The novel Moby-Dick is an American classic, one that has been given credit to influencing Jaws or at least in comparison to Quint’s drive to track and kill the great white shark. In Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, the true story of the whaling ship Essex in 1820 that inspired Herman Melville’s novel as chronicled by modern author Nathaniel Phibrick for his 2000 novel of the same name is adapted by Charles Leavitt for a thrilling epic adventure pitting Chris Hemsworth (Thor) as first mate Owen Chase and Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) as Captain George Pollard, Jr. against a very determined large and deadly white whale. The cast also includes Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins), Tom Holland (Captain America: Civil War and future Spider-man), Brendan Gleeson and Ben Whishaw. The film is masterfully done, the cinematography is extraordinary, the direction is brilliant, the CGI effects are flawless and impressive; however, the emotional beats in the film miss their mark, the film drags during the second act and the tales sinks before dragging a well intentioned Ron Howard film along with it. Where the bookend chapters featuring author Herman Melville interviewing the last remaining survivor of the sinking of the Essex, Thomas Nickerson, contains the weight of the tragic voyage, the actual accounts of the whaling, the shipwreck and the fight for survival are unceremoniously shallow, unfocused and far less poignant as obviously intended. In the Heart of the Sea is an epic tale that becomes water logged and wanders aimlessly along the tides.
Charles Leavitt’s screenplay for In the Heart of the Sea begins years after the sinking of the Essex as writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) seeks out Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), an aging survivor of that tragedy. Nickerson reluctantly agrees to share his tale. His story focuses on two of the crew: Owen Chase, the First Mate (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker). Their conflict involves politics of Nantucket with Pollard being born into a wealthy and respected name while Chase is the son of a farmer struggling to achieve recognition and position. As they continue to one-up each other they repeatedly put their crew in harm’s way, first getting caught in a hellacious storm and again when they travel far off course to track a school of whales. The latter cripples the Essex, leaving the crew to abandon ship to be lost at sea for months as a giant white whale continues to pursue them. Pollard, Chase, young Nickerson and the crew must face abominations to survive, choices no man should ever face.
While Hemsworth and Walker are the leads of In the Heart of the Sea, it is Whishaw and Gleeson who represent the true heart of the film, the emotional core the drives the story and the audience’s reaction to the tale. Their conversations and struggle to share and digest the story are surprisingly far more interesting and engaging that the larger, more action heavy adventure Nickerson’s narration provides. This is a huge problem for the film where the beats in the smaller scaled book end scenes are far larger than the many more beats scattered throughout the Essex and its crew. Ben Whishaw perfectly embodies the unquenchable thirst to hear the tale for a book he intends to write, Moby-Dick. His own doubts about his skill are illustrated wonderfully in his reaction to Nickerson comparison of him – negatively – to Nathaniel Hawthorne, which pays off handsomely in the final credits. Brendan Gleeson, however, steals the entire movie with his tortured, emotionally burdened Nickerson. His burst of grief and remorse during his recounting of his life is a highlight of the film and the movie’s pivotal gut wrenching moments.
Chris Hemsworth and Benjamin Walker however do not fare as well. The film contains well intended key scenes where it is strives to match the emotional highlights of Melville’s interview but they fall flat as the film detracts and distracts from their successfully managing the hit that beat. The power behind each character’s important decisions never take hold and are not provided the depth to fathom their full importance. Hemsworth takes the biggest hit as the intended lead but suffers bad dialog and a confusing accent that is more Norse than Nantucket. The film focuses more on his struggles within the politics of the shipping industry instead of the far better serving emotion binds to his wife and unborn child left at home. Walker’s Pollard does not fare any better either, his character is too void of humanity and humility undermining a key scene late in the film that ends up serving Nickerson more than Pollard or the film itself. Their stories are further diluted by a continued focus on young Nickerson (Tom Holland) causing the film to shift its focus far too often.
Regardless of the film narrative shortcomings, In the Heart of the Sea is a tremendous visual treat. The cinematography from Anthony Dod Mantle is exquisite and majestic. The shots of the Essex and the sea are extraordinary and powerful. The CGI effects for the whales, both under the sea or diving into the air above, are beyond compare. The effects are there to drive scale and that they do. The ship is the crew’s home out on the sea, but the great white whale dwarfs the ship as it swims past. Amazing. The sea itself is vast and treacherous whether it be a dangerous storm or a never ending horizon void of land and rescue. Visually stunning, the film is worth watching on that level alone.
Ron Howard misses the opportunity to make In the Heart of the Sea a must-see, classic cinematic epic. The lack of narrative focus and troubled editing prevent it from grabbing the audience as compared to the more effective tone and emotion present in Melville and Nickerson’s conversations and exposition. The emotional impact of the larger tale sinks with the Essex while the true heart of the film resides with the author of Moby-Dick and the last survivor of the disaster. The film drifts along lost in focus as much as Chris Hemsworth and Benjamin Walker are lost at sea and within their own dialog and muddled motivations. Still, the film manages to impress with its visuals and sound design. The shots of the whale heard and the massive tails emerging from the waves are awe-inspiring and extraordinary. Much like the crew as they drift apart driven by separate tides, In the Heart of the Sea loses sight of its varied stories and the attention of its audience.
In the Heart of the Sea (2 / 5) for its heart (3.5 / 5) for its spectacle