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In the Heart of the Sea is Under-whale-ming

<i>In the Heart of the Sea</i> is Under-whale-ming

DVD Release Date: March 8, 2016
Theatrical Release Date: December 11, 2015
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material)
Genre: Action
Run Time:  121 min.
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Frank Dillane

It’s been a 15-year journey to bring Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex—published in 2000 and winner of the National Book Award—to the big screen. But that's nothing compared with the span of time—180 years—between the book's publication and events it recounts.

If the story behind the book seems more familiar than that nearly two-century gap would indicate, that's because the cause of the whaleship's sinking—an attack on the ship by a sperm whale—inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. That literary classic has, in turn, been adapted as a film or miniseries several times in the past two decades alone.

Hopes were running high for the adaptation of Philbrick's book. Helmed by Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind), the film was pushed back from an earlier release date until awards season—a possible sign that the studio behind the film, Warner Brothers, saw the film as an Oscar contender. But a subsequent lack of awards-season push for the film, as well as the opening date just one week before the release of the endlessly buzzed about new Star Wars movie, suggests another reason for In the Heart of the Sea's December release: perhaps the studio wants to minimize any bad press—and poor box office receipts—the film might generate.

Related: Interviews Ron Howard & Chris Hemsworth about the Film

Being a huge fan of Philbrick’s book—one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read—I was firmly in the "hopeful" camp, but having now seen In the Heart of the Sea, I lean toward the more negative interpretation. In the Heart of the Sea isn't outright bad so much as it is—if you'll pardon the pun—underwhaleming.

The story of the Essex is framed in the film (unlike Philbrick's book) through the character of Melville (Ben Whishaw, Paddington), who, years after the ship's sinking, seeks out one of the few survivors of that disaster, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson, whose character is played as a young man by The Impossible's Tom Holland). Melville is intent on confirming the stories he's heard about a whale causing the ship's sinking, but Nickerson, haunted by memories of the event, isn't eager to provide fodder for a future Melville novel. Nickerson roughly dismisses the writer—until Nickerson's wife, tired of watching Nickerson's memories of the incident eat away at him, insists he unburden himself by sharing the grim details of what befell the Essex crew years earlier.

The flashbacks, centering on the Essex's first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth, Thor) and his tension with Essex Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), comprise most of the film's first half. Chase bids adieu to his wife and boards the Essex, uncertain of the timing of his return. Not only must the crew kill enough whales (sold for oil) to justify the mission, but the possibility of natural disasters, illness and shipwreck add to the danger of the trip.

Howard handles the seafaring scenes competently, although there's little excitement early on. Not even a storm that Pollard steers the men into in order to toughen up the crew feels as threatening as it should. Worse, the film actually picks up whenever it returns to the Melville/Nickerson framing device—an appreciated uptick in terms of audience attention, but a bad sign for a story that sells itself on the events involving the Essex crew.

The whale attack is memorably terrifying, but the whale is, unfortunately, more memorable than most of the crew members. Hemsworth, so good in Howard's 2013 film Rush, looks the part of a brawny first mate, but his character is less interesting than the situations he finds himself in: being attacked by the creature he needs to kill, and then trying to survive for months with little food.

The second-hour story of the Essex survivors being forced to contemplate the unthinkable—cannibalism—in order to survive is much more dramatically compelling than the captain/first mate tension that characterized the first half of the film. It's difficult to salvage a story that takes more than an hour to offer any surprises.

While Hemsworth and most of the crew are less than engaging, Gleeson and Whishaw are at their best in the framing story, which is given more time to develop as the film progresses. When Nickerson at last acknowledges to Melville what he refers to as his "abominations," we feel his sense of shame, followed by the release that his confession brings.

It's a strong ending for Howard's middling tale of an angry whale, but the better telling of the Essex's fate is in Philbrick's book, which no 3D, CGI or other special effects can improve upon. That makes In the Heart of the Sea the latest in a never-ending line of stories that are superior on the printed page rather than on a movie-theater screen.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Language/Profanity: Lord's name taken in vain; "da-n"; "son of a b--ch"; "stinks more than the devil's as--ho-e"
  • Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: Nickerson's wife says he's going to drink himself to death if he doesn't confess what he did; she interrupts a discussion between her husband and Melville, claiming she's the only one who's sober
  • Sex/Nudity: None
  • Violence/Crime: Chase dangles a young man over the side of the ship, and the man throws up; a man falls to his death; a man is forced to enter into the cavity of a dead whale; a ship is destroyed by a whale; fire engulfs a ship; a dead body floats in the water; a suicide; cannibalism discussed; an emaciated sailor seen with a large human bone next to him; human skeletons found
  • Religion/Morals/Marriage: A prayer for the ship's safe return; a whale is referred to as "that demon"; other dialogue includes, "the devil has unspoken secrets"; characters say, "God be with you.”/“And with you.”; dark deeds are referred to as "abominations"

Publication date: December 10, 2015