“In the Heart of the Sea” Needs More Whale, Less Melville

In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, 2015)

In 1819, the Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket (then the whaling capital of the world), left on what would be its final journey. After over a year chasing its precious quarry halfway around the globe, it was attacked by a giant sperm whale and sunk. The survivors gathered in the remaining lighter-weight whaleboats and did their best to sail to habited shores. Very few of them made it back home, as most succumbed to dehydration, hunger, madness … or being eaten by their peers. Author Nathaniel Philbrick (Mayflower – does the man like ships … ?) told the tale in his 2001 book In the Heart of the Sea, and now director Ron Howard (Rush) has brought that book to the screen from a script by Charles Leavitt (Seventh Son). If the details of the story sound vaguely familiar, it’s because Herman Melville used the tragedy of the Essex as the basis for his 1851 masterpiece Moby-Dick.

I have read neither Melville’s nor Philbrick’s books, and so can lay no claim to knowledge of the facts. I do, however, perhaps have some familiarity with works of crafted drama, and can say that Howard’s new film has neither craft nor drama. It’s a mess. Any time one feels nothing for the characters on screen, even as they undergo trials and tribulations galore, it’s a bad day at the multiplex. The most interesting creature up there is the leviathan, himself, but despite his place of honor front and center on all the posters, Mr. Sperm Whale gets his five minutes and is then gone. For the rest of the time, we’re left with an ensemble cast of little collective charisma. Cannibalism? Make sure to bring your own spices.

We know we’re in trouble early on, when the film begins – years after the action it is about to depict – with an 1850 visit to Nantucket by Melville, himself (Ben Whishaw, the new Q, wasted here). He’s come to meet with the now aged former cabin boy of the Essex (Brendan Gleeson, Calvary, also wasted), in search of inspiration for his next book, which he hopes will place him among the ranks of writers like his (older) contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne. Do we really need to have Melville here? Is not the story of a crazed whale out for revenge enough, even without reminding us of its subsequent literary pedigree? Perhaps if these scenes weren’t so reverently maudlin …

Eventually we work our way back in time to the Essex, where we meet our not-so-merry band of sailors – including Chris Hemsworth (Thor, himself), Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and Cillian Murphy (always and forever the hero of 28 Days Later) – all of whom seem to have had different dialect coaches at different moments, as their “period” accents crash and collide not only with each other, but also with themselves, scene to scene. The usual internecine ship’s politics ensue – captain against first mate – but at least we’re finally off to the sea. Unfortunately, that also means we’re treated to whale slaughter, something far less palatable to us now than it was then. Fortunately, this means we’re primed for the big moment of vengeance, when Mr. Sperm Whale decides to right the wrongs done to an entire species. Apparently, however, our not-so-gentle giant likes spicier food, as well, and swims away far too quickly, abandoning the film to its insufferably bland humans, and us to another hour or so of drab storytelling.

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