In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
  • Time: 121 min
  • Genre: Action | Adventure | Biography
  • Director: Ron Howard
  • Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson


In the winter of 1820, the New England whaling ship Essex was assaulted by something no one could believe: a whale of mammoth size and will, and an almost human sense of vengeance. The real-life maritime disaster would inspire Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. But that told only half the story. “In the Heart of the Sea” reveals the encounter’s harrowing aftermath, as the ship’s surviving crew is pushed to their limits and forced to do the unthinkable to stay alive. Braving storms, starvation, panic and despair, the men will call into question their deepest beliefs, from the value of their lives to the morality of their trade, as their captain searches for direction on the open sea and his first mate still seeks to bring the great whale down.


  • The thing about inspiration is it can be less than what it inspires. Such is the case with Ron Howard’s latest film, In the Heart of the Sea, based on writer Nathaniel Philbrick’s accounting of one of the two real-life events which served as the basis for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

    The sinking of the Nantucket ship Essex in 1820, caused by an attack by a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean, had already been put on record by first mate Owen Chase in his 1821 Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, as well as by Thomas Nickerson in his 1876 The Loss of the Ship Essex. Nickerson, who was a fourteen-year-old cabin boy making his first voyage out at sea on the ill-fated Essex, would seem to be the central character given that the tragedy is told by the elderly Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) to Melville (Ben Whishaw) as a means of unburdening the trauma, guilt and shame he has harboured for the past three decades. In truth, he’s a mere bystander to the events and somewhat a witness to the interpersonal conflicts between Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), whose hubristic obstinacy is posited here as a contributing factor in the ship’s demise.

    Charles Leavitt’s screenplay highlights the two men’s differences in broad strokes. Chase is the more experienced seaman, but he’s had to work hard all his life; it’s all too easy to understand his bitterness when the captaincy that he believed was promised to him is instead given to Pollard, not because Pollard has more experience, but because he is, as Chase describes, a greenhorn born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Pollard may hail from privilege but he has the weight of his family’s expectations to shoulder, and it is with this certain blind focus – he must prove himself worthy of both his name and rank – that he assumes command of the whaling ship.

    Chase and Pollard’s complex dynamic could have been the film’s backbone, with Chase’s resentment and Pollard’s insecurity clouding both their judgments. Instead it is jettisoned soon after the crew withstands a storm into which Pollard has steered them. The two men realise they must work together to gather as much of the precious whale oil as the now-damaged ship can hold in order to make it back home in under a year. Leavitt abandons the richness of this strand along with other equally interesting ones, such as Chase’s connection and obsession with the great white whale that sinks the Essex and leaves the survivors adrift in the vast and unforgiving ocean. It’s mystifying as Leavitt essentially strips the narrative of its emotional engines. There are stretches when stagnancy dominates, though Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle do what they can to at least maintain visual interest.

    Of course, one can argue that narrative and characterisation are secondary to the battle between the hunter and its prey. Indeed, the whale is a sight to behold, and the film is at its liveliest whenever it’s around. Often viewed from overhead to emphasise how truly impressive and intimidating it is next to the woefully vulnerable ship and its rowboats, the whale is at times more frightening when mere parts of it are visible, such as its tail slapping out from the waters as the men can only look on in both terror and admiration.

    The middle section is where In the Heart of the Sea reaches its potential; those 40 or so minutes are classic, visceral storytelling. Even before the whale appears, one completely comprehends the ins and outs of working on a whaling ship and the physical and emotional hardships of being at sea. Perhaps that is why the film’s third act, which has the survivors, deprived of food and water, resorting to cannibalism, is strangely unmoving. Every day on the ship was already a test of survival – being away from your loved ones for at least a year and being subject to the whims of Mother Nature.

    One can see how this story would have stirred something within Melville, who himself had spent time on a whaling ship. Watching In the Heart of the Sea, however, also makes one see why certain elements were left out of Melville’s telling. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction can be more convincing than fact.

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  • (Rating: ☆☆☆ out of 4)

    This film is mildly recommended.

    In brief: The film barely stays afloat once the exhilarating attack is over.

    GRADE: B-

    Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea is an epic adventure film that treads water when it’s not on the high seas. As long as it stays that course, the film is a remarkable achievement in CGI and rollicking entertainment. But once that initial conflict, between Moby and Man is done, alas, so is the film, even if the film is far from over.

    Now one would think that a film based on a book by Nathaniel Philbrick, which is based on the Melville classic, which was originally based on a seafarer’s account of a true story would be smooth sailing, having had this many sources to fall back upon. In fact, as our story begins, the film frames its fictional story with a flashback plot device connecting all of the inspirational causes as Mr. Melville himself (Ben Whishaw) listens to a harrowing conversation from a survivor (Brendan Gleeson) of the Big White.

    We travel back in time to 1819 and learn of the final voyage of a whaling ship called the Essex and its ill-fated crew. Our manly hero, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a devoted family man and seafarer, comes aboard with the likes of an inexperienced captain named George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), which almost seals his fate from the get-go. Soon they all set sail on the treacherous waters of the Pacific, in search of whale. Of course, they do find it, in one very angry sperm whale who wants to even the score.

    This is foremost an adventure yarn reminiscent of old Hollywood studio standards, but given a state-of-the art revamp. Howard knows how to stage the action very effectively. He sets up his characters and tries to give them some backstories before the hunt begins, but it all seems too contrived and stagey. (Whenever one promises to return safely, we already know that won’t be the case.) However, once the attack begins, it is so well crafted and thrillingly photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle, that the moviegoer is transported to a wonderful visceral experience.

    But the aftermath of the brutal tail-lashing and its consequent outcome of the few survivors is anti-climatic rather than engrossing. Some of the fault must go to a script in search of a re-write that never develops any characters beyond their stereotypes, using them as mere props than people.

    Hemsworth and the other actors do a yeomanlike job of bringing more gravitas to their roles, but, let’s face it, the fish upstages everything up there on the screen. In the Heart of the Sea is a man vs. nature tale in which man again loses…and so does the moviegoer.

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  • “The tragedy of the Essex is the story of men. And a Demon.”

    When I was young, I had a huge reading book about Moby Dick. I gazed at the rich illustrations for hours and eagerly I read about the adventures of Ishmael aboard the Pequod. And I can still see the final drawing before my eyes, with Captain Ahab hanging in the ropes of his harpoon against Moby Dick diving into the ocean. Maybe my expectations were too high for “In the Heart of the Sea” and I hoped to see a similar scene. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really a movie about a battle between man and whale. It was more something like “Stranded”. But taking place on sea. The rivalry between Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) was more interesting than the whaling itself. And did you watch the trailer? Well that means you have already seen the most impressive images of the psychopathic white sperm whale.

    I’m sure it was more exciting and terrifying for sailors in those days as it is for film fans watching this movie. Imagine them sitting in a wobbly little wooden rowing boat, throwing that gigantic harpoon at a huge sperm whale which swims under their boat. And after that, they needed to get that colossus on board to collect that precious whale oil. A raw material which was necessary in the 19th century to keep those lamps burning. The film begins at the port of Nantucket around 1819. Chase tells his pregnant wife he’s signing in on the Essex to go hunting for whales and that he probably won’t be in time to witness her giving birth. Beautiful computer-generated images show how daily life looked like in those days. Only Chase’s dream to be captain of the Essex is harpooned (how appropriate) immediately. The job goes to one certain George Pollard. Not because of his extensive knowledge and experience in terms of floating around on such a large boat, but because of the fact that he’s a descendant of an aristocratic, wealthy family.

    The film includes three successive story lines. First, there’s the competition between Pollard and Chase. After that the two fighting cocks bury the hatchet when the crazy white sperm starts attacking them. And then the defeated survivors reconcile while drifting hopelessly around on the ocean, a few thousand miles from South America in rowboats, after the Essex sank. And there’s a witness of this story namely Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland) who’s a shipmate. He’s (Brendan Gleeson) now the last witness of this shipwreck. He tells the complete story, after much encouragement, to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), who uses these notes afterwards, after subjecting it to a thorough censorship and keeping the rough lines, for his successful novel “Moby Dick”. And so the circle is complete.

    In terms of decor and images, this film is quite magnificent. The raging sea with his pounding, foaming, giant waves. The stately ship that cleaves through the ocean. The views of the medieval harbor town and the decoration of Tom’s house. And finally the stunning images of a school of whales and the whale hunt itself. Unfortunately the scarred white whale came into the picture far too little. You can compare it a bit with the last Godzilla movie. The monster is there, but there’s hardly anything to see of it. The sense of menace and being hunted, was truly there at times. But the insertion of the rounds of conversation between Tom and Herman reduced the pace of this movie drastically. The result is a slow historical drama, instead of a thrilling spectacle at sea with a pseudo Moby Dick in the lead.

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  • Quickie Review:

    In the early 1800s, a New England ship named Essex sets sail to capture whales for the precious oil. The ship crosses upon a whale of legendary proportions seemingly with a thirst for vengeance. The crew is pushed to their limits to survive in the vast harsh ocean. In the Heart of the Sea, is about the story that would go on to inspire one of the most famous literary works, Moby Dick. While the movie aims to retell the harrowing real life story, it unfortunately fails in making the viewer connect with the characters experiencing the horrors. The movie has moments of greatness, only to be bog down by a gruelling slow pace.

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    Chris Hemsworth and Ron Howard duo from the movie Rush coming back together to make a movie about the story that inspired Moby Dick? Of course, I want to check that movie out. Especially considering the movie was delayed with the hopes of some Oscars recognition. Oh how wrong they were…

    First of all the performances by the cast was actually pretty decent. Chris Hemsworth obviously had most of the weight on his shoulders but the supporting cast such Cillian Murphy and the young Tom Holland (future Spider-Man) also made their mark in the movie. Although Brendon Gleeson’s role was not the focus of the movie, the few scenes we had with him were perhaps the most interesting. In the film, Gleeson’s character is retelling the ship’s story from his experience as a young sailor.  He brings more gravity to the scenes and you can tell there are dark secrets that he does not wish to divulge. So all the hints in the little bits of information he reveals become more and more interesting. However, the movie keeps cutting back to the sailors which surprisingly bored me.

    Majority of the time is spent with the crew as they wait for the whales to hunt. Sure there is some bickering within the crew to keep some characterisation going but apart from that nothing of interest is happening. Then when the whales finally show up, we have about 5mins of exciting whaling action and then we are back to same routine of nothing of note happening again. I’ll admit the whale attacks were well shot, but because the movie didn’t get to me care about the characters in danger, it was all just whale of white noise (yes, I’m proud of that stupid pun).

    If you are going to see this film, it’s at best a rental. Expectations were high for this movie, and sadly they were nowhere near met. In the end, this movie was not horribly bad, just a disappointment considering the cast and director involved.

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  • “In the Heart of the Sea” is a wonderful story from beginning to end. It is the back story for the novel “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville. Melville, in the beginning of the film, visits Nantucket to interview the only surviving sailor from the doomed ship The Essex. The old salt is played by Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson’s character does not want to discuss the disaster even though Melville offers a substantial reward – all the money he has – in exchange for the story.

    Melville extracts the story like a dentist pulling teeth. It is the story of a massive whale being hunted by the crew of the Essex. Eventually, The Essex is hunted by the large white whale. The world in the 1820s was lit by oil from whales, and we see how dangerous the oil business was in those times, the claustrophobic conditions on the ship, and the great risks taken by the crew.

    The cinematography is excellent. The story is tight and strong. The acting is excellent. The story reminds me of “Master and Commander – The Far Side of the World” which was nominated for 10 Oscars and won six. In addition, the film won numerous other awards including BAFTA.

    Even though 2015 was a strong year for excellent movies, this was one of the best.

  • When taking into account the reputation of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick as one of the Great American Novels, it is surprising that so few directors have taken it upon themselves to adapt the epic tale of man against nature. The most famous and well-respected is John Huston’s 1956 effort that starred Gregory Peck as the obsessed Captain Ahab and, dismissing the few straight-to-DVD efforts and TV movies over the past few years, it is really the only one of note. Ron Howard has also decided to side-step Melville’s tricky beast in favour of the true story that inspired it, the sinking of the whaling ship Essex.

    Almost as if Howard was afraid that the sight of a group of battered, starving sailors drifting would be too boring for the audience to stomach for two hours, the story begins with Melville himself (played by Ben Whishaw) paying a visit to the only remaining survivor of the Essex’s doomed voyage, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). After a bit of nagging from his wife (Michelle Fairley) and the promise of whiskey, Nickerson soon begins spilling the tale he has kept bottled up for years, and reveals that it is not just a story of a giant, extremely peeved-off whale, but that of two men – first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker).

    The men sitting behind the desks at the Nantucket whaling company view Chase, despite his impressive record at collecting whale oil, as a ‘landsman’ – someone born outside of the vast whaling family. Pollard is inexperienced and envious of Chase’s reputation and popularity, and there personalities soon clash. Most is viewed through the eyes of the young Nickerson (played by Tom Holland, the new Spider-Man), and just when the two potential father figures reach a mutual understanding and finally discover whales after months at sea, they are rammed by a giant sperm whale and left hundreds of miles from shore with limited food, water and supplies.

    You would think that a story so packed with sea-faring adventure and the promise of an unknown monster lurking beneath the surface would be effortlessly thrilling, but sadly In the Heart of the Sea is not. While certainly an overrated director, Ron Howard has made exciting films before, but here the action is so laced with obvious CGI that it makes it impossible to truly engage with the action. The film actually works best during its quieter moments. While peppered with survival-movie cliches and sluggish character development, its well-performed by the (mostly British) cast, particularly Walker, whose character arc pleasantly surprised me, and Holland, who is surely destined to be a star in the future. Still, we wait patiently for the film that does Meville, or the story behind his greatest work, justice.

    Rating: 3/5

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