It should be noted first and foremost that In The Heart of The Sea is not a film about the whale Moby Dick. The trailers and TV ads would like one to think that, and the poster would like one to think that, but you shouldn’t. This is a film about survivor’s remorse, and the lengths and struggles that a group of tenacious sailors endure when trying to perform the simple task of returning home after a failed voyage. On one hand, the film is a continuing testament to ignore the often misleading and skewed nature of film advertising, and on the other, a testimony to put an end to this continuing trend of assigning films the PG-13 rating when they so clearly could’ve benefited from an R.
The film centers around the hardworking crew of sailors aboard the Essex ship, whose duty of fetching barrels of whale oil is brought to violent and fiery halt when their ship by an angered sperm whale, leaving them stranded at sea’s end for 90 days. You know the story. This, of course, was the basis of Herman Melville’s legendary 1951 novel Moby Dick, and Moby Dick is in this movie. He is never called Moby Dick, and he isn’t given the same treatment as in past adaptations centered around Melville’s novel, but he plays a big part nonetheless. Based on 2000 novel of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick, the film is instead about the “true” story of what happened to the Essex, rather than a retread of the story we’ve heard before.
This film had more than it’s fair share of “development hell”. The idea of adapting Philbrick’s book was conceived of upon its release in 2000, with Barry Levinson set to direct with distribution from Miramax. Here we are 2015, with the film being directed by Ron Howard, and distributed by Warner Bros, after many months of release date shuffling. How this journey was made I can not tell, but the finished product is indeed more-or-less satisfying.
The film’s narrative is formed through its in-character storytelling. The “true” tale of the Essex is being told to real-life Herman Melville by one Thomas Nickerson, played in the film’s present day setting by Brendan Gleeson. However, when we see the flashbacks to the seafaring tales Gleeson seems to be narrating, the focus tends to shift towards First Mate Owen Chase, played by Chris Hemsworth, whose actions mostly forward the advancements of the film’s story. This awkward, off-balance character perspective places the film a frequently rocky frame of reference. Every time ‘the story of the Essex’ (which could have been a better title, by the way) is interrupted to cut back to present day Melville and Nickerson, we’ve practically forgotten that Nickerson, who is a just a young boy during the heart of these events, is the one telling the story.
Fortunately, the performances are, for the most part, good enough to make Howard’s see-saw narrative work, even if it doesn’t always make sense logistically (example: How would Nickerson possibly know about Chase and Captain’s Bollard’s meetings with each other in the lower levels of the ship, and again with the Nantucket government upon returning home? He wasn’t there). Hemsworth is the guiding force of the cast, giving what certainly the best and most dedicated performance of his career, both mentally and physically. He commits himself to the role of Owen Chase with an outstanding loyalty and it pays off sevenfold. Despite limited screen time, the rest of the cast does a fair job with what they’re given, with the second in command in terms of cast performances being 19-year-old Tom Holland, Marvel’s next Spider-Man, who does a splendid job as the young Thomas Nickerson. It does bring up the conversation of odd casting choices though – surely Gleeson and Holland are suffice as the young and old Tom Nickerson, but who in the casting department thought it was appropriate to cast a 61-year-old actor to play the apparently-only-30-years older version of a 19-year old?
The film is shot by the acclaimed Anthony Dodd Mantle, who is primarily known for his work with director Danny Boyle, as well as Dogme 95 filmmakers like Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, collaborated once previously with Ron Howard on 2013’s Rush. As anyone directed a film of this nature would, Howard and Mantle have the difficult task of shooting was was most likely a green screen studio and turning it into an endless, unfathomable green ocean that can swallow up any of characters at any minute (and it does). Save a few moments of painfully obvious chroma Key, the integration of cinematography and visual effects is seamless – every ripple of water looks as it would if you were standing in front of a lake, and I’ve seen a whale in real life, but I infer the ones I saw projected on my local multiplex’s 4K IMAX screen were pretty damn close.
Certain images from sequences in the film stand out in one’s head long after viewing – for example, a landscape shot of the fiery burned Essex after the first encounter with Moby Dick, while the fleeing sailors swimming helplessly in the black ocean foreground. It’s images like these which Howard and Mantle treat like classic museum oil paintings, and it’s easy to imagine them hanging an overly priced victorian-looking picture frame. The problem, though, with the cinematography comes during the whaling sequences. Anything involving the boat thrashing around, or the men fighting off whales looks choppy and crowded. Howard tries to fit to many actions and characters in one frame, and in intense moments where we should be white-knuckled in our seats, we instead wind up jerking our heads back and forth at the screen, as if trying to follow a few specific ants in a colony of hundreds. Surely this duo of Academy Award-winning cinematography and director could have handled these scenes with more carefulness.
If there’s one last thing worth mentioning about In The Heart of The Sea, it is the score by Spanish composer Roque Baños, whose work you might recognize from 2004’s The Machinist, Jonathan Glazer’s sleazy mob drama Sexy Beast, and more recently, the 2013 Evil Dead re-something. For In Heart of The Sea, Baños’s score is sweeping and epic – doom and gloom at some points, triumphant and glorious at others, it’s hard to imagine a better score to serve as the backbone for this story, and the images that create it. If this film is to be seen anywhere at all at next year’s Academy Awards, it will be for this category.
In The Heart of The Sea is far from perfect – in fact, there is plenty wrong with it, much of it glaring and at times overbearing. As the reviewer of this film, I have not read Moby Dick nor Philbrick’s original source material, but I do know that this film is a compelling, if not at the very least, emotionally gripping new take on a classic folk tale. If you don’t think it’s worth seeing for Hemsworth’s performance alone, it’s at least worth the price of admission to see some big-ass whales go to town on some boats.
In the Heart of the Sea OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10
Dylan Brandsema is a staff writer for Pop-Break specializing in film and television. When he isn’t writing reviews or spending too much analyzing the medium, he’s writing and directing his own independent films as well as drinking way too much soda. Currently at full-time film major at Full Sail University, Dylan eats, sleeps, and breathes everything related to the cinema. You can follow him on Twitter @SneakyOstrich69.