Silver Screen: In the Heart of the Sea **1/2
Ron Howard’s seafaring adventure tale In the Heart of the Sea wants no ambiguities about its literary pedigree.
In the Heart of the Sea is based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s book of the same name and chronicles the ill-fated voyage of the whaling ship Essex, whose real-life capsizing was the partial inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
In case just knowing this were not enough, screenwriter Charles Leavitt and his cowriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver construct the film as a long reminiscence told to Melville himself (Ben Whishaw) by survivor Tom Nickerson, the Ishmael of the tale, played in the frame story by Brendan Gleeson.
Over the course of a long, stormy night, Nickerson relates how, as a young orphan (played by future Spider-Man Tom Holland), he signed on to sail with the Essex as a lowly apprentice to the salty sea dogs who went on years-long voyages in search of whales to harvest for their lamp oil.
This ship is captained by greenhorn aristocrat George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), but its true master is first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a veteran seaman promised his own captaincy if he can help the inexperienced Pollard bring the investors one- or two-thousand barrels of whale oil.
The egalitarian, rough-hewn Chase and the prissy Pollard clash almost immediately, and their relationship does not strengthen as the months wear on with little progress. While resupplying on an island they hear rumors from a Spanish sailor about a preponderance of whales far out to sea beyond the normal sailing routes. But the Spaniard also warns them that out there lurks a massive leviathan dappled with alabaster spots— the white whale— that killed several of his men.
Chase and Pollard finally agree on one thing: They should redeem their failing journey by hunting down the beast. And it goes about as well as you’d expect, if you have even a passing familiarity with Moby Dick.
In the Heart of the Sea is a movie obsessed with its own grandeur. Howard aims for massive, overwhelming visuals, and sometimes he achieves them. The first whale killing scene is both thrilling and devastating, although the most striking image is a simple closeup shot of a blood-spattered Holland quietly realizing the solemnity of the occasion. The more elaborate elements of the sequence are impressive as well, but too often they look like a digital videogame frenzy.
The film’s greatest insights are practical depictions of whaling and their connection to economics. It’s easy to forget that these weren’t just fishermen, but oil men. Anytime industry and energy intrude, capitalist corruption is sure to follow. The sailors undergo depravities in the name of big oil as surely as soldiers battle in the Middle East and rig workers risk their lives on treacherous platforms like the Deepwater Horizon.
But In the Heart of the Sea lacks confidence in the merits of the Essex story itself and tries, time and again, to make more significant connections between itself and Moby Dick. To this end, it fails almost completely. Melville’s genius was to write a novel that considered every aspect of whaling as a microcosm for considering every aspect of existence. Moby Dick isn’t just about some guys hunting an undersea mammal, it’s about obsession, blasphemy, and our perilous relationship with the great unknown. It was Melville’s brilliance that powered an otherwise straightforward maritime yarn as surely as the whale oil illuminated a city’s gaslights. In the Heart of the Sea is that maritime yarn, minus the brilliance. Relative proximity to a great work is no assurance of greatness.
Ultimately, In the Heart of the Sea fails to live up to its own promise. Gleeson grumbles during the frame story, “This is the story of two men, Owen Chase and Captain James Pollard.” But Pollard and Chase have fairly little screentime together, and their interactions trace a clumsy arc toward the shallowest of redemptions for Pollard. It’s just not a particularly compelling relationship, but even worse, it reminds the savvy viewer of a great movie about two men with differing philosophies aboard the same boat: Peter Weir’s terrific, underappreciated Master and Commander.
In Master and Commander, based on the solid but non-canonical works of Flann O’Brien, Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany play a forceful, pragmatic captain and his more timid, intellectual counterpart, respectively. Master and Commander features harrowing, gorgeously rendered battle scenes that hum with the thrill of real fire, wood, and water, with precious little intrusion from computer effects. In between the battles, Crowe and Bettany spar over their opposing worldviews with great consideration and nuance. It is in every way a superior version of the movie In the Heart of the Sea yearns to be, much as the metaphysical significance of Moby Dick remains Howard’s own elusive white whale.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.