Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Brendon Gleeson
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Charles Leavitt
When I went to see this film it was being shown at a surprise screening. There was of course much speculation within the audience over what the secret film was going to be. When the title was finally revealed and the film began I remember hearing a collective groan from the crowd and I even saw a few walkouts. I could understand the disappointment. After all of the anticipation and speculation I think people were expecting a film with a bit more buzz going for it. It seemed clear to me that the reason this film had opted for a surprise screening was because people were more likely to get excited for a mystery film than for this one. The truth is that I hadn’t been particularly excited by the trailer and so there’s a good chance I might not have ever gone to see this film of my own accord. Nevertheless I had paid my ticket and was willing to give this film a fair chance.
The film depicts the real-life story that Moby Dick was based on and opens with the author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) tracking down Tom Nickerson (Brendon Gleeson), a survivor of an ill-fated voyage. Nickerson reluctantly recalls the tale of the Essex, the memory of which still haunts him to his core. Also on this voyage was the seasoned first-mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and the inexperienced captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). The turbulent whaling expedition takes a catastrophic turn when the ship is attacked by a whale of gargantuan size and of a strangely antagonistic will. In the aftermath of this attack the crew is left stranded in the open sea and is met with the prospect of succumbing to starvation, despair and to nature herself. Nickerson recounts with the heavy heart the desperate measures the crew resorted to in order to survive.
In the Heart of the Sea is by all means a well-made film. The sets and costumes allow for an admirable recreation of 19th century New England, the visual effects used to create the whale are decent and the film does communicate a strong sense of hopelessness and dread as the crew struggles to survive. I think my problem with the film though is that it just didn’t bring anything new to the table and therefore didn’t leave any sort of an impact on me. A couple of years ago I remember watching the story of the Essex in the BBC movie The Whale, a film that managed to hit the same beats and leave the same sort of impression on me despite its significantly smaller production. Although there were some minor differences like the inclusion of Herman Melville in this film, it was essentially the same movie with a larger budget, a more famous cast and a bit of 3D thrown in. This isn’t to say that In the Heart of the Sea is a rip-off or anything like that. My point is simply that it doesn’t attempt to break any new ground or venture any deeper into this story despite the talent and the resources at its disposal.
The film is directed by Ron Howard who for the most part does a reasonable job. He delivers the tension when it is needed and does a great job of emphasising the passage of time during the crew’s ordeal. Through this the film is able to convey a strong sense of the prolonged anguish of these characters, thus accentuating their growing desperation. However I didn’t feel like the film needed to be in 3D as it neglected to take any real advantage of the technology short of propelling a few objects towards the screen. The cast delivers mostly standard performances with the most notable highlight probably being Brendon Gleeson as a man haunted by the trauma inflicted upon him and the actions he committed in order to survive.
While I can’t say that I disliked this film I wasn’t very impressed by it either. Although the technical aspects of it are well done and the story and characters are adequate, there just isn’t anything exceptional about it. In the Heart of the Sea tries to be a great, sweeping epic (like Moby Dick for instance) but lacks the depth and magnitude to pull it off. The characters are passable but are not especially interesting or memorable. The story is decent but it failed to captivate or move me in any meaningful way. The moments of danger and desolation are well-executed and do manage to provide tension when it’s needed but ultimately they never had me at the edge of my seat and they weren’t realised as fully as I think they could’ve been. As the mystery film of a secret screening it certainly didn’t live up to the hype or suspense. Instead what it amounts to is a sometimes technically impressive but otherwise generally standard film.