DVD Review - In the Heart of the Sea

Even though there have been numerous adaptations of Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby-Dick, I almost wish that director Ron Howard had simply done another one, and not this depressive, sea voyage. There's a reason Melvile's story is a classic that has stood the test of time. Instead of embracing that story, this movie is about what inspired that classic story, working from the assumption that the inspiration for greatness must itself be great. This assumption is wrong. The drama, the themes and even the action aren't as powerful here as in Melville's historical fiction.

Chris Hemsworth (Thor and Vacation) stars as Owen Chase, the real-life whaler who became the First Mate to the Essex, the whaling ship that set sail from Massachusetts in February 1820. It hunted the huge, aquatic mammals in order to extract the blubber or the fat under their skin, which was squeezed into an oil that people at the time used as a source of fuel. Owen has a wife and a child-on-the-way but none of that matters in this film.

Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and The War Boys) co-stars as George Pollard, the Captain of the Essex. He's given command of the whaling ship over Owen, which is a source of tension. George is younger and less experienced than Owen. George is also a little stubborn and a little arrogant.

The events that occur with the Essex inspired Melville to write Moby-Dick, which is about a man's obsession to pursue an infamous whale that he had battled previously. Given that premise, one would assume that the Essex also battled a great, white whale, and in the least, Hemsworth, action-star as he can be, would fight a whale in this film. Yet, that's not really the case.

Much like Life of Pi (2012), All is Lost (2013) or the middle-half of Unbroken (2014), this movie is really about a man or men being stranded at sea. Yes, there is an interesting, initial sequence that shows how a whale is captured and then dissected for its blubber. This sequence is enlightening and enervating. It was also engaging, funny and a bit disgusting. However, the rest of the movie is those men stranded in tiny boats without much food or water for 90 days.

This is when the movie becomes a depressive drag. Unlike the other films mentioned, this one gets to grapple with the idea of cannibalism. Except, Howard doesn't really grapple with it. It's mentioned, or rather hinted in dialogue, but it's not shown. Howard can show a whale being torn apart and its flesh and guts spilled everywhere, but he can't show cannibalism. It's a kind of cowardice.

Other than Hemsworth and Walker, the only other actor who stands out is Tom Holland (The Impossible and Wolf Hall). Holland plays Thomas Nickerson, the teenage crew-member and the youngest person aboard the Essex who is taken under Owen's wing. However, the framing story around Holland's character is a waste of time. The framing story is Thomas as an old man, played by Brendan Gleeson (Cold Mountain and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), telling what happened to the Essex to Herman Melville, played by Ben Whishaw (Skyfall and Cloud Atlas). It's a completely unnecessary framing that adds nothing but only detracts from the immersion.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for intense action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 1 min.


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