Oh, there is so much to say about this film. In fact, that’s pretty much what’s wrong with it. For those of us that read the book upon which it is based, there is the usual problems with the film being sub-par by comparison. But there are other problems, most of which derive from the film makers inability to decide – or conscious decision to – throw in upwards of five messages as to what this film is actually about. It’s so scattered with ideas that I found it took away from any of the truly positive elements the film possesses.
I read the book by Nathaniel Philbrick; In The Heart Of The Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. It is no wonder that it spent forty weeks on the NY Times Best Seller List. It’s an exhaustively researched book, with even information pulled right from a survior’s journal writings. Really compelling stuff. Right off the bat I can tell you that this book is far more worth your time than the film. Terribly disapointing, seeing as they have such great source material to work with for a script. But they work into the script messages about so many things: the evil of whaling and the oil industry, corporate cover-ups, the therapeutic nature of speaking to a therapist, and even imbuing a character in 1820 with the current values of how to treat our environment. If they had just stuck to telling the tale of this ship and its’ crew, the story would have been plenty harrowing and exciting.
In November of 1819, the whaleship Essex and her crew of twenty, sailed out of Nantucket to go whaling as was the norm in those days. Whale oil was used to burn lights and lanterns, etc. Eventually the Essex found more whale than they bargained for as they were attacked by a large, white, and particularly pissed off whale. It rammed the ship and sunk it. The remaining men were all left in three lifeboats in the middle of the South Pacific ocean with little food and supplies. They spent a few months at sea fighting the elements, starvation, and thirst. The story gets even more grim from there.
Ron Howard directs In The Heart Of The Sea, from a script by Charles Leavitt (K-Pax, Blood Diamond, Seventh Son, the up-coming WarCraft), that is mostly true to the book and things that are known. However, one of the strange things about this film, In the Heart of the Sea, is the added wrap-around story of Herman Melville visiting one of the last survivors of the Essex, Tom Nickerson, who was only fourteen at the time of the ill-fated journey of the Essex, in order to get his account of the events. Now, it is not known if Melville actually did this, as it is generally known that Melville never actually visited Nantucket. So, this part may be a device to tell this story. If this the case, it’s a clumsy device indeed, as it tends to pop up often enough to slow down the film just when it gets moving.
If there is anything good to say about these scenes, it is the presence of Brendan Gleeson as the adult Tom Nickerson, as he makes the most of his time on screen. You feel his pain of holding onto his tale, one the involves doing unspeakable things in the name of survival.
But also I felt like the film crammed so much of this story into two hours that much of the impact was lost somehow. The scenes on the open ocean hunting the whales is riviting stuff, full of energy and excitment. But there are parts later, where they men are just drifting in the lifeboats that is handled all wrong. I think in the hands of a different director – someone with more of an eye for atmosphere and subtley – say, Terence Malick, Stanley Kubrick, or Werner Herzog – there would have been more weight in many of these scenes.
Aside from all that, the performance are actually solid, the whales, both CGI and puppets, are beautiful, and the inherent story is still, in fact, a great one. Sadly, I can only mildly recommend In The Heart Of The Sea, as the contemporary value messages get in the way of just telling this great story. Melville indeed used this legendary story as part of his inspiration for Moby Dick, but whether he truly sat down and transcribed a survivor’s telling of events is unknown.
This would surely be worth a cable viewing, on streaming, or on an airplane. It does benefit from a big screen just becasue of the subject matter and the cinematography, but you may not want to spend full price. I could give In The Heart Of The Sea a marginal two and a half kittenhands, so honestly I think you should just read the book.
~ Neil T. Weakley, your average movie-goer, Getting my mind set for Star Wars this Thursday night!