In The Heart Of The Sea combines 19th century high seas adventure, brutal scenes of survival and a Moby Dick sized whale. Does that make it a good movie?
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA 122 min
Director: Ron Howard
Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Brendan Gleason, Michelle Fairley
The long beginning of Nathaniel Philbrick’s book “In The Heart Of The Sea, THE TRAGEDY OF THE WHALESHIP ESSEX,” (2000, Penguin Books) is, to be honest, a little boring. Academic boring.
Philbrick is a bona fide Nantucket nautical nerd. He frustrates all sea adventure geeks by choosing first to unleash a torrent of factual particulars so vast it smothers the reader in expository excess. There is a page with a list of the crew of the Essex and two diagrams of the ship itself, with 27 features of the ship labeled for your review. And review you will, through much of the book. If you’re expecting the first chapter to seize the your imagination with some extraordinary heroic scene- like from an Horatio Hornblower novel- you’re SOL. of It’s a work of non-fiction, after all.
But I’m not a book critic. And I got through the book. You know what? Philbrick made the right choice.
There comes a time every book ( and every movie ) when you realize who or what the antagonist is. Sure, there’s a whale. Yes, it’s big- too big to be believed- and yes there is also lots of unfortunate open sea weather. Quick moving squalls, heat, wind, high waves, rain etc. We all know what can happen “out there.” Yes there are characters who don’t get along and who have malevolent intentions. But those are smaller ingredients in a larger recipe. In The Heart Of The Sea- *The Book*- has one dominating antagonist: Nantucket’s arrogant Quaker whaling culture.
Guess what? This movie barely acknowledges that. And that’s where it all went wrong. This is a romanticized mess of a film. In fact, it should never have been a two hour cinema film. Wrong format. It should have been adapted as an eight to ten episode limited series with plenty of time given to exploring the Quaker foundation of Nantucket’s whaling industry. Why? Because besides being really interesting (the secret lives of the Nantucket’s wives for one thing) it is key if one is to understand how Quakers used their religion to legitimize such a brutal industry for the love of profit.
Okay- I know what you’re saying. “the book is always better than the movie.” If you think I’m punishing the movie because it’s not as good as the book you are wrong. So let’s talk about the movie. It won’t take long.
The gimmick of the film, where key character Tom Nickerson dramatically narrates the tale of the Essex thirty years after the event to young writer Herman Melville, is flawed from the start. There are so many reasons why it doesn’t work. Mainly, there are parts of the story he could never, ever know. Nickerson was a cabin boy on the Essex. The overall account of the Essex is a historical collection of narratives from a few key survivors. Nickerson was just one of those survivors. Although the film tries to show us Nickerson listening in on several important conversations between the captain and his officers, it’s a struggle to overlook his coincidental and convenient location during these conversations just to satisfy the restrictions of the narrative. A cinema trope at its worst.
This film could have benefited from a Rashomon – type point of view. There are certainly enough characters to go around. Without a legitimate point of view and a believable Quaker inspired motivation behind the behavior of key characters, the film becomes a forced series of disconnected scenes highlighted with CGI spectacle.
It feels like a strange thing to write when talking about a Ron Howard movie. Howard has always been able to ground his films in reality in spite of using, or even needing, CGI to drive that reality. Think of Apollo 13, a superb survivor film that has fifty times the tension and dread that this film has. Plus, don’t get me started on how the sound effects muffled the dialogue. My hearing’s not that bad.
The formula looked good I’m sure. Interesting book. True story. Chris Hemsworth. Up and comer and new Spiderman Tom Holland just to bring in the teens. Whatever.
Every time Hollywood makes me spend very hard earned money on a film that should never have been made (think Fantastic Four, Jupiter Ascending, or any “dystopian” young adult book turned movie) I get a little more pissed off.
Can I have my $14.00 back?
There Be MOVIES