In the Heart of the Sea
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, drama, PG-13, Regal Stadium 14, Violet Crown, DreamCatcher, 2.5 chiles
In the Heart of the Sea has all the ingredients for a masterpiece: a solid cast, including Chris Hemsworth and Cillian Murphy; ace big-movie director Ron Howard at the helm; and as source material, one of the greatest true sea yarns ever told. Unfortunately, this feast is served up drowned in cheese, and it makes for an uneven viewing experience.
Howard’s film is based on historian Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction account of the sinking of the whaleship Essex, an incident that inspired Herman Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick. The film begins with Melville himself showing up at the home of the Essex’s cabin boy, now an older man, hoping to get a firsthand account of the incident. The actual story is heartbreaking, rough, and horrifying — a Nantucket whaling ship is sunk by a massive whale, and a number of her crew are left to drift in tiny whaling boats for months in the open ocean, resorting to eating the dead to survive. Philbrick’s book renders this story in comprehensive, cinematic fashion, and those of us who keep a marked-up copy of the book under our pillows have been waiting for this adaptation for years.
The filmmaking is amazing. The workings of a whaling ship so vividly recounted by Melville (who was himself a whaler) and the scenes of actual whaling — including a heart-stopping Nantucket sleigh ride (when a boat is pulled for miles by a speared whale) — will satisfy devotees of Moby-Dick and Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, who previously had to rely on their imaginations to realize those scenes for them.
The problem is with the script and the storytelling, which manage to tell a tale that is rife with tough decisions, bittersweet bravery, and despair into a Family channel movie-of-the-week. This is not the fault of the actors — Hemsworth and Murphy seem to be trying their hardest to act like two guys going through the soul-crushing physical hardship and unwinnable moral dilemmas that the circumstances provide, only to have their efforts repeatedly steamrolled by the trite sentiments they must regularly deliver in the form of mostly forgettable lines. One wishes Howard would have simply let them do their job and suffer, instead of trying to reassure us, the audience, that as bad as the situation gets, everything is still really OK — because the whole point of the story is that nothing was OK at all. The uncomfortable yet satisfying tang of emotional reality is missing. If Howard had embraced, instead of shied away from, the darkness of the story, the film would have been a rich, exhilarating masterpiece instead of a reassuring Disney ride, but with cannibalism. — Tantri Wija
Stormy weather: the whaleship Essex