Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action and Peril, brief Startling Violence, and Thematic Material
Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: Charles Leavitt
(based on the book IN THE HEART OF THE SEA by Nathaniel Philbrick)
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Donald Sumpter & Brooke Dimmock
I’ve been waiting to see Ron Howard’s adaptation of IN THE HEART OF THE SEA for quite a while now. The film was originally scheduled to hit theaters in March, but wound up pushed to December for a presumably more awards friendly season. However, I don’t think HEART OF THE SEA will be receiving many nominations. The film is an exciting seafaring adventure based on a true story of survival and contains a solid dramatic core at its center. However, the film also comes with a few flaws that are simply too big (one might say the size of a monstrous whale) to ignore.
The film opens with young Herman Melville visiting the emotionally damaged Thomas Nickerson, a survivor of a terrible tragedy. We then cut back to 1820 where we see the ship Essex setting sail on a whaling trip should take little over a year. Difficulties spring up immediately as first mate Owen Chase is at odds with George Pollard, an inexperienced captain from a rich family. With almost no whales in sight and the crew’s morale steadily dropping, Chase and Pollard decide to travel out into a distant part of the ocean where they’ve heard that many schools of whales reside. In these dangerous waters, the Essex runs afoul of one angry white whale that sets in motion a series of tragic events. The Essex‘s crew find themselves faced with seemingly insurmountable odds that they’ll have to beat if they have any hope of survival.
Those who go into this film expecting it to straight-up be a retelling of MOBY-DICK will find themselves caught off guard as Ron Howard’s film brings to the life the harrowing story of the Essex which involved far more than just a white whale attacking a ship. Instead, the crew members went through some seriously horrible stuff that I won’t go into specifically for fear of potential spoilers. I will say that even with a PG-13 rating, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA doesn’t necessarily shy away from the disturbing details of their survival. We see the grimy work of whaling (with one particularly gross scene that you’ll know when you come to it) as well as the crew’s desperation that led them into dangerous waters to begin with. The tragic events become hard to watch as the film goes on into far darker territory.
The most gruesome plot point of this story is kept off-screen. That certainly doesn’t lessen its impact as the performances between Ben Whishaw (as Melville) and the always enjoyable Brendan Gleeson (as the older Nickerson) show enough emotional reactions to reach a point where any on-screen gore would be meaningless. The bookend segments of Melville conversing with the reluctant Nickerson serve as a nice intro and outro to the harrowing story at the film’s center. Their scenes aren’t strictly limited to the beginning and ending of the film though as we frequently cut back to the story being told to Melville. Though this non-linear narrative style has been overused to the point of being a cliché in most films, Ron Howard uses it to smoothly transition through various points in a story that took place over the course of nearly two years.
The film encounters a couple of problems in the rest of the performances. Chris Hemsworth has proven himself to be a charismatic leading man and that doesn’t change here. Something that does change frequently is Hemsworth’s accent. We get his usual deep-tone way of speaking as well as a higher-pitched, more “Americanized” voice. This latter line delivery pops up randomly throughout various scenes and becomes downright distracting. Cillian Murphy shows up for a rather thankless role, while Benjamin Walker is perfectly smarmy as the privileged captain with a punchable face.
The adventurous excitement and bleak emotional core of the film are both well executed. This is especially true of the action scenes featuring confrontations with the white whale. The first encounter is especially intense. However, I’d be lying if I said that the CGI on the whale was convincing. The white whale is formidable foe, but I don’t think one shot of the animal looked real. It’s not terrible, but I just didn’t believe that what I was seeing was actually happening. Such is the curse of computer generated effects in modern blockbusters.
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is an exciting oceanic adventure that feels timeless thanks to its period setting and classical style of storytelling. Though certain problems are simply too big to overlook (effects on the whale and Hemsworth’s ever-changing accent), I had a lot of fun watching IN THE HEART OF THE SEA. It’s an old-fashioned (in the most literal way) film that’s good and far from great. Those remotely interested in the sinking of the Essex should know that this movie stays fairly accurate to what actually occurred. I imagine that viewers who walk in blind will enjoy the film equally as much. It may not be as amazing or epic as it tries to be, but IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is simply good. Sometimes, that’s all you need.