Ron Howard’s sea-faring escapade In the Heart of the Sea washes up on Blu-ray this month. With a strong cast and usually dependable director, the film presents itself as a maritime adventure, the “incredible true story that inspired Moby Dick,” based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction account of the wreckage of the whaling ship Essex by a massive white whale. As such, it forms the very basis of an American epic. If only In the Heart of the Sea could live up to its promises.
The film reinforces its tagline right off the bat by introducing Melville himself (the underused Ben Whishaw). He shows up at the Nantucket home of Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), armed with a notebook and a wallet of cash in the hopes that Mr. Nickerson can be convinced to tell the story of what exactly happened on the ill-fated whaling ship the Essex many years before. After some negotiation, Nickerson agrees to tell his story and opens with the caveat that the story is more about the conflict between the captain and his first mate than anything else.
Winding back time, we meet Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a seasoned whaler who hopes to eventually captain his own ship. He’s disappointed, however, when the captaincy is handed over to George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), an inexperienced mariner who nevertheless comes from a powerful Nantucket whaling family. Chase’s anger and Pollard’s inexperience will become one of the many sources of conflict through the first half of the film, as the Essex departs Nantucket and the adventure gets underway. The goals of both men are fairly straightforward: Chase hopes to put up enough barrels of oil from whaling in order to get home within the year and receive his promised captaincy, while Pollard believes he has to enforce his right to command by contradicting Chase whenever he has the opportunity.
In the Heart of the Sea has a major problem of focus, beginning with the Chase/Pollard conflict. The film, as well as its narrator, establishes early on that this is going to be the major issue – a sort of Captain Bligh/Mr. Christian debacle. But the conflict is quickly muted: following a disastrous squall, the Essex almost has to turn back to Nantucket. So the pair decide to call a truce and attempt to get through the voyage as quickly and painlessly as possible, if only to escape each other’s company.
There’s little conflict between the Captain and his First Mate after that, and what was promised to be the major source of tension dissipates as quickly as a storm at sea. Instead, we follow the Essex farther out to sea as they fail to find whales to hunt, until they finally arrive around South America. There they’re told of a pod of whales somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, far from land but a potential source of wealth. So off they go, heading into the vast unknown on the search for a perfect whale of a time.
The shifting plots between the on-ship conflict between Chase and Pollard, the battling of the elements at sea, and the storytelling by Nickerson should reinforce each other, but ultimately fail to. Some of this has to do with a sense that Nickerson (played in flashback by Tom Holland) is never really the narrator – a young boy on his first voyage, he makes friends with Chase, but much of what he tells Melville are things he cannot possibly know.
Rather, we’re seeing the story from multiple perspectives instead of a narrative focalized through the eyes of a teenage boy. This becomes more pronounced as time goes on, adding to the lack of clarity from which the whole film suffers. The numerous clichés of maritime adventure are all in full force, untempered by a building of unique characterization. I have nothing against clichés, but they need an anchoring in real life depictions of multi-faceted characters. The rest of the crew is only sketchily drawn, meaning that the audience has a sense of general peril and no personal investment in who survives the Essex. As it is, I’d rather just watch one of the many adaptations of Moby Dick.
In the Heart of the Sea is less at home with the on-ship conflicts than it does with real maritime action – and that’s where it shines. The whaling sequences are intense and well shot, plunging us beneath the surface of the water to watch the whales, and then bringing us back up to see their hunters. The danger here feels powerful and true to life, as these men lead their existences in a profession more profoundly dangerous than most. But even here the film loses focus. The constant shifting of perspective means that we never quite understand how whalers even spear and capture whales, as the film provides us with visceral thrills but no clarity.
Despite my reservations about Into The Sea, however, the Blu-ray is undoubtedly spectacular. The visuals are stunning and immersive, and in 1080p High Definition, they’re impressive even on a small screen. There are a whole slew of special features available, both behind the scenes of the film and those relating the real life background of the story.
Most interesting to me was the discussion of the conflict between Chase and Pollard (onscreen and in real life) in “A Man of Means and a Man of Courage.” The feature draws on the actors’ experience in playing the characters and the historical basis of the conflict, both what is and what is not known. “The Hard Life of a Whaler” examines the history of whaling in Nantucket, the lives of the men who worked on ships like the Essex, and how the actors prepared for their parts. The longest and most intricate feature by far is the half-hour film “Lightning Strikes Twice: The Real-Life Sequel to Moby Dick,” which examines in depth the excavation of the wreckage of Captain Pollard’s other ship, when he returned to sea after the Essex disaster.
Other special features include:
• “Ron Howard: Captain’s Log,” a short account of the filming of In the Heart of the Sea.
• “Whale Tales: Melville’s Untold Story,” about Melville’s Moby Dick and the story behind it.
• “Commanding the Heart of the Sea” examines the visual effects and the difficulty of the shoot.
• “Island Montage” shows extended images of the island section of the film.
• Deleted and Extended Scenes.
Ultimately, In the Heart of the Sea is a pale “true story,” a film without focus that should have been far better than it is. A strong cast and excellent visuals are wasted in favor of multiple plot arcs that remain unfulfilled, and conflicts that are arbitrarily resolved. Unlike Moby Dick, In the Heart of the Sea never lives up to the strength of its clichés.