‘Heart Of The Sea’ Not As Good As Meville Novel


Call me ambivalent. The movie In the Heart of the Sea is a story about the confrontation of a whaling ship with a great white whale that inspired Herman Melville’s great novel Moby Dick. Unfortunately, without the lyric power of the novel, whose brilliant opening line I just sort of misused, the film seems more an expensive version of a Godzilla movie, with an overly long stretch about people struggling to survive in lifeboats. It is a decent movie, but not a really good one.

We learn at the start that the film is not the great novel but the inspiration for it, as author Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviews Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the final survivor of the Essex, a whaling vessel that was sunk by a great white whale, to get the information needed to write his novel.

The first part of the movie is a sort of soap opera focusing on hero Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), assigned as first mate on the Essex under the less-experienced Capt. George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker), who has important connections. The crew is not happy about that, but young Nickerson (Tom Holland) is more interested in surviving his first voyage. The opening segments are about conflict as the captain sails them into a storm that almost destroys them, and they finally sail to get to the whales.

There they face a huge whale that is the size of the ship. Considering the detail director Ron Howard shows earlier when they kill another whale (tough scenes of cutting up the whale), I was almost rooting for the whale. And the whale wins.

The rest of the film shows the survivors on a small island and the open sea, where they’re forced to commit atrocities on each other for survival. Among them is cannibalism (this is not a movie for children).

For all the focus on action in the trailers, the battle with the whale is very quick, no more than a few minutes. The attack on the survivors in the boats is rather un-whale-like.

There are several huge inconsistencies. It is clear that a lot of the background is computer-generated, and that limits the fear we might have for the sailors. Also, the size of the ship seems to change. At times it seems large, but when it is up against the whale, it suddenly shrinks… and not just because the whale is so huge. After all, the whale was computer-generated.

Even more to the point, this is supposed to be told from Nickerson’s point of view, yet we learn details of Chase’s life and see a lot of things that were done in private on the ship. Moving back and forth between first-person and third-person versions weakens the narrative. The ongoing interview interrupts the narrative and changes the film’s focus.

Surprising in a Ron Howard film, the acting seems flat. Most of the people seem more like one-dimensional stereotypes. And by setting up the “experienced good guy hero” against a weak but not villainous opponent, there is far too little real drama. This is not a case of poor acting; the script is extraordinarily limiting.

Melville’s book (and the movies made of it) focus on obsession. Ahab’s fanatic search for the whale that cost him a leg created a focus ably fortified by his use of symbolic phrasing. “Call me Ishmael,” perhaps the best opening line of any novel, created a narrator whose impressions were central to the story. For those not biblically inclined, Ishmael, the son of Abraham, was cast out as a wanderer but was rescued by God through a miracle. And so Ishmael in Moby Dick wandered and was saved. But the real story is Ahab’s obsession, his view of the whale as the ultimate in evil, a tool of the devil.

There is no obsession in this film. The crew was there for the money they could get by slaughtering whales. The battle with the whale was not planned, was spontaneous, and the whale easily got away. A lot of men were killed by the whale, but others died at other men’s hands.

Despite all its flaws, it is not a bad film. There are a lot of interesting elements. The battle with the great whale was well-done, if not the main focus of the film. However, considering the high price of movie tickets, this may wind up as one to wait for when it reaches pay per view.