Wednesday, December 09, 2015

“In The Heart Of The Sea”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new adventure drama “In The Heart Of The Sea”, directed by Ron Howard.


When sailors head on a whaling expedition, will they be able to survive after their ship is sunk by an immense whale?


In 1850, Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) was well into writing his epic novel “Moby Dick” when he researched his story by interviewing a man who worked on a whaling ship as a teenager.  He tells the author about the Essex, a whaling vessel that set sea in the winter of 1820 in search of whales they could kill and process for their oil, which was used for lighting street lamps and heating homes, among other things.  The Essex was led by George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), an inexperienced Captain, but the real brains on board was First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), who resentfully took the job only because he was promised a Captain’s assignment subsequently.

The Essex was out for many months before they finally captured a whale, which they gutted and stored on board.  As they sail further south near Argentina, no whales are sighted and by now, the frustrated, homesick crew merely wants to go home.  Not wanting to disappoint his employers, the Captain decided to take a tip obtained while ashore and changed direction of the Essex to far off its original course in the hope that more whales would be found.  Although the tip proved correct, Pollard and his crew got more than they bargained for; while on their mission, the Essex is attacked by a massive sperm whale.  The ship sinks and the crew is forced to take to lifeboats and hope they can find land before long. 

As it turns out, the sperm whale trails their boats all the way as they head to a small unpopulated island; it attacks their boats, damaging them to the point that they are no longer seaworthy.  Upon reaching the island, they do their best to repair the boats so they can set out to find either a rescue ship or civilization.  Once in the sea again, their supplies run out after several months; starving and dehydrated, the men get desperate and must resort to cannibalism in order to survive.  After three months stranded, with things not looking terribly promising and another attack by the sperm whale looming on the horizon, will they die at sea or can they live long enough to survive this disaster?


Is this supposed to be Director Ron Howard’s period-piece version of “Jaws” or simply his “Moby Dick”?  Regardless of whatever it may be, its impressive special effects will still leave you feeling a bit empty; at times, it’s a bit unclear exactly what story it is that Howard wants to tell.  “In The Heart Of The Sea” starts off being a story about the inspiration behind Herman Melville’s legendary novel “Moby Dick”, then becomes a survivalist tale before morphing into a fable about morality and ethics.  Therein lies the problem – it tries to be all things to all people and doesn’t quite succeed at any of them. 

One of the reasons why an audience may find it difficult to get drawn into the movie is because there’s not always a clear protagonist for whom they can root.  Initially, it seems like it’s going to be Melville’s tale, then the story behind the man who survived the Essex as a teenager, and finally looks like it’s about Chase’s heroics.  Because your attention is shifting from one protagonist to another at various points throughout the film, there is no single individual the audience can easily follow.  On the other hand, maybe it’s just the whale’s story, in which case Howard completely missed the bullseye on that one. 

This is a Ron Howard movie being released around the holiday season, so it must be family-friendly, right?  Well, maybe not.  There are some scenes that you might not want small children to see, or at least they wouldn’t understand them even if they did see them.  Mainly, there’s the whole cannibalism subplot that comes into play once the crew is stranded.  Also, there’s attacking and gutting the whales as well as watching one distraught crew member commit suicide by blowing his brains out after too many days at sea – which, all things considered, is one perfectly valid way to escape this film. 

In the Heart of the Sea (2015) on IMDb

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