Genre: Action and Adventure
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Jordi Mollá, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson
Release Date: December 11th, 2015
In the 1995 drama Apollo 13, sales director Ron Howard told the true story of a group of astronauts who were stranded in space after their mission fell apart. The film sought to capture what it was like for those men, who were adrift in space and wondering if they would ever see normalcy again.
Howard’s newest film In the Heart of the Sea has several major similarities with that earlier picture. Like that film, the story in the new drama is based on real events — events that partially inspired Herman Melville to write the classic novel Moby Dick. The men in this film, sent on a mission to collect whale oil, are also stranded when their mission goes astray.
Unfortunately for Howard though, this story’s pacing and forgettable characters prevent this incredible story — and the story itself is a memorable one — from achieving the greatness it deserves.
The feature opens promisingly enough with a young writer named Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) visiting a former sailor named Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) and asking about the Essex, a boat that Nickerson sailed on decades earlier that was reportedly downed by a larger-than-life whale. Melville wants to use Nickerson’s story as inspiration for a new novel he’s writing entitled Moby Dick. Nickerson is hesitant to talk about the ordeal but eventually opens up about it.
In the flashback story that consumes much of the film, Chris Hemsworth plays Owen Chase, a confidant and charismatic sailor who has been named First Mate of the Essex. Chase wanted to be the captain but George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), an untested captain’s son, had already been promised the ship. From the moment the ship sets sail, there’s tension between the two men, a tension that is supposed to be one of the film’s major conflicts.
Unfortunately, that tension never produces anything of interest. The script, which was adapted from the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, never truly builds a strong contentious relationship between the duo. The two clearly dislike each other but never in a unique or interesting way. Their relationship is simply by the numbers and viewers will likely know how their relationship will evolve as the two travel together.
The other main relationship on the ship is between Chase and the young Nickerson, played by Tom Holland. The relationship is a simple father-son one that lacks depth or focus. One can see how the relationship is supposed to be an important one for Nickerson but because the characters are so mundane, it’s difficult to see them really connect with one another until their final scene together (which works better than it has any right to).
The most interesting scenes in the film involve the whale that attacks the ship. Howard does a nice job building up the momentum for seeing the whale (when a local describes the whale as a “devil whale,” the crew’s interest is obviously piqued) and then the director delivers a powerful portrait of the massive animal. In a similar way to how Steven Spielberg introduced Jaws so long ago, Howard waits until the right moment to show the massiveness and beauty of the animal. Unlike Jaws though, this oceanic animal doesn’t viciously attack the defenseless humans. This creature is seemingly lashing out against the crew’s attempt to kill it for the oil.
The greatest problem with the film isn’t its concept. The story behind the true tale that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick is an incredible one and we glimpse aspects of what this film might’ve been in its strongest moments. Unfortunately though, the lackluster characters and the forgettable plot devices are standard and predictable. It’s hard to become attached to these characters because none of them — save for the whale itself, who only appears in a few scenes — truly stand out.
Even though audiences knew how Apollo 13 ended, that story was continuously gripping and exciting. Here, audiences might not know how the story will end (or who will survive) but the plot never really makes you care if they do.
Review by: John Hanlon