It has been a while since we’ve had a Moby Dick movie. There has been an interesting variety of cinematic iterations (my favorite being John Huston and Gregory Peck’s 1956 version). Now we have Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea”. Well actually “In the Heart of the Sea” isn’t a Moby Dick movie. It is based on “the true encounter that inspired one of the greatest legends of all time” (aka it’s kind of a Moby Dick movie, but it really isn’t).
The Son of Odin and one time Sexiest Man Alive Chris Hemsworth stars in this nautical thriller which is more directly taken from Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction book of the same name. It chronicles the fate of the whaleship Essex which in 1820 encountered a massive sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean. There is no Captain Ahad driven mad with bloodlust towards a massive underwater leviathan. No, instead this is an open-sea survival story that may end up surprising people with the grim and darker paths it takes.
The story is told to us through an interview between writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) and Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Melville is an ambitious young novelist who needs (both mentally and career-wise) a good story to tell. Nickerson served on the Essex as a young boy and since has been haunted by pent-up memories of survival.
Nickerson recalls his story through flashbacks. In them we meet a seasoned whaler named Owen Chase (Hemsworth). Although he had been promised the captaincy of his own ship, instead he is assigned to the Essex to serve as First Mate to an inexperienced and insecure Captain with a prominent last name (Benjamin Walker). The 21-man crew head out on a two and a half year voyage for highly coveted and profitable whale oil.
The crew-favorite First Mate Chase and the jealous Captain Pollard quickly butt heads. Pollard’s arrogant ineptitude nearly has them killed by a violent storm. But the first sighting of whales quickly mends the hostility. While restocking in Ecuador Pollard and Chase are told of an area of Pacific waters that is loaded with whales for the catching. They are also warned of a giant beast bigger than mind can fathom. They dismiss the warning and head towards the fishing grounds hoping to get their oil quota so they can head back home.
I shouldn’t need to tell you they do encounter this massive sperm whale and the results aren’t good. Soon after the crew find themselves fighting to survive, not so much from the whale, but from starvation, the elements, and at times each other. The story ventures into some pretty dark areas and deals with some fairly complicated moral questions. It never fully dives into its darkness. In skirts around the edges of its PG-13 boundaries and it doesn’t spend as much time exploring the harsh survival aspect as it could have. Still, it definitely gets its points across.
The moments Melville has with Nickerson are fantastic and they have just as much going on dramatically. Gleeson is simply one of the best working actors. With an effortless poetry he allows us to see through the eyes of this scarred and emotionally fragile character. His scenes with Whishaw are fewer, but they are just as compelling as the high seas adventure. They are also inseparable. The story of the Essex is the cathartic release of a damaged psyche and since I bought into Nickerson, the story he was telling was made more important.
This is a big film for Hemsworth, an actor who needs a good meaty performance. He needs something to help him be seen as more than ‘Thor from the Marvel movies’. Other than some pretty solid work in “Rush” we haven’t seen it. Forgettable performances in forgettable films like “Red Dawn”, “Snow White and the Huntsman”, and “Blackhat” haven’t helped. Here he gives a much more seasoned and fitting performance. There are moments where he works a bit too hard, but overall he’s good. Hemsworth lost almost 50 pounds of that chiseled Asgardian physique for this one. He certainly went all in.
Speaking of going all in, so does Ron Howard. “In the Heart” has no shortage a special effects most of which are strikingly effective particularly on the big screen. A lot of my pleasure came from how he and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (a Danny Boyle favorite) framed many of their shots. There are so many cool angles and unusual perspectives. Some are used to heighten our senses to certain situations while others simply ground us in what’s going on. Some may be just to show off how beautiful a shot is. There is such a high polish to many of the visuals and sometimes that makes the effects a tad too obvious, but as a whole Howard gives us plenty of fantastic things to look at.
People will undoubtedly compare this to “Moby Dick” and that’s unfortunate. In fact walking out of the theater I overheard a guy saying “I like Gregory Peck’s version better.” The trailers have certainly helped to fuel these expectations. But his isn’t a man-versus-whale story. This isn’t “Moby Dick”. There is an entirely different story being told and I found it to be pretty compelling. Popular critical sentiment is that “In the Heart of the Sea” falls short. I’ll admit Ron Howard submits to a pretty firm and unbending structure and perhaps the film doesn’t explore certain themes as deeply as I wanted. But there is so much I appreciate both narratively and visually, and the film is definitely more than high seas eye candy.
VERDICT – 4 STARS