In the Heart of the Sea is approached by audiences as an epic film that faces off a man and a whale. And while that’s partially what happens, it’s not the whole story.
The Ron Howard-directed film is one half good movie, one half less good movie. Fortunately for him, the good half is the latter half, so it’s what we are left with. But the first hour of this film drudges along extremely slowly. Taking place in the 1820s, the characters speak in an archaic verbiage, heavy on sailing terms that mostly go over our heads. Sure, it gives the film a more genuine feel, but also provides us with a bit of a snoozer before the action actually starts happening.
For those of you who don’t know, In the Heart of the Sea is about the real-life story that inspired Herman Melville’s famed novel Moby Dick. The film begins in 1850 as Melville (Ben Whishaw) pays an unwanted visit to Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last surviving crew member of a whaling ship, the Essex, which is said to have been destroyed by a giant whale 30 years prior. Much to Nickerson’s protest, he tells the story to Melville about how he was a 14-year-old orphan on this boat, lead by Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth)–the true protagonist of this film. The strangest thing may be the fact that Nickerson recounts literally all parts of the story, including bits that he wasn’t even present for.
Some background: Back before humans drilled the earth for oil, they would use whale oil for lighting and electricity. Men would go out to sea for months at a time in order to bring back hundreds or thousands of gallons of oil. In this case, they were at sea for 2 years.
The film jumps back and forth between 1850 and 1820 showing multiple character dynamics and relationships–most importantly the one between Chase and Pollard, and between Melville and Nickerson.
But the people come to see a film about Moby Dick–the legendary whale who is chased by Captain Ahab–in this case Pollard and Chase. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see the whale until an hour into the movie. Before that is a lot of setup, which would have been okay if the setup had been more interesting. 1997’s Titanic also features a lot of drama before the action happens, but there’s also a lot more tension leading up to it. And this film doesn’t have the added benefit of being very charismatic, aside from what the giant whale brings. It takes itself a little too seriously, only giving us maybe two real shards of levity throughout.
I understand that In the Heart of the Sea is supposed to be a disaster film, but seeing that the disaster only accounts for a third of the movie, I think they could have afforded to give us a few more laughs here and there.
With that said, I was actually pretty moved by this film. I found it’s overall messages very poignant and thoughtful. The movie showcases some important themes of animal hunting, prejudice, entitlement, and big business integrity–all of which are still relevant in today’s world, and perhaps the most powerful things about this film.
The latter part of the film is very memorable and the effects with the whale are incredible. I left the movie satisfied by the second half, but was hoping for a first half that I don’t have to skip over when I watch it again.