“In the Heart of the Sea” Movie Review


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     There are a handful of filmmakers today whose projects automatically appear on the radar of the moviegoing industry simply because their past work has been consistently exceptional.  Ron Howard is part of that prestigious group, exhibiting a visionary storytelling style that has transported audiences into a wide and diverse range of thought provoking subjects.  And while his earlier work on films like 1991’s “Backdraft”, 1995’s “Apollo 13”, and 2001’s “A Beautiful Mind” clearly stand out as the high points within his filmography, he has also provided us with several whimsical fantasies in the form of 1988’s “Willow” and the 2000 Christmas classic, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”.  Howard’s new film “In the Heart of the Sea” combines elements from each of those films, telling the true story of the doomed whaling ship Essex, whose crew came face to face with a white whale that both destroys their ship and forces them to dig deep within their soul as they attempt to survive thousands of miles away from land.  

     There will be those who will dismiss “In the Heart of the Sea” simply because the film’s tag line tells us the story inspired American author Herman Melville to write “Moby Dick”.  I can imagine many young people will choose to pass on the film since its roots may cause them to believe seeing it would be like sitting in class for two hours, but that would be a sad mistake on their part.  In reality, “In the Heart of the Sea” plays like a cross between last year’s World War II film “Unbroken” and Steven Spielberg’s classic thriller “Jaws”.  In other words, there will be no need to bring along your “Moby Dick” study guide in order to understand the finer points of the film’s plot as Howard and his screenwriter, Charles Leavitt (“Blood Diamond”), lay it all out in fairly simply terms.  The story is framed by a mid 1800’s meeting between author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) and one of the surviving crew members of the Essex, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), which means the story is told in flashback, returning to their conversation ever so often for clarifications.

     Nickerson recounts that fateful journey of the Essex as we are brought back to the year 1820, amid the politics and back room deals that apparently grip the whaling industry in Nantucket, the hub of the many ships who set sail in search of one of the most valuable commodities of the time.  Whale Oil was the primary catalyst for illumination, providing a substance that could be used to burn for hours in a lamp or as the main ingredient in candle wax.  This allowed people to keep their homes lit long after sundown, making Whale Oil one of the most prosperous and profitable industries for ship owners and the families who were wealthy enough to invest in them.  There was a certain birthright in play that ensured the descendants of those families would be the ones Captaining those ships, and that left renowned first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) as second in command during his previous voyages due to his family being deemed as landsmen.  Chase had been credited with leading several successful whaling ships whose haul of Whale Oil would bring in as many as 1500 barrels to the delight of those who owned and financed the ships and their crews.  Promises were made, but not kept, as Chase is told he must go out on one last voyage as a first mate (the second in command) simply because family bloodlines meant an inexperienced George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) would be given the reigns.

     Chase agrees after yet another promise is made, but he immediately butts heads with the head strong Pollard who sets out from the beginning to establish his supremacy as Captain of the Essex.  If there was one complaint about Leavitt’s script, it’s the fact these conflicts are never properly developed.  We are given one scene in which a decision made by Chase is abruptly overruled by Pollard, but nothing more to further establish why exactly he is asking for Chase’s resignation in the next scene.  Perhaps this is because Howard’s intention was to move on to the real thrust of the story, but in order to attach ourselves to these characters we need to know them in the first place and that doesn’t happen.  Instead, we are taken through the obligatory motions of a crew completing seamanship tasks and the Essex unnecessarily entering the eye of a destructive storm which nearly cripples them and has Pollard calling for the ship to turn back for repairs.  During these scenes, which are expertly shot and rendered to combine live action with CGI, Pollard barks orders and Chase passes them on, but no real conversations take place that have any substance.  Without these crucial character developments, the first act goes by and we thrust into the primary portion of the plot without really caring who survives and who dies.  That being said, both Hemsworth and Walker are quite good, as is Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson in their respective supporting roles.  

     That primary portion of the plot I speak of is, of course, the ship’s encounter with a giant white whale who has seemingly taken offense to the crew’s heinous whaling activities.  Howard lays the blood and guts on thick when the crew harpoons their first whale and subsequently dismantles it for the precious oil within its blubber.  The young version of Nickerson (Tom Holland) is given the dubious honor of entering the whale via the blow hole and scooping up those last buckets full of oil that rest within the bowels of the animal.  When the white whale they come across later begins to stalk them, there is no escaping and no fighting back as the sheer size of the whale and its unstoppable ferocity easily tears the Essex apart, leaving the crew stranded in ill-equipped lifeboats thousands of miles away from land.

     The final act of “In the Heart of the Sea” primarily chronicles the efforts these men went through in order to survive their excruciating ordeal.  It’s actually rather difficult to watch as these men starve and die of thirst, just as it was in “Unbroken” in nearly the same circumstance, and Howard never lets us off the hook as the situation these men faced becomes more harrowing with each day that passes.  As an entertainment, “In the Heart of the Sea” delivers the kind of visual thrills and awe inspiring imagery you would expect from an epic period story that features a battle between man and beast.  Howard seems to excel in transporting us to various points in our history, many of which are lesser known, and presenting the scenery, characters, and the threats they face as being larger than life.  He made heroes out of both the Apollo 13 crew and those feverishly working on Earth to help save their lives.  Howard was also able to essentially do the same thing when he brought us into the world of Formula One racing in last year’s “Rush”, which also starred Hemsworth.  And with “In the Heart of the Sea” he brings us another historically significant film that functions at times as a maritime spectacle, but then abruptly shifts gears as it becomes a gut wrenching story of survival and a testament to how dangerous the ocean and its inhabitants can be.  GRADE: B