In 1851, Herman Melville published the now-iconic Moby-Dick (or The Whale). It told the story of the obsessive quest of Captain Ahab to exact revenge on his fishy foe, the eponymous Moby Dick, a whale who destroyed his ship on a previous voyage and took his leg. Back in 1851, the novel was what we would now call a ‘flop’, and was completely out-of-print by Melville’s death in 1891. People were probably meeting at the pub and saying “You read Moby Dick? It’s shit, mate”. But during the 20th century, it grew a reputation as one of the greatest American novels, with William Faulkner and D.H. Lawrence among its fans. And even now, not a lot of people know it’s based on fact. In the Heart of the Sea, which is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D, shows us the true story.
Based on the factual book of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea is a star-studded swashbuckling adventure of mediocrity. Chris Hemsworth plays Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex whaling ship under Captain George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker). For the first hour of the film, nothing hugely exciting goes down. There’s a few inconsequential sequences of attempted tension with storms and whale-hunting, mixed with an utterly uninteresting strained relationship between Hemsworth’s Chase and his captain. This is all framed by Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) telling the story to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), who has paid handsomely for this information as research for his novel. It’s rather nice to look at, despite a stylised seaweed green-tint, but there’s just nothing going on. The lights are on, but nobody is home.
Then the big bastard whale shows up. Smashing up the Essex ship, killing a few crew-members and splitting the survivors across two lifeboats, this whale saves the film by putting something resembling a story into the action. For the next hour, In the Heart of the Sea becomes a much different and darker film. As the survivors begin to starve, it’s only a matter of time before cannibalism and madness takes over their increasingly unstable minds. The acting is stronger in this second act and the direction by Ron Howard is a little more professional than the amateurish first half. But it’s still not anywhere near perfect. Underdeveloped characters’ death scenes have no dramatic weight, while the coloured tints become more distracting – although arguably more fitting, as we enter the sun-scorched open seas with our starving heroes.
But on the whole, In the Heart of the Sea has very little in it that elevates it any higher than totally average. Hemsworth isn’t on particularly good form, struggling with his accent and generally being reduced to a pretty-boy hero with no depth – at least, for the first half. His performance in the second half increases drastically in quality, if for no reason other than his stunning weight loss – Google it. But on the bad side of things his co-stars don’t fare much better, with Cillian Murphy and Paul Anderson (coincidentally both stars of Peaky Blinders) criminally underused, along with Fear The Walking Dead’s Frank Dillane who draws the shortest straw and walks away with the most underdeveloped character of the lot. Fun fact: Frank Dillane is the son of Stephen Dillane, Game of Thrones’ Stannis – the rightful king of Westeros. There, I said it.
Anyway…In the Heart of the Sea’s biggest flaw is underdevelopment! The characters are all paper-thin, which removes any tension and drama out of the tale. We don’t care who dies, we don’t care about their struggle, and we don’t care when the surviving crew-members make it home to their families in the big triumphant climax. It’s far less immersive than it clearly wants to be, making it completely forgotten by the time you switch it off. But hey, maybe this is what you want. A visually decent 2-hour romp with whales and ships and shit. If you’re a fan of this genre, you might find something to like. But for the most part, In the Heart of the Sea will leave you disappointed.
In the Heart of the Sea sails away with an underwhelming 2/5.
In the Heart of the Sea at CeX
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