Three stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, startling violence and considerable peril
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.11.15
The ingredients are sure-fire: a fascinating, fact-based narrative; a plot that demands bravery and ghastly sacrifice by the men involved; a solid cast led by Chris Hemsworth, who makes ample use of his steely, blue-eyed resolve; and everything under the capable guidance of seasoned director Ron Howard.
|Facing an undeniably vengeful attack by a massive white sperm whale, ship's first mate|
Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth, foreground right) does his best to protect his men.
Unfortunately, even he won't be able to prevent what's about to happen...
And yet, In the Heart of the Sea somehow fails to resonate. Too many of the characters are defined solely by one-dimensional tics; the storyline is completely predictable; and the interpersonal squabbles are the stuff of trite cliché, particularly the sniping between Hemsworth’s first mate, Owen Chase, and their ship’s inexperienced and incompetent captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker).
On top of which, the thoroughly pointless 3D effects, added after the fact, do no favors to the otherwise exemplary work by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. The entire film is too dark and frequently looks washed out: the inevitable results of poor post-production 3D processing.
Howard’s film too often feels like a routine Boy’s Own Adventure Saga, albeit one granted a first-class budget. Everybody hits their marks like a pro, but the result just isn’t very involving: nowhere near as riveting as, say, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, several big-screen versions of Mutiny on the Bounty, or even the many British TV episodes of Horatio Hornblower.
Scripters Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaff and Amanda Silver also play fast and loose with historical accuracy, despite basing their screenplay on Nathaniel Philbrick’s meticulously researched 2000 book, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, which in turn is based on two published accounts by men who survived the incident. The scripters cherry-picked some details, glossed over others, and most particularly “adjusted” both Chase and Pollard for melodramatic intensity.
Perhaps borrowing from a similar technique in 1997’s Titanic, the saga is recounted in flashback via a framing device that finds an aging Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), long ago the Essex cabin boy, recounting these events to a certain Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw).
It’s a cute touch — and Gleeson and Whishaw display more acting chemistry than can be found in the film’s primary storyline — but it’s totally bogus. Although these events definitely helped inspire the 1851 publication of Moby-Dick, Melville wouldn’t have needed to approach Nickerson for “the truth of the matter.” Chase’s own account of the tragedy was published in 1821, shortly after his rescue and return to his home in Nantucket.
Ah, well. Picky, picky, picky, right?
We’re introduced to Chase, a capable and thoroughly experienced whaler, as he bids farewell to his wife (Charlotte Riley) in anticipation of a lengthy voyage on the Essex. Chase expects to be named captain, but the ship’s mercantile owners renege on an earlier promise, instead giving command to the callow Pollard, scion of a prominent whaling family. (Cue a nod to countless war films that have forced seasoned sergeants to accept the often stupid and catastrophic orders of similarly young and ill-equipped lieutenants.)
The Essex crew is a mostly motley lot, although game for whatever orders come their way. Aside from the much younger Thomas Nickerson (now played by Tom Holland), the few stand-outs include Chase’s longtime friend Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), a recovering alcoholic; Thomas’ teenage friend Barzillai Ray (Edward Ashley); and the ship’s cook, William Bond (Gary Beadle).
Right out of the gate, Pollard displays his idiocy by steering the Essex directly into the path of a nasty squall, leaving the ship seriously damaged. Rather than return to port, Chase talks Pollard into continuing their essential mission to fill the hold with precious whale oil; although the two men already despise each other, Chase pragmatically points out that they’ll both fare better, back home, if they can return fully laden.
(In real life, Pollard and Chase already had served together; if they weren’t friends, they certainly respected each other as capable colleagues. But, then, Chase was only 23 when the Essex went out for the final time, which would be a stretch for 32-year-old Hemsworth.)
Adding insult to injury, Chase also must contend with the insubordinate and insufferably smug Henry Coffin (Frank Dillane), added to the crew solely because he’s Pollard’s young cousin. Dillane ladles his character’s smarmy qualities with a trowel; it’s hard to imagine the rest of the men so casually tolerating such a useless little jerk.
The voyage doesn’t go well; months later, the Essex has little oil to show for its efforts. Then, after having rounded Cape Horn, Pollard and Chase learn of a South Pacific “sweet spot” laden with whales. Despite warnings from a Spanish ship captain (Jordi Mollá) who lost his vessel to “a monster,” the Essex heads for this rich hunting ground.
Acknowledging our modern sensibilities, Howard’s depiction of the Essex crew’s whaling activities is restrained: just mildly graphic, in order to get the point across. A few details are genuinely fascinating, in a repulsive way: most notably the means by which poor Nickerson must recover the final gallons of oil from their first successful kill.
There’s also a strong suggestion that what follows results from protective rage; the surprise attack by a huge white sperm whale comes on the heels of a harpoon that injures this great beast’s mate, and threatens their much smaller calf. Knowing of a whale’s intelligence, as we now do, that’s not a difficult leap; Howard certainly makes it easy to sympathize with these mighty ocean mammals.
The narrative also is gently instructive, particularly in terms of depicting the era’s reliance on whale oil, and the resulting necessity for this dangerous business model.
What follows is both grim and suspenseful, albeit more in the abstract; we genuinely care about Chase, Nickerson and a few other characters, but the rest are little more than the kindling tossed into the air — and into the sea — each time the huge whale head-butts the Essex, or smashes the ship with its massive tail.
The narrative then enters a lengthy second act, which in a way is much more interesting: These men are thousands of miles from known land, and yet at least some of them are destined to survive. How?
Hemsworth is well cast as the capable hero, imbued with both intelligence and sensitivity; it’s easy to imagine the Essex crew following such a charismatic first mate. On the other hand, it’s hard to get a bead on Walker’s Pollard; we can’t tell whether his idiotic orders spring from insecurity, jealousy or just plain stupidity.
We definitely feel for young Nickerson, and Holland nails the role. Murphy earns our sympathy as well, particularly for the way in which he constantly tries to avoid succumbing to his raging desire for a drink.
The film certainly looks great ... or at least it would, if we could see it better. Production designer Mark Tildesley does wonders with his depiction of Nantucket, and the sequences aboard the Essex feel quite real. The claustrophobic ship’s interior is nightmarish, particularly once the vessel starts taking on water; special effects supervisor Mark Holt turns this into a disaster of nightmarish proportions.
Editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill maintain a reasonable level of suspense, although some of that is undercut by the overly melodramatic squabbles that continue between Chase, Pollard and Coffin.
No question, this is a great story ... but it isn’t a great film. In the Heart of the Sea is much more likely to send curious viewers to the extensive source material, which I suspect they’ll find far more compelling.