2016.39: In The Heart of the Sea (Blu-ray)
Back when Ron Howard’s In The Heart of the Sea was released at the cinema to lukewarm and often hostile reviews that turned me away from a planned cinema trip, I was intrigued enough by the premise to read the book by Nathaniel Philbrick from which much of it is based. Philbrick’s excellent book examines the 19th-century Pacific whaling industry and the true story of the sinking of the whaleship Essex by a monstrous sperm whale, an event which inspired Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick. The book is a great read- gripping and horrifying in its detail, whether it be the bloody mechanics of whaling at the time or the awful act of sucking the marrow from human bones in a desperate effort to survive a horrible ordeal. That it is based on true events makes it all the more incredible- I had to wonder how anyone could make a bad movie based on it.
Well, In The Heart of the Sea may not be a truly bad movie, but neither is it the film the book deserves. I have written before of my opinion that Ron Howard is at best a competent director, and never is that truer than here. This film is functional and nothing more. It tells its story with a stupefying indifference.
In The Heart of the Sea is a film that lacks any passion, any genuine vision, point of view or commentary. Having been so enthralled by the book, I found this to be utterly perplexing but with Howard involved perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Technically the film is fairly impressive, albeit its visuals suffering from too much colour-correction labouring its period setting (whose idea was that? It looks horrible) and reliance on sub-par CGI effects (which will age horribly, I’m sure). It is the human story, the drama, that is utterly lost here. These were real people, and their nightmarish ordeal really happened. They deserved much more than this film.
Much like last years Everest, this is a film that tries to relate events concerning several characters and by trying to tell all their stories, ultimately fails to do any of them proper service. And also like Everest, it’s a film that tries to make the nightmarish almost palatable. Everything is kept at arms length, even the moments of cannibalism, which is treated in such a trite and PG-friendly way that I found it quite appalling. This is a film that should have been a tale of greed and a barbaric industry, and of a struggle against indomitable fate with humanity pitted against a giant beast and the whims of indifferent nature. It should have been quite terrifying. At the very least, it should have been as enthralling as ‘Gravity at sea’ might sound. Maybe that was the original pitch?
Unlike the book, the film is unnecessarily bookended by sequences involving Melville searching out and recording the story from one its survivors, Thomas Nickerson, who reluctantly tells the story for money. The framing device is clumsy (indeed, it looks like something tacked onto the film in desperate reshoots) and handicaps the film, a major misstep. And the meeting never happened, so there goes any historical ‘truth’ from the very start. Its an immediate indication of where the film is headed.
The over-the-top colour correction makes everything look artificial, particularly the CGI effects, almost like it’s some kind of adult fairytale, and some of the casting is… well, its all very competent but Chris Hemsworth really has too much cinematic baggage for his casting here to really work. The guy was Thor and The Huntsman for crying out loud, both over the top, larger-than-life heroes but this needs something more nuanced and it’s also clearly a convenient carry-over from Howard’s previous film, Rush (in which he played a charismatic James Hunt). He doesn’t strike me as being the ‘proper’ Owen Chase that I read of in the book- rather it’s blatantly convenient, mainstream casting.
Other things irritate. The sense of the passing of time (these whaling expeditions took years) isn’t handled very well, nor the sense of claustrophobic space of these men stuck for weeks/months together without setting foot on dry land. The film-makers can’t resist dropping historical exactness for drama, such as when The Essex is crippled and sunk by the whale. In truth the ship foundered for days and the crew had to force themselves away from it knowing their only course of action- setting out in their three whaling boats with limited provisions- was likely suicidal. The film goes all Hollywood here, with the Essex exploding into flames and the survivors narrowly escaping the conflagration whilst getting the last supplies. It’s irritating, seeing stuff and knowing it didn’t happen like that. Likewise the whale here is transformed from the roguish reality to the nemesis of Melville’s Moby Dick- actually following and further threatening the survivors on their trek to salvation. Was Howard and the rest more interested in remaking/rebooting Moby Dick than actually telling the original true story of the Essex?
I have to wonder if I dislike the film partly because of my familiarity with the book. Probably. But the film surely seems rather broken to viewers who have not read it. There is something missing- the script feels perfunctory, it lacks any insight or real point of view, the casting is uninspired and leaves many ‘stars’ with little to do, and the box-office-minded censorship that tones down the real horrors ironically bleeds out any real drama. It’s a poor effort really and just a shadow of what it should have been.