In The Heart of the Sea (2015)

heart1.jpg2016.39: 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.

 

Everest (2015)

AA44_FP_00007R.jpgThere’s a few problems with Everest but the visuals aren’t one of them- it certainly looks spectacular, with huge vistas giving it an impressive scope and convincingly portraying both the bewitching beauty and terrible dangers of climbing the mountain. In 3D some of the shots are rather vertigo-inducing, but I would imagine the film will function perfectly fine in 2D- there must have been lots of visual effects utilised but the film seems thankfully restrained regards the CGI shots. Sadly, where it falters is the script. It seems so hellbent on an almost docudrama approach of depicting the fateful events (the film is based on a true story) that it somehow, in that very earnestness, loses the characters within it. Indeed this loss of the characters is even literal during the later stages of the film where faces are hidden behind goggles and breathing masks- its very hard to distinguish between some of them- the confusion of who is who behind all that winter gear rather dilutes any tension.

everest2I had my doubts when I saw the cast. The film seemingly tries to compensate for the slim characterisation by casting big-name actors in the roles, as if their on-screen personas will suffice instead. Alas that just makes the characters seem even more lightweight with the fine cast largely wasted and not given enough to really chew on. Do the minor supporting roles of two wives stuck back home need to be played by Keira Knightley and Robin Wright? Does an actress of Emily Watson’s stature need to be saddled with the thankless task of playing part of the support team anguishing fruitlessly at base camp? The casting rather hurts the film in my eyes, magnifying the importance of the film with its rather A-list cast (Jason Clarke on admittedly very fine form, Sam Worthington, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin) when the film can’t really deliver. What should have been a very dramatic and powerful movie finally turns out to be rather routine and mundane. Perhaps too much attention was paid to the production difficulties of the visuals etc at the expense of the script.

I think the film needed focus- it needed to be ruthlessly centered on perhaps one individual. It so faithfully depicts the events of that ill-fated climb and all the characters within the film, while being respectful to both the people who died and those that survived, that it lacks perspective. It must be remembered that this isn’t simply a case of innocent people being plunged into tragedy and disaster- these people each paid tens of thousands of dollars to put their lives at risk. Things went wrong for them but it remains a stumbling block in gaining audience empathy that they put themselves in harms way. The film even stumbles into literally asking them the question regards why they risk life and limb to climb Everest (the inevitable “because its there!” seems a knowingly trite response) but it never really makes us care about them. I think if the film focused on just one of the climbers, and we could fully empathise with that person, maybe that would transfer to the others. Instead screentime is spent getting to ‘know’ several of the group and while its perhaps a noble gesture it ultimately ill-serves them all. We never really get a sense of what makes someone need to make that climb, to risk their lives when they have families and responsibilities back home. It literally asks the question ‘why’ but never delivers a satisfying response.

Unless the ‘why’ is about making money. How valid or defensible is a commercial business that is predicated on taking people on such a dangerous expedition, where does financial gain outweigh the danger or risk? It is hinted at during the film that the company leading the expedition is under pressure to have a successful climb to ensure future custom, but it never delves deeper than a general comment. Were decisions made in error due to goodwill and blind optimism or were they weighed by the financial implications of an unsuccessful climb? The film has no point of view, it simply depicts the events without any commentary. Maybe that’s unfair, the film clearly has no interest in being controversial but I would imagine if this were an Oliver Stone movie it would have a thing or two to say while showing us the tragedy unfold..