A film review by Craig J. Koban December 21, 2015


2015, PG-13, 111 mins.


Chris Hemsworth as Owen Chase  /  Tom Holland as Young Thomas Nickerson  /  Cillian Murphy as Matthew Joy  /  Ben Whishaw as Herman Melville  /  Charlotte Riley as Peggy  /  Frank Dillane as Owen Coffin  /  Benjamin Walker as George Pollard  /  Brendan Gleeson as Old Thomas Nickerson  /  Paul Anderson as Thomas Chappel  /  Michelle Fairley as Mrs. Nickerson  /  Joseph Mawle as Benjamin Lawrence  /  Donald Sumpter as Paul Macy

Directed by Ron Howard  /  Written by Charles Leavitt, based on the novel "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" by Nathaniel Philbrick


Ron Howard’s lavishly produced, but somewhat dramatically empty IN THE HEART OF THE SEA tells a fact based story – based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 book of the same name – of the sinking of the American whaling ship Essex in 1820 after an incident involving a massive sperm whale, an event that partially inspired Herman Melville to write MOBY DICK.  

There's no questioning Howard’s impeccable skills behind the camera at recreating history (as he did so memorably in films like APOLLO 13 and, to a lesser degree, recent films like RUSH), but part of the large problem with IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is that it feels oddly uninvolving despite its superlative visual effects and production design.  Episodic in nature and lacking in genuinely well-rendered character dynamics, Howard seems indifferent about the overall arc of the film, which leaves IN THE HEART OF THE SEA feeling disjointed and rough. 

The film also seems to have difficulty honing in on a specific dramatic hemisphere of prime interest.  On one hand, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is a primal tale of human survival against seemingly insurmountable environmental odds.  Then the film tackles themes of the inherent darkness of man’s problematic and misguided attacks on animals for purely financial motivation.  Then the film tries to be a white knuckled and action packed seafaring adventure that somewhat tonally contradicts what else is going on in the story.  IN THE HEART OF THE SEA desperately feels like it’s trying to dissect and comment on weighty issues with modern day parallels, but it nevertheless seems unwilling to focus any particular core idea for thoughtful discourse.  Howard’s film is all machismo posturing, made with cutting edge effects and consummate technical know-how, but beneath that there’s really not much personality or depth here.  



Again, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is kind of a three for the price of one effort.  We get an adventure yarn about a reality based ship journeying into uncharted territory in hunt of its era’s most valuable commodity: whale oil.  Beyond that, the film then descends into the heart of darkness as we bare witness to the seamen struggling to survive for three months after their ship is destroyed by a rather vengeful sperm whale.  Lastly, we get a narrative thread of future MOBY DICK writer Melville interviewing one of the wreck’s survivors in order to gain as much insight into the disaster as possible to give his upcoming book a sense of immediacy and verisimilitude that the young writer craves.  As the film opens we meet Melville (a very good Ben Whishaw) as he seeks out and meets Essex survivor Nickerson (a splendid Brendan Gleeson), whom is initially unwilling to acquiesce to Melville’s request for an interview.  After much coaxing, Melville gets the reclusive alcoholic to sit down with him and relay the drastic series of events that befell him decades ago. 

The film then flashes back to the early 1800’s as we see the departure of the Essex, captained by the relative naval greenhorn George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) as it sets sail on a quest to acquire whale oil.  His relationship with his first officer Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) is a fractured and tenuous one, seeing as the latter is a more experienced sailor whose ideas of how the ship should be properly led directly conflict with Pollard’s.   They do share one commonality: a nearly obsessive desire to achieve their mission goals.  This leads to some initial successes on the whale hunt front, but as multiple failures begin to mount overall crew morale begins to wane.  The captain decides to embark on one final Hail Mary-like plan to sail towards some dangerous and uncharted waters in order to find the whales they require, only to then be viciously attacked by a rather incalculably large predatory whale that seems to have a real beef with humanity hunting his kind. 

Amidst all of its inherent problems, one thing that IN THE HEART OF THE SEA does rather well is that it never once romanticizes the cruel act of whale hunting.  Howard spares no relative expense at showing the slaughtering of these majestic creatures for what it really was in scenes involving the Essex crew drenched in whale blood and gore.  The hunting sequences themselves are impressively engineered and executed as only an industry pro like Howard can muster, which, for the most part, captures the insane chaos of a few men on rickety boats using crude harpoons to ensnare aquatic beasts that are vastly larger than them.  Howard and company use a solid marriage of computer effects and practical models, neither of which distracts from the other at any given time.  All in all, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is positively riveting in terms of its slick and sometimes horrific visceral impact.  Complimenting the action is the rich monotoned cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle, which further adds another layer of period specific authenticity to the proceedings. 

The cast is also uniformly well assembled and more deeply committed to the material than perhaps the screenplay is throughout.  Hemsworth is a great physical presence in movies that also happens to match his brawn with an effortless movie star bravado, and here he’s perfectly cast as the strapping, but in over his head first officer.  Benjamin Walker has a trickier performance challenge in terms of making his captain both a figure of spite while also relaying him as one of wounded and relatable pride.  Gleeson and Whishaw have a multitude of memorable moments together, even when their wraparound narrative thread is sometimes haphazardly thrown into film without much thought.  There are other routinely strong actors here as well, albeit in disappointingly marginalized roles, as is the case with Cillian Murphy, who works acting wonders to relay the inherent tragedy of the Essex’s fate. 

By the time IN THE HEART OF THE SEA segues into the treacherous ordeals of the Essex cruel – all battling starvation, thirst, and sickness – I failed to truly feel for these men, mostly because the script never fully allows us to identify with them on any meaningful level.  Most of the supporting roles are sadly one-dimensional and occupy age old character stock types (the arrogant, but guarded captain, his wiser second command that comes in conflict with him, the young shipmates looking to make a name for themselves, and so on) that give IN THE HEART OF THE SEA a generic vibe that it really doesn’t want, nor should have.  The central conflict between Pollard and Chase has been done so many countless times before in multiple better films that the screenplay offers very few surprises or revelations.  Even though Howard, to his credit, plays it rough with those bravura whale-hunting scenes and evokes their shocking barbarism, nothing else in the script feels like it’s taking any chances.  IN THE HEART OF THE SEA play things too safe for its own good. 

Then again, Howard as a populist filmmaker has never been known to seriously tackle thorny button pushing projects before.  He’s a singular directorial talent for delivering what mass audiences crave, to be sure, and his resume most definitely reveals a yearning on his part to not entrench himself firmly in any one particular genre.  Yet, considering the limitless man versus nature possibilities with the underlining material, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA emerges as another unsatisfying entry for the acclaimed director that, frankly speaking, hasn’t make a masterful film since 2008’s FROST/NIXON.   If there is one thing that IN THE HEART OF THE SEA does inspire is for you to actively seek out MOBY DICK to read.  

And why didn’t Howard just make an adaptation of that iconic literary marvel to begin with?  That’s a whole other issue.

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