In the Heart of the Sea

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, drama, PG-13, Re­gal Sta­dium 14, Vi­o­let Crown, Dream­Catcher, 2.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

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

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