December 11, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea

I tell ya, he was ten stories high if he was a foot.

Grade: B –
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr. 2 min.

Advertised as “the incredible true story that inspired Moby-Dick,” director Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea is actually more of an audacious prequel. In 1820, the Nantucket whaleship Essex was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in the southern Pacific Ocean. Much of the crew spent months at sea, resorting to sundry unspeakables in order to survive. The story is known to have piqued author Herman Melville's literary interest, resulting in his magnum opus published in 1851.

Howard seeks to tell the true tale of the Essex in In the Heart of the Sea, relying principally on Nathaniel Philbrick's 2000 non-fiction book of the same name. Philbrick draws largely from a manuscript written by Thomas Nickerson, a teenage cabin boy aboard the Essex, which was lost for over a century until found and ultimately published in 1984.

Dissatisfied with merely retelling this “incredible true story,” Howard conflates fact with fiction by creating an odd framing device wherein Melville (Ben Whishaw) visits Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) in 1850 Nantucket to transcribe Nickerson’s harrowing account, but only after getting Nickerson liquored up and paying off his wife. While Melville is known to have relied on (and perhaps even written) the published account of Owen Chase, the Essex’s first mate, there’s no indication that Melville ever met or consulted with Nickerson.

The result is a film not merely devoid of the social symbolism in Melville’s praised prose, but also one that shoehorns Melville into its nautical narrative in order to appropriate the Moby-Dick mystique whilst harpooning its author legacy.

The tension aboard the Essex is the same waterlogged tiff between captain and first mate familiar to the Bounty, or the Caine, the Alabama in Crimson Tide, or, well, the Pequod. Chase (Liam Hemsworth, who strikes a dashing pose) is passed over again for captaincy of a whaler in lieu of blue-blooded greenhorn George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker). Naturally, Pollard’s inexperience alienates the seafaring crew, especially after he nearly gets the ship swamped in a squall. Still, the Essex sails on since the only thing Pollard and Chase agree upon is that the faster they harvest whale oil, the sooner they can end their voyage.

A paucity of cetacea carries the Essex over 1,000 nautical miles west of South America, where a game of whales is seemingly protected by a mammoth, barnacled white whale with an ill temper and a spite for boat hulls. The ensuing attack leaves Pollard, Chase and the teenage Nickerson (Tom Holland) among the several survivors stranded at sea.

The visual effects and set design are stunning, particularly during storm scenes and whale hunts. Indeed, whaling and life at sea are dissected in illuminating detail, although all the cries of “Avast!” commands to “Swab the deck!” sound too cliched at times.

Storytelling has always been Howard’s stumbling block, and there’s a plodding predictability to these proceedings. The few themes scattered about—man’s place in nature; capitalism’s caste system—are obvious and underlined. And despite Gleeson’s earnest attempts at pathos, it feels like filler whenever the film regularly returns to Melville and the snockered Nickerson.

In the Heart of the Sea is a good film demonstrably short of any semblance of greatness. In other words, it’s a Ron Howard film. Although a movie moored to one of America’s great novels, this feels like the one that got away.

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