Friday, December 11, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea

Review by Candice Lee Catullo

You know how fishing stories tend to get bigger as they are re-told? Like how each time your grandpa tells that story, his arms stretch further and further out as the mythic fish grows in his memory. IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is another fishing story, just one of many stories inspired by one whale that swam the Pacific Ocean in 1820.
The true story of the Massachusetts whaling ship - named the Essex - that was sunk by a sperm whale first inspired Herman Melville to write the fictional adaptation “Moby Dick” in 1851. Later, in 2000, author Nathaniel Philbrick told the true story of the Essex in his non-fiction work “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.” This year, Director Ron Howard is telling the story with a big screen adaptation of Philbrick’s story, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA.

This most recent telling is certainly big – in all of its 3D, special effect glory – but the story felt sort of hollow this time around.

If you don’t know the history of the Essex, here’s what happened: The whaling ship set sail from Nantucket in search of whale oil. The ship was under the command of Captain George Pollard played by Benjamin Walker (ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE SLAYER) and his first mate Owen Chase played by Chris Hemsworth (THOR, THE AVENGERS). After being nearly wiped out by a storm on only the second day of the mission, the crew carried on.

The crew, having no luck fishing along the planned route, decided to venture further from the coast of South America. The crew came upon a pod of whales, they thought their luck had turned and they went out to hunt. One of those whales, an exceptionally large whale (i.e. Moby Dick), attacked the Essex with crushing blows. The ship was sunk, and the surviving crewmembers were stranded at sea for months.

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA re-tells the true story of the Essex through flashbacks from the film’s narrator, a greenhorn survivor from the Essex disaster played by Brendan Gleeson (BRAVEHEART) who is sharing his memory with young, pre-Moby Dick Herman Melville played by Ben Whishaw (SPECTRE, SUFFRAGETTE). The old flashback storytelling approach should offer an emotional, personal connection to retelling of historical events – but it doesn’t shine here. The true events are surly intriguing, but IN THE HEART OF THE SEA was a straightforward telling from screenwriter Charles Leavitt (BLOOD DIAMOND, SEVENTH SON).

By contrast, the visual elements were very elaborate. The 19th century nautical setting lends itself to a poetic and alluring ambience. The colors are beautiful. The action sometimes made me feel like I was aboard the Essex (or maybe it was those darn 3D glasses that were making me feel sea sick?). Some of the visual fluff was distracting, but visual cues were also the most compelling parts of the story – with graphic depictions of harvesting oil from a whale’s carcass, detailed shots of the ship’s components, and withering sailors roasting under the sun.

Speaking of withering, the cast members on the crew of the Essex must have gone to extreme measures to realistically portray sailors stranded at sea for 90 days. Hemsworth, especially, underwent a shocking and impressive transformation from burly first mate to skeletal castaway. This is one more element where visual impact trumped, but could not overcome, shortfalls like the hokey dialogue the characters were given. Overall, my favorite performance was from Cillian Murphy (INCEPTION, THE DARK KNIGHT) who played a much smaller but more sincere part. The story plays up the tense relationship between Captain Pollard and first mate Chase, but it's Chase's down to earth relationship with Murphy's character that's far more endearing and interesting. 

Maybe I judged IN THE HEART OF THE SEA harshly because it should have been epic – a classic American novel in the hands of Ron Howard with a mammoth budget – sadly, it wasn’t. 2 out of 4 stars.

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