“The story of the Essex is the story of two men,” we are told early in Ron Howard‘s latest film, the maritime adventure yarn, In the Heart of the Sea. It is a disingenuous statement however. While the film does grapple with important themes and contains a thrilling moment or two, it lacks well-written characters – male or female. When paired with a problematic framing device and Howard’s moralizing, this failure stymies the film’s thematic resonance, turning a potential cinematic leviathan into a guppy.
Based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s sublime nonfiction book, In the Heart of the Sea describes the horrific sinking of the whaleship Essex by an enormous sperm whale in 1820. Following this assault, the Essex survivors endured over three months of being stranded at sea, facing not only hostile elements and starvation-level rations but the complete erosion of their physical and mental well-beings. A point of inspiration for Melville’s Moby Dick, the story of In the Heart of the Sea seems like it would be a promising big-screen adventure, the kind of old-fashioned movie that would make dads everywhere feel warm and nostalgic. And the film does indeed have some genuinely inspired moments, boosted by the visual style of Academy Award-winning DP Anthony Dod Mantle.
The same can’t be said for the film’s visual effects, which are intrusive but not really in the scenes that you’d expect. While the actual whaling sequences don’t feature the most credible effects you’ll ever see, it’s early moments in the film, such as where the Essex is preparing to embark from Nantucket, that are particularly disappointing. The flat and muddy presentation of the historical town never feels rooted in reality, aside from a few scenes that were clearly constructed on a set. As bad as this is, it is the unnatural lighting in the Nantucket scenes that shatters all suspension of disbelief. It brutally reminds you that much of what you’re seeing is little more than a dressed-up bluescreen.
Things improve once the Essex moves onto the open water, albeit slightly. Howard keeps the action closely hugged to the whaleship, not allowing for viewers to feel the visceral shock of the ocean’s scope. Any of the threatening tension the ocean posed in something like J.C Chandor’s All is Lost is not present here. This makes some of the unique camerawork Mantle engages in – such as a repeated use of ultra-close-ups – feel like a welcome reprieve.
Of course, middling aesthetics can be forgiven with great character work, which is In the Heart of the Sea’s greatest failing. The crew of the Essex is embodied by some famous faces – such as Tom Holland, who plays Tom Nickerson, and the always brilliant Cillian Murphy, who plays Matthew Joy – but they have less personality than their characters’ CGI prey. Even main characters like Chris Hemsworth’s First Mate Owen Chase and Benjamin Walker’s Captain George Pollard, the “two men” referred to in the opening paragraph, have arcs that feel stunted. This isn’t the fault of the actors, who both give rugged and intense performances (although Hemsworth’s is marred by a dodgy accent). Instead, the failing must be laid at the feet of screenwriter Charles Leavitt, the creative force behind 2014’s Razzie-nominated The Seventh Son.
Leavitt’s script drains the complexity of Chase and Pollard’s relationship. He defines it completely by class tension, myopically focusing on salt-of-the-earth Chase getting passed over for command of the Essex in favor of blue blood Pollard. Obviously intended to inject the proceedings with human drama, this facile tension feels like the shadow of what was probably a more complex and subtle dynamic. There are moments of value, such as a brief scene where Pollard and Chase debate the role of man in a fearsome world, but this conversation comes out of nowhere. Leavitt doesn’t spend any real time building up each man’s personal philosophy.
This lack of fluidity is at least partially caused by the story’s framing device, which focuses on Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) listening to an older Thomas Nickerson (a watery-eyed Brendan Gleeson) recount his experiences on the Essex during the whale attack 30 years prior (Tom Holland plays Nickerson as a boy). The intention of this device, ostensibly, is to reinforce what has already been made abundantly clear in the film’s marketing: that the Essex’s fate inspired Melville’s Moby Dick. This decision on the part of Howard and Leavitt is a mistake. Not only does it undercut the emotional development of the story old Nickerson is telling (the suffering of Chase, Pollard, Joy, etc.), but it drains the film of tension. You know that whatever lifeboat is holding Holland’s young Nickerson is going to stay intact. He has to grow up to be a crusty, 45- year-old boozehound played by Gleeson, who at 60 is dreadfully miscast.
Overall it’s difficult to understand why the film includes this material, as it’s both historically inaccurate and frankly uninteresting. There’s no evidence that Melville ever met with Nickerson in reality. Also, these scenes feel melodramatic and stilted, particularly when they shoehorn in a reconciliation between old Nickerson and his long-suffering wife (played by a criminally underused Melissa Leo).
Ron Howard has always been a moralist, not to mention disrespectful of history; saccharine biopics like Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind are evidence of this. These penchants are on full display in this film, and not only with the Gleeson and Whishaw scenes. They are also deeply embedded in the film’s overall critique of capitalism, a laughably simplistic analysis encapsulated in the characterization of the Essex’s owners. These businessmen are utterly one-note, possessing a devotion to money and indifference to human suffering that indeed exists in the real world but feels boring to watch on film.
Or, at the very least, it’s boring to watch compared to the fleeting moments of the film that tap into the horror the Essex men faced in 1820. One of these comes late in the film and features Hemsworth’s Chase facing down the whale as it attacks for the third time. “It’s only a whale,” he frantically stammers, readying his harpoon. It’s not clear that this is not an unequivocal statement. Is it only a whale? Or is it, as Hemsworth’s Chase seems to have come to believe, representative of something more? Is it a truth that the film’s characters – living at the height of the Industrial Revolution – had conveniently forgotten? Perhaps, it’s indicative that human life is simply not that important, and that the world is too big and wild to be fully conquered.
One wishes that more of the film carries this type of primal power, where notions of the existential, of “bigness,” could be explored more fully. The decisions of the filmmakers however torpedo this potential, morphing what inspired a novel of unprecedented style and scope into a sloppy, small-minded film.