the film is taking advantage of for this week only. Where Howard's directing prowess detracts from the otherwise visually impressive film is in his over-reliance on the CG sea creatures. Being able to show these massive creatures certainly gives the film great scale and is meant to be nothing short of impressive, and while most of the shots look realistic enough, it is the ability to display the full scope of the face-off between whale and ship that deflates any suspense for what might happen as we can see where the whale is at and what he's going for next. The only hint of any real tautness comes after the men have been stranded on their makeshift lifeboats for seventy plus days and it's put on full display how our bodies and state of mind can take so much and yet remain so fragile. If only the film as a whole were able to dig into such larger themes, then we might have had a movie worth weathering a storm for.