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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea (2015) - Review

This is not an adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic tale Moby Dick. This is an adaptation of the book that was based on the true events that inspired Herman Melville’s classic tale of Moby Dick. Got that?  The book this movie is based on is Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fictional account of the sinking of the American whaling ship Essex in 1820. So with Ron Howard at the helm we kind of get Backdraft meets Melville by way of Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, with a dash of Spielberg’s Jaws.


Director Ron Howard decided to go with the unnecessary framing device for this movie of having Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviewing Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the only living survivor of the ill-fated whaling ship Essex, for the book that would one day become Moby Dick. After being cajoled to finally tell the “true story” of what went down on the last voyage of the Essex the movie jumps right into us seeing whaler supreme Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) meeting with the owners of the whaling company and the ship he thinks he is going to captain, but he’s told that he will actually only be First Mate on this voyage, despite their promises to the contrary, as they’d rather have someone with a good family name such as George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) to be captain. We then see Owen bidding a tearful farewell to his pregnant wife, promising to return as fast as human possible from this super dangerous job. Do you see the problem here? Narrator Tom Nickerson is in neither of these scenes, in fact the character of Nickerson barely makes an impact on the film, unless you count throwing up on Chris Hemsworth’s boots as an impact, so how could this guy even remotely be considered a reliable narrator?


The story I’m about to tell you I garnered by stealing the Captain’s and First Mate’s logs.”

Herman Melville did not rely on just one man’s account to create Moby Dick, but on his own experiences at sea as well as many other stories of sea faring disasters. So Ron Howard’s framing device to me comes across as lazy and unnecessary. The movie would have worked just as well if it had been a straightforward story from the point of view of Owen Chase…well as fine as a movie about a bunch of dudes sailing out to slaughter whales is ever going to be. And that is probably my biggest problem with the movie, in Spielberg’s man against nature movie Jaws we were not cheering for the shark, but in this movie I am totally on the side of the whale. Ron Howard does try to sneak in some moments of “Could killing these noble beasts be wrong?” but it just comes across a perfunctory. Playing sad music while cheering men harpoon a whale is Howard’s way of saying, “Yeah, I know they’re dicks but what am I gonna do?” Now this is a period piece, and I’m betting the men at the time were damn sure that God put oil inside whales just so they could hunt them down, gut them, and light their homes with it, so Ron Howard was in a tough spot because the protagonists of his film were part of an appalling industry that was pretty much hell-bent on hunting a species to extinction. There is no real good way to soft pedal that.


This is his “I know it’s wrong” sad face.

But if we let slide the despicable nature of our main character’s job how does the movie hold up as a whole? Well it starts out as a look at class warfare with poor Owen Chase not getting his promised promotion because the company would rather have an inexperienced man at the helm, who has a good strong family name in the industry, rather than a well-qualified one whose father just so happened to be a farmer who ended up in prison. Captain Pollard is given the job and the movie quickly shows us every movie cliché in the book when it comes to depicting an upper-class twit, every decision he makes is the wrong one and will likely get men killed, and that Thor…I mean Owen Chase should have got the captaincy. Then the film shifts gears when the Essex is sunk by the Great White Whale, and it then becomes a story about men trying to survive in the hostile environment of the sea.  The very hostile yet incredibly tedious environment of the sea.


With the whale showing up randomly to say, “Hey there!

This movie is not Moby Dick; it is not about a man obsessed with killing the White Whale for sinking his ship and taking his leg. That’s what Pollard did after losing the Essex (but not his leg, that was all Melville), so In the Heart of the Sea is actually a prequel to Moby Dick and as is often the case with prequels it is not that interesting of a story. Men go out to sea after whales, they get sunk by a whale, and a few of them make it home after doing abdominal things to stay alive. Maybe that could have been made into an interesting movie, but Howard was unable to pull it off here. We don’t even get a good look at the hell it would have been to live aboard a ship like this for years at a time, which Weir managed so well in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, nor are we given anything but cardboard caricatures to follow. No one on this boat is a Captain Ahab or even a Captain Quint; most are fairly bland and uninteresting.



The film is beautifully shot, the actors give decent performances given the substandard material they had to work with, but as a whole it fails to engage the viewer in either a philosophic or historic aspect. Instead of a man against nature movie we get an audience against tedium. At the end of the movie Melville tells Nickerson that, “It will be work of fiction Mister Nickerson, inspired by the truth, but I don’t believe I feel the need to use all of it.” If only Ron Howard had felt the same

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