Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick is a novel most fiction readers are familiar with, but the events that took place to inspire the classic narrative have remained underwater and unknown to many audiences. Ron Howard’s film In the Heart of the Sea dredges up the true story of the Essex, a whaling ship assailed by a monstrously large, hostile sperm whale, in spectacular visual fashion. However, there are elements of the picture that threaten to sink it.
In the Heart of the Sea sets sail in 1850 by introducing Melville (Ben Whishaw), who arrives in Nantucket, Massachusetts to interview Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last living survivor of the Essex. For a book he aims to write, Melville hopes to draw out from Nickerson the story of the maritime disaster. After some negotiating – Nickerson is deeply scarred from the ordeal and knows it will pain him to confess the truth – Melville puts pen to paper as Nickerson recounts his tormented tale.
The audience is then taken back to 1819 and introduced to Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a rugged alpha-male whaler. Chase is given the position of first mate on the Essex, which he reluctantly accepts after having earlier been promised the role of captain. That honor is bestowed upon George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), an inexperienced mariner but member of an influential local whaling family.
Thus, the stage (or deck) is set for an intense power struggle between the men as they board the Essex with 19 other crew members, and the voyage to obtain 2,000 barrels of whale oil gets underway. However, the conflict and constant tug-of-war that the audience is led to believe will steer the direction of the film fails to materialize.
Although their clashing personalities and leadership styles are put on display early in the film – a devastating encounter with a squall exemplifies their rivalry – their showdown calms as the men and those aboard the Essex, including veteran shipmate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) and the 14-year-old, eager version of Nickerson (Tom Holland), first face the “demon” of the deep.
As the men are informed of a great pod of whales 1,000 leagues along the equator, they hurl into uncharted territory at the prospect of tremendous wealth. But their hopes, dreams and vessel are slashed and sunken by a colossal whale with deadly desires. Left adrift in the unforgiving sea, the men are at the mercy of the whale and nature’s harsh elements. The film’s focus shifts to the survival of the men, who resort to cannibalism on the verge of death from starvation, before only a fraction of the crew are rescued and returned to Nantucket.
In the Heart of the Sea’s triumph is its astounding visual appeal. The whales are exquisite, particularly the one responsible for unleashing its fury on the men aboard the Essex. The remarkable scope of the creature is characterized by wondrous CG effects, which are highlighted during a scene where the whale’s humongous tail ascends from the water and then crashes down, sending a wall of water washing into the lens.
The film employs masterful and mesmerizing whaling sequences that plunge the audience into the ocean at near dizzying speeds. Just as fast, the camera heaves viewers back up to the surface again to follow the men stalking the whales. These moments that pelt us without pause are wholly exhilarating, despite the fact that the constant change in perspective means the audience is never informed of how whales are speared and captured.
The stunning action that unfurls on the Essex also warrants applause. The camera soars from deck to topmast where it plummets back down again, engaging the audience and demonstrating the impressive size of the boat. From scaling the masts of the boat during tumultuous moments on the water to scurrying around the deck while the men maneuver the sails, a clear picture of what life at sea entails is painted. These scenes also act as a point of access to the characters, allowing the audience an opportunity to connect with the crew as they go about their daily tasks.
By juxtaposing turbulent, wild waves with intoxicatingly soothing sunsets, In the Heart of the Sea encompasses the mercurial nature of the ocean. The shots utilized to showcase the sea’s erratic ways seduce.
From the guttural, ethereal call of whales to the battered and broken Essex buckling to the sea, the use of sound is also highly immersive.
Technical strengths aside, In the Heart of the Sea struggles to stay afloat.
The actors emote when and where they should, and for the characters who endure long enough, the audience witnesses a severe physical transformation once the Essex descends to its watery grave. But Chris Hemsworth’s Australian accent possesses a stronger will to survive than some of the shipwrecked men. Hemsworth should have been put through intensive lessons to shake the sound of his Australian roots, or a different actor should have been cast. As the main character of the film, Hemsworth’s accent surfaces as frequently as whales do and adds an unfortunate element of inauthenticity to the story.
From the on-deck quandary between Chase and Pollard to the trials on the water and storytelling by Nickerson, the switching plots should complement one another. Unfortunately, they fall short of this and it is largely a result of the viewpoint the story is supposedly told from. As the primary storyteller, Nickerson coveys the tragic tale of the Essex to Melville, but there are moments he expresses that he was not privy to in flashbacks. An example is a scene between only Chase and Pollard in the Essex’s cabin. Nickerson could not have possibly known about this, as well as several other exchanges he communicates to Melville.
Instead of a singular, direct narrative delivered through the lens of a teenage boy, In the Heart of the Sea suffers from multiple perspectives and an absence of clarity.
The film is not a standout in the sea of Moby-Dick interpretations or inspired productions, but despite its fractures, it is a thrilling action-adventure that does not need shootouts or gratuitous bloodshed to entertain.
DVD Special Features
Chase & Pollard: A Man of Means and a Man of Courage – this character study includes revealing interviews with the actors who portrayed the men (Hemsworth and Walker), as well as director Howard and producers Paula Weinstein and Brian Grazer. The audience learns that it was their collaboration on the 2013 film Rush that drove Howard to cast Hemsworth in the film, and that the real Pollard was a short 5’6″, as opposed to the lofty 6’3″ of Walker. According to Howard, casting Walker in the role was an artistic liberty worth taking to provide Hemsworth with an opponent of similar physique.
Blu-ray Special Features*
Ron Howard: Captain’s Log – an examination of the director’s filmmaking process with exclusive production photos, a discussion with Hemsworth and Walker about their characters’ rivalry, a factual account of the courageous stories that inspired Moby-Dick as well as deleted and extended scenes.
*The Blu-ray disc requires a special 3D Blu-ray player to run. For full effect, 3D glasses are also needed.