Written by: J. Johnson
“In the Heart of the Sea” isn’t a disaster, so we’ll have none of those “Thar she blows!” wisecracks in this review, thank you.
Nor is it an actual success. Director Ron Howard goes at this dutiful adaptation of the Nathaniel Philbrick nonfiction bestseller like a filmmaker assigned, not obsessed. The results tell us more about the state of digital effects and the price we’re paying as moviegoers for an over reliance on this technology, than they do about leviathans or the fear and wonder in desperate men’s souls, brought about by a blubber-based economy.
Writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) comes to Nantucket to find the last living sailor of a doomed whaling voyage spanning two oceans and about as many years. Legend has it the disaster was caused by a giant white whale that not only defended its pod by attacking the ship, but also took vengeance on the survivors over a number of weeks as they tried to make their way in lifeboats toward land.
In the decades since, the sole survivor and youngest member of the crew, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) has never discussed the dark memories that drove him to drink. Melville gets him to talk, and the flashbacks begin with whaler Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) going to sea as the first mate of the Essex, captained by the less-experienced, but better-connected George Pollard (Benjamin Walker).
The conflict between the two men is set up but never fully explored, as Howard doesn’t dig deeply into either character’s potentially dark nature. And that’s not the only area where Howard and writers Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver tread a little cautiously. “Heart of the Sea,” after all, is a movie about killing whales, but this is partly absolved by its being very much a story of its time — Captain Pollard’s assertion that whales are mere resources on a planet bequeathed to man by God wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in 1820 and thus doesn’t shock us in the context of the film.
There are times when you hear something profound, or see something truly harrowing that recalls the epicness of one of the most famous novels ever published and you want to throw your hands up and yell, “Yes. Do more of that.” You root for what it could be, to show you some resistance as it wrestles with itself and in the end produces something great because of it.
But the sad truth is that the film seems to be resting contently on a fence that draws the line between provocative storytelling and mediocrity.
Chris Hemsworth does a much better job than anticipated, he’s a capable actor whose looks and bearing make him a natural for the role of a brave adventurer with a believable amount of conscience At their worst, they still give a believable portrayal of the stoic adventurousness of whalers; at their best, they show us the profound and sentimental longing of men who commit their lives to the sea. Tom Holland, who will play Spider-Man in the next round of Marvel films, ably handles the role of the younger Tom Nickerson, while Cillian Murphy (“Batman Begins”) is painfully good as Chase’s boyhood friend and second mate Matthew Joy.
You will likely be eagerly asking these questions for two hours, only to find that nothing you just witnessed really mattered. But this feeling will come without the bitter fun of experiencing something that’s actually intended to make an existential point.
That being said, the film has enough to keep you engaged for its duration. It really is a pleasant adventure, and who doesn’t love a well told tale about the mysterious allure of the sea and its frightening power, with a couple drunk sailors thrown in for fun? If you’re looking for something more though, there may be a certain novel you need to read.
“In the Heart Of the Sea” is out in theatres now!