In the Heart of the Sea

big fish

Release: Friday, December 11, 2015


Written by: Charles Leavitt; Rick Jaffa; Amanda Silver

Directed by: Ron Howard

From the infamously dangerous Nürburgring and into the heart of the sea Ron Howard has steered his cameras in an altogether new direction, facing the unenviable task of crafting a cinematic event based around the circumstances that inspired 19th Century writer Herman Melville’s most famous fiction.

Less an adherence to the motifs found in ‘Moby Dick’ and more a voyage of its own epic proportions, In the Heart of the Sea finds Howard massaging a much darker story involving the brave (or stubborn) seafaring captain, first mate and crew of the Essex who were destined for destruction when they set out in search of another payday in the form of whale oil, only to be thwarted by a deep sea-dwelling monster. It’s a film in which adjusted expectations will likely accommodate a more enjoyable experience, for this is more blockbuster than serious drama; more Greatest Hits than a standalone album.

In 1820 Chris Hemsworth’s Owen Chase, an experienced whaler and affable, capable man, feels like he’s earned the right to become Captain of the Essex, but thanks to bureaucracy and George Pollard (Benjamin Walker)’s status as heir apparent to the family legacy, he’s relegated once more to First Mate despite being promised otherwise. So the journey starts off with a barely disguised undercurrent of tension and gradually destabilizes as what was already going to be a protracted trip eventuates into more than a year at sea, as the inexperienced Captain Pollard fails to find the goods. At the time, small communities like Nantucket were dependent upon whale oil for lighting and energy and returning to shore empty-handed was not an option.

After months scouring the Atlantic to little avail, Pollard decides to explore the Pacific in an attempt to change their fortunes. While resupplying in Ecuador, they learn of an undisturbed region of whales that apparently harbors a particularly hostile and large white whale. The crew of the Essex dismiss the story as a myth only later to discover both parts of the story to be true. And they are of course attacked, marooned on a remote island and finally left floating for days on end with scant water or food supplies. It gets to a point where the remaining survivors must resort to cannibalism. Indeed, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

And when the going does get tough, Howard’s gritty epic truly gets going. Sea is less about showmanship — interpret that as either a reflection of character or performances from a recognizable cast — as it is about establishing atmosphere. Wisely he provides some semblance of humanity before rendering the participants steadily maddening creatures. The squabbles between Chase and Captain Pollard couldn’t seem more trivial after the whale attacks. There’s a tremendous sense of loss, of unrelenting despair in this nautical epic, qualities almost antithetical of Howard’s typically uplifting, inspirational fare. Morbidity and suffering suits him though.

A staunch believer in the power of storytelling, Howard this time surprisingly foregoes establishing memorable characters — don’t expect any Niki Lauda‘s or John Nash‘s here — in order to make room for a familiar but powerful framing device involving Brendan Gleeson’s aged Tom Nickerson, the last living survivor of that crew. In modern-day (well, Nantucket 30 years later), a thoroughly depressed and alcohol-dependent Tom reluctantly relays the tragedy to a curious Melville (Ben Whishaw) who in turn wants to recount the saga in his writing for to make a name for himself.

Regrettably, the sporadic jumps back to present-day tend to rudely interrupt our seafarers’ plight. Sea has a difficult time sustaining momentum and if it is to aspire to great heights as a blockbuster, as it clearly wishes with a mammal of this magnitude so convincingly rendered, it needs to more judiciously use these transitions. Points also deducted for the crowbarring in of a parallel to man’s contemporary dependence on land-locked crude oil. The topic certainly seems relevant, but the film almost certainly would have been better off without the mention.

Despite borrowing the narrative backbone of the 2000 Nathaniel Philbrick novel ‘In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,’ this is a Ron Howard picture through-and-through. It boasts breathtaking cinematography, wherein you’ll find the extent of its romantic tinges. There’s little room for romance in a story this dark, save for the way this beautiful whaling vessel is captured by two-time collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle. It’s also a passionately crafted and seriously considered production that may not always fire on all cylinders as other entries have in Howard’s rich back catalog, yet there’s something undeniably classic about its mythical qualities.

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Recommendation: Powerful, moving, handsomely crafted epic with tremendous special effects to boot, In the Heart of the Sea is destined to satisfy more devout Ron Howard fans. It might be a more flawed creation than say Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind or last year’s Rush, but if we’re making those comparisons we’re only setting ourselves up for disappointment in the same way this ill-fated crew set themselves up for disappointment going for 2,000 barrels of whale oil.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “They looked at us like we were aberrations. Phantoms.”

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30 thoughts on “In the Heart of the Sea

  1. Great writing mate, though the lack of depth of character meant I couldn’t get into any of the horrible stuff happening to the crew. I just wanted to whale to wreak more carnage!! It was more a popcorn blockbuster for me, and like you said Howard can deliver on that front. The film definitely looks amazing too, save for a couple of green screen scenes. This seems to have received mixed reviews. I didn’t love it but I had fun watching it for sure

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think characterization was definitely a weaker point to this particular Ron Howard flick. You definitely are right on the money about it being harder to feel for their plight when you don’t really know ’em. Haha

      In this case I think the film impacts more visually than viscerally. It’s dramatic with the size of the whale, the length of the expedition, the environment. Less so are the people this time. If they were a bit stronger this would have easily been one of my top favorites.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah man, this is one movie where it maybe could have benefited from being a little longer… though the way it flicks back to the present with Gleeson telling the story… that time could have been used to introduce the sailors to us. And then it really would have been epic. Cos I’m with you, it looked fuckin’ incredible.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I actually didn’t mind the framing device, although it was used a bit too often at times so the rhythm of what was happening at sea got broken up a bit too much. I did like the idea of what he ws doing with it, though. There needed to be that emphasis that this was not *the* account of Moby Dick, that it was a separate thing. And it did look great, totally!


  2. Hi Tom, say, would you still be willing to be a guest conversation starter in January? Just an aspect about “The Revenant” to generate a discussion? Since it’s released in the states on the 8th and 15th in the UK, I thought I would have the Lucky 13 Film Club on Sunday, Jan 17 to allow more people time to see it. I would link to your blog, too. If you want to pass, no worries.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice review Tom. Planning on seeing this tomorrow with my son. The mixed reviews have me wondering. On the other hand this isn’t a movie I was just dying to see so I’m certainly hoping for a nice surprise.

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  4. Whatever you think of Howard as a filmmaker he at least attempts genuinely challenging blockbuster fare and this is no different. Saw an extended trailer for this the other night and it looks like my kinda film.


  5. This is the first review of this film that I’ve read, Tom, and I must say you’ve raised my interest…I’d just dismissed this as soon as I saw Howard’s name attached to it. I know a lot of people like him but I generally find his films a little on the dull side (though I hasten to add it’s not like I’ve sat through every single one). Hemsworth doesn’t really fill me with much hope either, but on a more positive note I do like the look of the supporting cast. I’ll keep an eye out when it’s released in the UK.


      • Nah…I never say never with regard to any actor or director. I’ll give it a whirl, I haven’t watched anything like this since Master and Commander.


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