In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of the Essex, a whaling ship that was sunk in 1820, leaving eight survivors. And hey! Did you know? The story partially inspired Moby Dick!
The movie follows Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), first mate to George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker) aboard the Essex. Pollard received his station because of his family ties in Nantucket, a fact which becomes a source of tension between him and Chase, who was promised his own captaincy but instead is asked to babysit Pollard. After some risky sailing in an attempt to be rid of each other faster, Pollard and Chase come upon a field of sperm whales thousands of miles off the coast of South America, but are sunk by a monsterous specimen, scarred by several encounters with whalers, which displays keen insight in attacking their ship. Marooned, they must drift in the longboats back home from the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Also! Thirty years later, innkeeper Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson, Tom Holland in his scenes as a teenager), a survivor of the Essex, is visited by Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), the very same now-famous author who penned American classic Moby Dick! Because, if you didn’t know, that book is partially based on the tale of the Essex.
In the Heart of the Sea is one of those annoying movies that has an entire subplot that should have been summarily discarded. Instead of being a story, it is a story about the telling of a story. It makes itself redundant. The story of the Essex is an inspiring and harrowing one that deserves to be told, and it deserves to be told and not deliberately overshadowed in its own telling.
When the movie gets down to brass tax, it’s quite good. Director Ron Howard has still got it, with the film’s main highlights being its early sea-making scenes and one incredibly tense and well-shot whaling scene, in which the whale attempts to dive deep enough to capsize the whaling boat. Though it’s not normally to a film’s credit, the makeup and physical transformations after the crew is marooned are impactful. It gets a little over-excited with the lens flair, but this is mostly a visually arresting movie.
It runs into some problems as it goes along. The last real action sequence, when the Essex is sunk, takes place about halfway through the movie, leaving the rest of it as a slow-burning struggle to survive. The elder Nickerson finally admitting what he had to do to make it is supposed to be the movie’s emotional climax, and that’s the reason it keeps cutting back to his scene with Melville, which is its own structural catastrophe. The story of the stranding is definitely a part of this, but it just isn’t directed as well. You don’t feel the tension the way you do in the whaling scene.
Another problem is you know there are survivors, not through outside research but because the movie keeps cutting back to the older Nickerson — and Melville! In case you forgot he partially based his touchstone novel Moby Dick on this story.
Given the reverence to the story, it’s really baffling that they didn’t just remake Moby Dick. There’s never been a really accurate adaptation of the novel, and they’ve got a hell of a cast. Gleeson as Ahab, Whichaw as Ishmael, Hemsworth, Walker and Cillian Murphy filling out the rest of the cast, and Ron Howard directing one of the most famous and timeless stories ever told? Who wouldn’t go to see that?
Even more than probably being without question the best adaptation, it would correct the film’s performance issues. The film disappointed last weekend with just $11.1 million, and disappointed in its international opening the weekend before that, drawing just $18.5 million. Given how heavily the marketing leaned on the Moby Dick connection, being a direct adaptation may not have helped too much, but it at least wouldn’t be undercutting itself in every poster and trailer. The real problem, though, was the inexplicable decision to move the film to Dec. 11, a week ahead of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, from its initial March 13 slot, when it would have opened against Cinderella and Run All Night.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Those philosophy majors are lying — the real monsters aren’t inside us, they’re in the sea. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.