As a big screen viewing experience based on one of America’s most evocative myths, In the Heart of the Sea is a surprisingly forgettable adaptation.
Long after the Whaleship Essex was scuttled by a bull sperm whale, former crewman Thomas Nickerson recounts the experience of arrogance, greed, and nature’s power to writer Herman Melville – who hopes the Essex story will provide enough material to write his next novel. Tortured by the events, Nickerson is hesitant to share the full tale – which, previously, had been covered up by whale industry financiers.
In his account, Nickerson centers his tale on Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) – who returned to Nantucket with the promise that his employers would provide him a ship to captain on his next whaling venture. Instead, Chase is offered a first mate position on the newly refurbished whaleship Essex – under the command of inexperienced, but blue-blooded, Captain George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker). Reluctant to sail with Pollard, Chase (a farmer’s son) eventually consents to join the crew – but only after his employers formerly agree (this time in writing) to make him a captain upon his return. Nearly one year into their voyage, and with little whale oil to show for their efforts, Pollard and Chase choose to venture deep into uncharted waters in the hopes of finding better hunting grounds. Instead, the captain and first mate venture into disaster – a disaster that would send the Essex to the bottom of the Pacific.
Using Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 non-fiction book, In the Heart of the Sea (which sourced accounts from the real Nickerson and Chase to chronicle destruction of Essex in 1820), director Ron Howard’s film adaptation attempts to capture the “real-life” tale that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick within the framework of a big screen 3D viewing experience. The result is a passable revamping of the narrative behind Moby-Dick, that should intrigue Melville fans (despite some heavy-handed retooling of historical fact); however, In the Heart of the Sea is also riddled with trite characters, familiar story arcs, and dumbed-down variations on the themes and allegory that made Melville’s Moby-Dick so haunting.
Given its subject matter and the vehicle through which the tale is told (Nickerson’s personal account of events), In the Heart of the Sea will likely find its biggest audience in high school english classrooms – as a supplement to Moby Dick lesson units. That might sound like harsh criticism but In the Heart of the Sea leans heavily on juxtaposing its characters with fictional counterparts in Moby-Dick while at the same time presenting Nickerson’s tale in a heavily saturated color palette – via dreamlike cinematography that paints the White Whale, and tragedy of the Essex, as larger-than-life myth. To that end, Howard successfully establishes the world of 1820 – ensuring that audiences are grounded in life at sea, and experience the rush of a successful whale hunt (barbaric though it may be), before mother nature enacts revenge. Still, viewers who were drawn-in by the prospect of a thrilling man versus nature experience, full of eye-popping 3D visuals and Moby Dick action set pieces, may be underwhelmed by the contemplative story that Howard actually produced.
In keeping with the spirt of Melville’s novel, the whale isn’t the most horrifying challenge the Essex crew faces during their time at sea – and, to that end, In the Heart of the Sea is much more about the frailty and fallibility of man than it is about a battle with Moby Dick. As a result, coupled with significant alterations to Nickerson and Chase’s real-life accounts for the purpose of movie drama, In the Heart of the Sea lands in a niche middle ground: Howard takes too many liberties to make his film essential viewing for Moby-Dick readers (through insightful backstory and context) while also being too light on action-adventure to attract casual filmgoers.
Similarly, the film is short on buzz-worthy performances to rally behind. Chris Hemsworth does his best in the lead role of Owen Chase but the part, and the actor’s work, is indistinguishable from countless sea-faring movie heroes that have come before. It’s a very familiar narrative arc, punctuated by predictable plot beats, that does little to stretch Hemsworth. It’s a good performance – but not a particularly memorable one.
That said, compared to the roster of stock supporting players, Chase is actually one of the film’s most affecting characters – second only to Brendan Gleeson as the aged and tortured Thomas Nickerson. Gleeson gives an emotional performance, one that helps to ground his folkloric tale – punctuating years of fear and shame through subtle nuance on his face as he tells the story. Even still, Gleeson’s part is relatively small and the majority of In the Heart of the Sea‘s screen time is dedicated to one-note crew members that are meant to represent various facets of 1800s whaling culture, without adequate time to develop beyond thin outline – even though talented actors (Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, and Tom Holland) all seek to draw more out of their respective parts.
In the Heart of the Sea is also playing in 3D and IMAX 3D but neither ticket adds enough to the final film experience to warrant premium prices. Viewers who are all-in for the movie will, without question, get a slightly more immersive experience on a bigger screen, with sharper sound, and added depth of field; though, much of Howard’s adaptation was filmed in close-quarters with shaky camera effects – leaving In the Heart of the Sea to rely on shots of its giant whale to push upgraded tickets (rather than artistic implementation of IMAX or 3D).
Howard has delivered a Moby Dick movie that captures the spirit and themes of Melville’s seminal novel; yet, in the process, the filmmaker is saddled with a challenging tale to tell. Ultimately, In the Heart of the Sea is too bland for viewers expecting fresh insight into the Essex disaster or Moby Dick mythology and too restrained for moviegoers who were wooed to the theater by trailers showcasing an epic man versus white whale showdown. It’s an ambitious project, which can be commended for its handling of specific ideas and scenes but, as a big screen viewing experience based on one of America’s most evocative myths, In the Heart of the Sea is a surprisingly forgettable adaptation.
In the Heart of the Sea runs 121 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.
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