I sat in my seat. The lights went down. “In the Heart of the Sea” appeared on-screen. I was excited. I was optimistic. I really wanted to like Ron Howard’s latest. But, two hours later, I realised: I did not have a whale of a time.
Let me ask you this: Have you ever heard the story about the good-hearted sailor who must leave his wife to go off to sea? What about the good-hearted soldier who must leave his wife to go off to war? Or the good-hearted astronaut who must leave his wife to go to outer space? Or how about the good-hearted warrior who must leave his wife to go off to battle…
You get the idea.
Point is: you’ve seen In the Heart of the Sea already – a hundred times. It’s the same dull plot, churned out with the grace of a squirming, harpooned whale. But before I harp on about harpooning, I have to ask: How – and why – did this film get the go-ahead? What producer thought this would be a hit? Aptly enough, it’s currently sinking at the box office. And there’s unlikely to be a strong word-of-mouth by the few who do see it urging others to check it out.
In the Heart of the Sea is not an adaptation of Moby Dick – Herman Melville’s nineteenth century literary classic. Instead, it’s an adaptation of the events that inspired Moby Dick – there’s a reason why I italicise “inspired.” There is a hell of a lot of inspiring going on in the film’s framing device. It shows Melville himself (Ben Whishaw) with eyes filled with awe and wonder as he hangs on every word from Thomas Nickerson’s lips (Brendan Gleeson). Nickerson is a survivor of an arduous sea journey he experienced as a boy – a sea journey gone disastrously wrong. He sits, still perturbed by the events of the voyage, and recants his tale to Melville over shots of whiskey and buckets of tears.
Melville is so moved, so astonished, so inspired by these events that he respectfully pens Moby Dick as a result. Any aspiring writer out there will be tad annoyed. Oh it’s as easy as that, is it? Pay somebody for their tale of woe, scribble it down and then bam – Moby Dick. What the movie skips over (and what would have made a much more interesting watch) is that Moby Dick was heavily criticised upon publication – so much so that it caused Melville to fade into literary obscurity.
The novel – one of the greatest things ever written – was out of print at the time of Melville’s death. How could the novel – an undisputed literary masterpiece – have been so misunderstood at the time of its release? Well that is a far more interesting question than anything In the Heart of the Sea dares to ask. Unless this film is hailed as a cinematic masterpiece in the next thirty years – in which case this review will be laughably ironic. But somehow I doubt it.
Most of the film centres around Nickerson’s retelling of the “Essex” – a whaling ship that set sail from Nantucket on the hunt for whale oil. The captain, George Pollard, is a by-the-book bore (Benjamin Walker) and the first mate, Owen Chase, is a rough-and-tough hunk (Chris Hemsworth). Chase is clearly more qualified for the position of captain than George but George’s father owns the company – so you can guess as to their relationship on-board.
Sadly the film’s characters are nothing but tired, dull clichés. The film ticks off boring stereotype after boring stereotype. To start off with, the film’s female characters only serve as a symbol of the male characters’ longing for home. That’s it. They’re so poorly drawn that a toddler with a box of Crayola could do a better job. And then we come to the male characters. There’s a moment, about half way through the film, when the sailors begin to run out of food. They start to become weak and pallid and very, very thin. But I doubt audiences will notice the latter – they were already two-dimensional to begin with.
There are, however, some pretty seascapes and nicely rendered sunsets sporadically injected into the film. So I guess it’s not all bad. But you could save time and money by just Googling some Turner paintings and get a much –much – better artistic experience.
The Essex rocks back and forth all over the South Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. But Chris Hemsworth gives the ship a run for its money. Just when you think the ship is all over the place, Hemsworth reminds us what’s really all over the place: his accent. Yikes. It’s shakier than a whaling ship on the high seas. Which I suppose is in keeping with the film’s aesthetic – because Ron Howard has completely relinquished the use of tripods. Even when the action is taking place on land or we’re back in the room with Melville and Nickerson again, Howard still uses his camera to channel the motto of Ms. Taylor Swift: just shake it off, shake it off. And boy does he shake it all right.
So I think we all know what to get Ron Howard for Christmas this year: a couple of tripods and a copy of Splash – you know, just to remind him that he can make a decent film about a man obsessed with a sea creature. And, as for the rest us, we’ll probably be better off just watching Jaws.