She blows! “In the Heart of the Sea”

December 5, 2015


Ron Howard’s new film In the Heart of the Sea is based on the non-fiction account of an actual incident that helped inform Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Now, as I’ve said before, I—like most human beings—have never read Moby Dick (is it even in print anymore?), but I have seen a lot of the movies that stole its’ themes, so I know the basic story: William Shatner kills the White Whale’s wife, so the White Whale spends the rest of the book trying to get his revenge before he’s killed by the Borg. And that’s pretty much what happens in this movie. With some starvation and cannibalism thrown in for good measure.

In the Heart of the Sea is based upon Nathanial Philbrick’s book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whale Ship Essex, which is, itself, based upon a few survivors’ accounts that manage to have even more complex and unwieldy titles in that 1800 style that basically give a complete synopsis of the story such as The Story of the Whale Ship Essex Which was Totally Pwned by a Big-Ass Whale, Forcing Us to Be Lost at Sea and Eventually Nom-Nom on Each Other to Survive and Who Are You to Judge Me?

"Um, we're boned."

“Um, we’re boned.”

But first the story…uh…did you read the above? Yeah, that’s pretty much it. The film the follows the story of Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), who goes to sea as First Officer of the aged whaling vessel Essex, after having been screwed out of a captaincy of his own. Instead, command is given to George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) a rookie with family connections and not a lot of instinct for the job.

So, from the outset there is tension. Chase thinks Pollard is an incompetent blue-blood, and Pollard thinks Chase is undeserving son of a farmer (I guess that’s a faux pas in whaling culture). Still, there are lamps to be lit and whalebone corsets to be made, and hey, those majestic creatures aren’t going to hunt themselves to the brink of extinction, right? So they head out.

Welp, time to rape the environment...

Welp, time to rape the environment…

Eventually, the dearth of whales leads the Essex way the hell out to sea—far past the point they should have gone—and that’s where things go seriously Pete Tong as they confront a super-mega-banzai whale (which happens to be white). Said whale goes all bitchcakes on the Essex and ends up sending it to the bottom in a fiery, explosion-filled sequence (side note: how much a screw-up of a captain do you have to be to manage to blow up your wooden sailing vessel?)

For the rest of the movie, the survivors of the Essex drift in some leaky whaling boats, trying to make the 2000-mile journey back to land. In the process, they battle against starvation, dehydration, and their own failing faculties. Oh, and for good measure, the whale shows up every so often to screw with them a little bit, because this whale is a bit of dick.

"Come at me, brah!"

“Come at me, brah!”

I mention the source material of this story to better understand the inherent dippiness of the story’s framing device. In it, a young Herman Melville seeks out one of the survivors of the Essex and badgers him into telling him his story, convinced that it’ll make a hella awesome novel that will inform the best of the Star Trek movies. The survivor–who was a young whelp on his first voyage to sea when the events of the movie took place–also had the ability to know things and dialogue he wasn’t present for, so I guess he’s, like, psychic or something.  

And this is the major problem with In the Heart of the Sea. Despite being based on a true story (and flogging that fact like hell won’t have it in the promotional material), the movie still structures itself and plays out more like a cinematic event than the retelling of a true story. Along with the dopey framing device, we have the pat conflict between Chase and Pollard, and pretty much all of the major characters have traditional character arcs. None of this seems the slightest bit ragged or naturalistic.

Let's see...a black-powder musket versus a giant, pissed-off whale. Yeah, that's gonna end well.

Let’s see…a black-powder musket versus a giant, pissed-off whale. Yeah, that’s gonna end well.

Additionally, Howard seems reticent to totally commit the more brutal elements of the story. The killing and rendering of a whale is presented fairly perfunctorily and largely bloodlessly. The ordeal in the lifeboats only seems to make the actors skinnier in one scene (prior to that they just get more shirtless and ripped the longer the characters go without food), and it never seems to affect Hemsworth’s awesome hair. On top of that, the scenes in which the survivors resort to cannibalism are resented far more demurely and understated than a horror like that should be. I mean, Howard didn’t have to go full Green Inferno, but at least he could have someone gnawing on a thighbone or something.

Hobbling things further are the leads. As Pollard, Benjamin Walker is as charisma-free as he was in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. He does his best, but he’s just so forgettable. Still, competent and forgettable is better than the ongoing train wreck that is Hemsworth’s line-deliveries. I don’t know what, exactly, he was going for, but his Owen Chase alternately sounds like Thor, his character from Blackhat, or else he employs a stilted aristocratic British accent, and sometimes tosses in an overdone Baaaahstahn accent. Halfway through the movie I began to wonder of he was supposed to have that Sybil disease.

Whaler or male-model? You decide.

Whaler or male-model? You decide.

The whale attacks are pretty effective, but Howard keeps going back to the same fish-eye close-up shots, and after a while it begins to get repetitive. Also, there are several scenes in which the CGI backgrounds are rendered with a Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow level artificiality.

Anyway, that’s In the Heart of the Sea. I guess if you’re going to run around on the high seas poking the most powerful animals of earth with small pointy things, you’re probably just asking for it.

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