DIR: Ron Howard • WRI: Charles Leavitt • PRO: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Joe Roth, Will Ward, Paula Weinstein • DOP: Anthony Dod Mantle • ED: Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill • MUS: Roque Baños • CAST: Chris Hemsworth, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Benjamin Walker, Ben Whishaw
In the Heart of the Sea is a film that longs to be a sweeping epic. Unfortunately, it rarely struggles above ‘meh’ on the emotional reaction scale. Flitting from one narrative arc to another without ever divulging anything important or meaningful to the audience, the film flounders under the weight of its own scale. Even Ron Howard’s skill as a director fails to lend any depth to this shallow puddle of a film.
That said, it’s easy to see why Howard wanted to make this film. Maritime films are a rarity in Hollywood namely due to their enormous production costs (indeed, this film had a budget of 100 million dollars and it looks unlikely that it will be recuperated in the box office). Being in an aquatic environment, however, really allows for a directors creativity to shine through. There are some genuinely fantastic shots throughout the film, particularly the ones that take place underwater. The films biggest drawback by far is its script. The plot follows a frame narrative, wherein author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), anxious to start the novel that would become the classic Moby Dick, interviews the only surviving member of an infamous whale-hunting expedition, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson).
Now an aging drunk, Nickerson is at first reluctant to recall the horrors that occurred during the voyage. Urged on by Melville’s deep (or, at least, slightly deeper) pockets, our story begins to unfold. Having risen from a lowly orphan to a respected seaman, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) finds himself as First Mate on the Essex, a whaling ship captained by the rather pompous George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). Under pressure from their sponsoring merchant company to bring home as many barrels of whale oil as possible, the crew sets sail with then 14-year-old Nickerson (Tom Holland) aboard. Things go from bad to worse when, spurred on by over-fishing, the Essex travels into dangerous uncharted waters with the hope of snaring more whales. Once there, however, the ship is capsized by a gigantic white whale and our heroes find themselves adrift in an unforgiving wasteland of salt water.
There are so many elements to the plot- man v nature, fear of the unknown, exploitation of natural resources for profit, facing one’s past, etc.- that no single aspect is ever satisfactorily explored. The audience is never given enough to fully care and, as a result, characters are reduced down to ‘tick-the-box’ personalities.
The gruff-but-good-natured-leader-who-just-wants-to-do-right? Check!
The inexperienced-but-willing-to-learn-youngster-who-looks-upon-said-leader-as-a-mentor? Check!
The snooty-rich-guy-who-used-his-family-name-to-gain-his-position-for-which-he-is-completely-unqualified? Check!
The most interesting character by far is the white whale, who is apparently omniscient, and he doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. Also, while the film overall boasts bold visuals, certain wide shots of the ship at sea look hopelessly CGI’d and I’m certain that at one point the tip of a boom mike was visible in frame. With so many balls up in the air it’s unsurprising that the film ultimately falls rather flat. At the very least one can appreciate that a lot of effort went into the making of In the Heart of the Sea, but that alone cannot save it from being a mere drop in the ocean instead of an epic tidal wave.
121 minutes (See IFCO for details)
In the Heart of the Sea is released 26th December 2015