In The Heart of The Sea is the story of the real-life maritime disaster and extraordinary journey of the Essex and her crew at the height of the American whaling industry. In the winter of 1820, the Nantucket (New England) whaling ship Essex was assaulted during one of its trips by a whale of mammoth proportions, leaving just a few of its crew to overcome the almost impossible odds and live to recount their experience.
The script for the film was based on the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick, which won him the 2000 National Book Award for Nonfiction and the events themselves apparently inspired Herman Melville to write the American classic Moby Dick. All the ingredients are there for a gripping saga of hardship, survival and the relationship between man and nature, real potentially powerful stuff …. But then came Ron Howard who decided to turn it into a big Hollywood production and that was pretty much the end of it.
The narration of the film is by way of flashback through the point of view of Thomas Nickerson (played by Brendan Gleeson) one of the surviving crew members, pressed to recount the events that have haunted him ever since they happened, about thirty years earlier. At the time he was a young cabin boy (Tom Holland) on the Essex and setting off on his first journey. The person who entreats him to dig up the past is the young author by the name of Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) and we are made to believe that this story inspired him to write the classic Moby Dick. The story we are presented is that of the voyage of the Essex and its crew but really only that of the inexperienced Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) who gets the job because of family-connections, and his less privileged but much more experienced first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). We hardly get to know anything about the rest of the crew although there is the odd but unfinished attempt to insert additional storylines: we are told that the second mate on the ship (played by Cillian Murphy) had a drinking problem and forces himself to stay away from the booze but what the full story is there no one will ever know.
The film relies too much on the action scenes of which there are few but the visuals are ruined by very mediocre special effects, computer-generated waves and CGI for which there should be no excuse in this day and age. The whale never really comes to life and is almost presented as a symbol, an embodiment of nature gone furious at humanity, meaning to exploit and squander it. That in itself is an interesting concept but is never further exploited and was probably never intended in the first place. On top of that, the characters are flat: the film appears a vehicle for Chris Hemsworth to show off his masculinity and rugged good looks and what enticed Ben Whishaw to take up his role of aspiring author Herman Melville (other than maybe a step-up to a Hollywood career) remains a mystery.
The second part of the story is one of survival and that is also where the film peters out after the little excitement there was in the first part of the film. After the main ship sinks the remaining crew find themselves stuck in tiny whale boats, with little food and water and survive by engaging into the unthinkable, of course ‘tastefully’ rendered by Ron Howard for the target audience without ever actually using the word ‘cannibalism’.
All in all a disappointment of whale-size proportions but one which will probably do well at the box office.
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Charles Leavitt
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cilian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Michelle Fairley
Runtime: 122 min