In the Heart of the Sea, the latest team-up between director Ron Howard and actor Chris Hemsworth, tells the true story of the whaling ship the Essex and its shipwrecked crew that inspired the legend of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”. Based on the non-fiction book “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of The Whaleship Essex” by Nathaniel Philbrick, Howard details the incredible story of the Essex and the tragedy that befell the crew in the Pacific Ocean in the year 1820 when a monstrous white whale struck and sank the Essex. Confined to three lifeboats, the remaining crew members must survive amidst the dangers of the sea, short on food and water, unnerved by the impending doom swimming in the blue.
It begins with a young, self-conscious Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) paying a visit to Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) at his old Inn. As the last known survivor of the wrecked Essex thirty years prior, Nickerson reluctantly offers to tell Melville the tale of the Essex as a 14-year old boy (young Nickerson played by Tom Holland) and crew-member of the Essex.
While it’s Nickerson who recounts this story, the real protagonist is actually heartthrob Chris Hemsworth as Owen Chase, a seasoned first officer. Tensions mount with Chase’s relationship with the ship’s captain, George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker), a product of privilege and nepotism whose jealously of Chase’s popularity causes him to arrogantly make bad calls. An early example of his brash jealousy has Pollard steering towards a vicious storm that nearly sinks the ship.
Despite the lurking promise of a cinematically impressive encounter with a massive CG whale, the film hits choppy waters midway through and the story becomes stagnant, treading water until its inevitable conclusion. Downtrodden on the lackluster presence of whales in the Atlantic, the crew heads to the Pacific with promise of an untapped whale cornucopia. Here they’re warned by an Ecuadorian captain of a massive beast lurking deep in the waters. Nevertheless, they take his warning as just another tall tale of the sea, foolishly heading out into the blue to rendezvous with their catastrophic fate.
Apart from the lack of explosive whale action the film promises, but doesn’t live up to, the film’s narrative structure could have used some moving and shaking as they make up the bulk of what is really happening. The scenes between Whishaw’s Melville and Gleeson’s Nickerson are among its best, most revealing moments. The relationship between Nickerson, recalling his harrowing tale of survival, and budding young writer Melville, living under the shadow of greater writers like Hawthorne, is really where the film’s inner conflict lies.
Again, It’s strange that the film is told through Nickerson’s perspective as he isn’t the main protagonist. His character is often found in the background and lacks the impact in the main narrative to really justify the story from his perspective, which instead focuses on the rivalry between Chase and Pollard. This drama, which apart from the lackluster whale scenes, takes away from the more authentic and interesting relationship between Melville and Nickerson.
Unfortunately for audiences, In the Heart of the Sea is too straightforward and restrained to really make much of a splash. Apart from the interesting conflict between some of its lesser characters, the film’s special effects are among its few saving graces, and given their expense the entertainment value of the movie can’t be denied. As is, however, Ron Howard has crafted a mostly banal survival tale and nothing more.