The Hippo


Nov 16, 2019








In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea (PG-13)
Film reviews by Amy Diaz

By Amy Diaz

In the Heart of the Sea (PG-13)

Men hunt whales in In the Heart of the Sea, a movie based on the nonfiction story that Moby-Dick was based on.
Writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) is burning with desire to write a book based on the tale of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship that sank in the 1820s. To get the flavor of the event decades later, Melville goes to visit Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who worked on the Essex as a boy (Tom Holland) and is now the last living survivor. Nickerson is at first reluctant to talk but eventually unspools the tale of the ship, its captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth).
The men are not delighted to serve together. Chase thinks Pollard, a son of the ship’s investor who has never captained before, is a just a rich boy who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Pollard thinks Chase isn’t seafaring folk because his father was a farmer. But they set sail in hopes of scoring a big haul of whale oil and coming home to great financial success and the promise of each captaining their own ships in the future. Chase is also driven to find the whales and come home fast by the fact that he’s leaving behind a pregnant wife. 
The ship sets off and, after a bit of weather trouble, does find a whale in the Atlantic — but it is the only male whale they see. They eventually round South America and begin searching the Pacific, stopping at a port where they hear shipwrecked Spanish whalers talk about a spot, a thousand leagues west along the equator, where there are whales for the picking. But the men also mention one particular whale, the reason they are now sans ship. Nonsense, says the Essex’s second mate, Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), there’s no such thing as a giant, killer whale. So even though the men are uneasy about plunging so deep into the Pacific, the ship heads west. And, indeed, they do find waters teeming with whales. And, indeed, they do find one giant, angry whale among the group.
If I’m reading the movie right, we actually see some motivation for why this giant whale decides — which is I guess how you’d put it — to go after the ship. And, OK, I’ll buy a certain level of intelligence from whales, you know, Star Trek IV and all that. But the way this movie presents it is kind of, oh, what’s the fancy film-school word for this, stupid. In fact, there are a number of plot points in In the Heart of the Sea which feel, to put it bluntly, kind of stupid. The difficult relationship between Chase and Pollard is about as organic and earned as if one of the actors had just turned to camera and said “we’re going to dislike each other for the first 70 percent or so of this movie, deal with it.” The bookending bit with Melville and Nickerson feels stagy in the extreme, as though I’m watching Rushmore’s Max Fischer put on a high school adaptation of the tale. Michelle Fairley (by all the old gods and the new, it’s Catelyn Stark) shows up to play Mrs. Old Nickerson and is painfully underused. She’s a more interesting character in her dozen lines than either of the doofuses providing us with the excuse for the narration. And then there’s everything to do with the whale, which should be very man-versus-nature, very terror-of-the-unknown but instead just feels silly. 
Which is too bad, because In the Heart of the Sea, when it doesn’t feel ridiculous, is very pretty to look at and features interesting tidbits about whaling, early 19th-century life at sea and the place of whale oil in the economy and life of people at the time. Because Young Nickerson was a small teenager at the time he sailed on the Essex, he is the one sent in to the head of the whale to gather what, as I learned not from the movie but from Wikipedia later, was a more valuable kind of whale oil called sperm oil, which has a different chemical composition from the blubbery whale oil. Fun fact! There were other little moments, about ship politics and ship duties and the life of a whaler, that I also found interesting. Huh, I remember thinking, if so much of this movie weren’t so goofy, it might really be kind of fascinating. (Hemsworth, you ask? Yeah, this probably won’t go on the highlights reel. Somehow, compared to this, Hemsworth’s Thor feels like some kind of Richard Linklater Boyhood-style ultra-natural performance.)
In the Heart of the Sea has the look and score of an important historical epic; I even get the sense that maybe the movie’s creators kind of believe they’ve made a sweeping saga, sort of 12 Years a Slave-lite. But just as putting a sailor suit on a baby does not make him ready to work on the USS Nimitz, all the lovely cinematography and sprinkling of historical tidbits in the world can’t give this movie the gravitas it so desperately seeks. C+
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material. Directed by Ron Howard with a screenplay by Charles Leavitt and story by Charles Leavitt and Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (from the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick), In the Heart of the Sea is two hours and 1 minute long and distributed by Warner Bros. 

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