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Review: In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

Directed by: Ron Howard

Premise: Based on the nonfiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick. In 1820 the whaling ship The Essex sank after being attacked by a sperm whale, stranding the crew on life boats in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

What Works: The special effects of In the Heart of the Sea are quite good. Most of the film takes place at sea and if these settings are computer generated (and they probably are) it is difficult or impossible to distinguish digital images from the real thing. The film has several standout set pieces. The centerpiece of In the Heart of the Sea is the attack on The Essex by an enraged sperm whale. This sequence is terrific. It’s tense and brutal and the filmmakers convey the scale and power of this enormous animal wrecking an equally large boat. Another notable sequence occurs early on as The Essex encounters a squall. The boat nearly capsizes and the filmmakers do an excellent job of devising visuals that convey the action without resorting to hokey expository dialogue. The squall sequence is also notable in that it sets up the two main characters. Captain Pollard and First Officer Owen Chase, played by Benjamin Walker and Chris Hemsworth, do not have respect for one another and their actions before, during, and after the squall effectively establish their characters by demonstrating their difference in seafaring experience and their regard for power and authority. The other interesting aspect of In the Heart of the Sea is its dramatization of the whaling industry. The film has several sequences that work through the mechanics of seamanship and the process of harvesting whale oil. Like the action set pieces, these scenes communicate the toil seafaring and whaling without much exposition.

What Doesn’t: The story of In the Heart of the Sea is told as a frame narrative. It’s known that the story of The Essex influenced Herman Melville to write Moby Dick and In the Heart of the Sea includes a wraparound sequence in which Melville (played by Ben Wishaw) interviews crew member Thomas Nickerson (played by Brendan Gleason) decades after the event. The movie doesn’t need the frame narrative. The interview between Melville and Nickerson does not add much of anything—it doesn’t deliver important expository information nor does it change the meaning of the events—and it feels tagged onto the movie to explicate the link between the Essex disaster and Moby Dick less for narrative reasons and more for marketing purposes. The narrative frame creates other problems for the movie. The interview establishes Nickerson as the point of view character but the story doesn’t unfold from Nickerson’s vantage point and the film includes many events that he is not present for and would have no knowledge of such as private meetings among the Essex officers and circumstances on the other lifeboats. In the Heart of the Sea does not get to the attack on the ship until halfway through the movie and quite a bit is made of the whale, as though that’s what this story is about. But The Essex disaster is not really about a cetacean; it’s primarily a survival story of men stranded at sea and the toll that the elements take on their minds and bodies. The filmmakers compress the Essex survivors’ ordeal and the picture never captures the agony of their struggle to survive. This is most obvious when the men resort to cannibalism. There is little moral conflict among them as they eat their dead and the film doesn’t capture their desperation. This is partly a result of a failure to characterize the crew. Aside from Pollard and Chase no other characters are defined, not even Nickerson, and so there is little at stake regarding whether or not they survive.

Bottom Line: The Essex disaster is a savage story but In the Heart of the Sea has been made for a polite audience. It’s been made in a way that will not upset mainstream viewers but the true story of The Essex is far more interesting than this film. The picture is weighed down by a lot of unnecessary narrative baggage and it isn’t nearly as dramatic as it ought to be.

Episode: #574 (December 20, 2015)