Author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) has travelled to visit former seaman Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) to interview him about the last voyage of the whaling ship Essex. Nickerson is reluctant at first but is convinced by Mrs. Nickerson (Michelle Fairley) to talk to the writer. Nickerson recalls setting sail as a greenhorn (played as a teen by Tom Holland) on his maiden voyage with first-time captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Chase should have been captain but the company that owned the ship was run by Pollard’s father. Pollard and Owen didn’t get along but worked together as best they could to fill their hold with whale oil and return to port as quickly as possible. A scarcity of whales drives the men and ship into the middle of the Pacific where they encounter a massive white sperm whale. In protecting its herd the whale attacks the Essex, damaging her beyond repair and forcing the men to abandon ship. Setting off in small whaling boats the crew soon faces starvation and must do the unthinkable to survive.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is epic film making. It takes a fantastic tale of survival against all odds and narrows its focus down to a few common men. Despite the presence of Thor and Spider-Man, there are no great heroes that save the day. These are merely men doing what had to be done to get home. It’s the kind of movie that features incredible visuals and small emotional moments in equal measure. It also has a strong environmental message that becomes a bit overbearing at times. It is far from perfect but it still manages to be effective in producing an emotional response.
While the trailer for “In the Heart of the Sea” sells the story as more of a monster movie with a man fighting against an unnaturally intelligent and aggressive whale, the beast plays a fairly minor role. It is the struggle between the survivors and the elements that makes up the biggest part of the story. There is also a secondary story of clashing egos as Captain Pollard and First Mate Owen Chase clash in an effort to establish who is in charge. Pollard has little experience and is the captain only because his father is a powerful businessman within the whaling industry. Chase is told by his bosses to make sure the crew respects Pollard but Chase quickly sees his new captain is in over his head. How can he make the crew respect Pollard if he doesn’t? It is a conflict that roughly mirrors the struggle the crew has to survive after the attack of the whale: The arrogance of Man believing he is ordained by God to control and use all the beasts of the sea is quickly and violently shown for what it is when a single whale destroys their boat and leaves them to die in the middle of the ocean.
The struggle for survival occupies about half of the film’s two hour running time and it gets bleak. Star Chris Hemsworth, best known of the physique he shows as Thor in the Marvel superhero movies, and the rest of the cast of survivors lost huge amounts of weight living on 500 to 600 calories a day. The gaunt faces, made even more so by makeup highlighting their cheekbones, are haunting. At one point, those left alive appear to barely have the energy to breathe. Director Ron Howard chooses to focus on the faces of those left alive, making it impossible not to feel a little guilty for sipping on the giant over-priced drink from the concessions stand while looking at the cracked lips, sun-bleached hair and burnt skin.
Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy and Tom Holland are outstanding in their roles. Hemsworth plays the hardened whaler Chase with a tinge of playfulness that comes out around the greenhorn deckhand Nickerson played by Tom Holland. Chase acts as something of a father figure for Nickerson who is an orphan. Walker’s Captain Pollard is a man of privilege who knows he’s only captain because of his father. Seeing Chase scramble up the rigging to fix a problem, knowing he would be incapable to doing the same thing, makes Pollard embarrassed and jealous of his first officer. We see Pollard grow to respect and even like Chase as they struggle to survive. Cillian Murphy plays Second Mate Matthew Joy, a long-time friend of Chase. He seems to be playing both sides of the fence in his relationship to the two men, acting as a kind of peacekeeper and moderating influence on both. Tom Holland’s wide eyed wonder at seeing whales for the first time and then being introduced to the interior of one that’s been killed and in the process of being butchered gives him and the audience the introduction to both the beauty and the savagery of his job. Brendan Gleeson plays Tom Nickerson as an adult and gives a moving performance as a man being forced to remember all he had to do to survive over three months lost at sea. The pain and anguish play out over Gleeson’s face in a way that makes you worry for the sanity of the character.
Visually, “In the Heart of the Sea” is stunning. The TV commercials don’t do what the special effects team has accomplished justice. The scenes of whale hunting and when the sperm whale attacks the small whaling boats and the Essex are spectacular. We see the attempt at survival of a harpooned whale from the beast’s perspective, diving down deep in an effort to escape what is attacking it. We witness playful dolphins and huge whales gliding effortlessly through the water. We also see what happens when a whale is killed then brought alongside the ship to be butchered and its oil harvested. The beauty and savagery of nature and whaling are put on full display and in vivid detail.
The movie makes a point of stressing how wrong whaling is and that tends to bring the film to nearly a dead stop. At the time in the early 1800’s, whale oil was the best fuel to light lanterns and streetlamps. It made many people rich in the buying and selling of whale oil. With the discovery of petroleum products and the introduction of vegetable oils, the use of whale oil declined and was eventually outlawed by environmental laws. Despite all this history, the film makes a big deal about how wrong it was to hunt whales. The character of Pollard, who is usually shown on the wrong side of things, points out how God gave man dominion over the animals including the beasts in the sea and it is our duty to exert our control over them. Chase questions whether that’s the right thing to do. This happens, in one form or another, a couple of times in the film. While I agree we don’t need to hunt whales any more, it seems like a waste of time to include these scenes in the movie. We could have been shown Chase’s wife waiting and longing for her husband or the leaders of the whaling company lamenting the apparent loss of their ship and money. It feels like the time could have been better spent on the surrounding drama of their situation.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of peril, intense sequences of action, brief startling violence and thematic material. The attack of the whale on the smaller boats and the Essex leads to the death of some crewmen and the injury of others. There is a scene where one crewman is trying to escape the ship as it is sinking and on fire. One character is shown shooting himself in the head. What is done to survive at sea, while not shown, is discussed and described. Foul language is scattered.
“In the Heart of the Sea” tells a bleak and depressing story that doesn’t get much happier by the time the end credits roll. It shows men pushed to their limits and forced beyond them by nature and their circumstances. It wants to teach the viewer a lesson about how Man is a minor player on the stage of life and the elements don’t care if you live or die. The movie does a pretty good job pounding that into the consciousness of the audience but it continues that message to the point of assault. We get it: Whaling is unnecessary in the modern age. Perhaps those living in the most extreme polar regions need to harvest a few whales a year to survive but the rest of the world needs to leave these intelligent and majestic creatures alone. The aggressive environmental evangelizing degrades what is otherwise an impressive bit of film making. Despite the less than subtle preaching, “In the Heart of the Sea” is worth the time to watch.
“In the Heart of the Sea” gets four guitars out of five.
Animated animals, dissimilar siblings and a galaxy far, far away are on screens this week. I’ll see and review at least one (can you guess which one?).
Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip—
Star Wars: The Force Awakens—
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