What inspired Herman Melville to write the novel Moby-Dick? In the Heart of the Sea is the cinematic answer to this question. The movie tells in an unremarkable but engaging way the fascinating story of the sinking of the whaling ship Essex.
In the film’s present, Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviews Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last survivor of the crew that served on the ship on that fateful voyage. The first of several extended flashback sequences introduces the viewer to the crew members as they prepare for the voyage. Among them are Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), Second Mate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), and the young cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland). At first, the crew doesn’t have much success in hunting whales. They eventually meet a captain who tells them where they can find plenty of whales, but he warns them that a gigantic white whale protects the other whales. The expedition sets sail to the area in question and finds the whales. The crew’s fortune seems to have turned for the better. But then the great white whale appears and disaster strikes.
Written by Charles Leavitt (based on the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick) and directed by Ron Howard, In the Heart of the Sea is first and foremost a man-versus-nature adventure drama, but it also contains a monster-movie element in the form of the giant whale. Don’t get me wrong: while the film is obviously not a Jaws kind of movie, it contains a couple of scenes that made me think of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic. There’s also an unexpected spiritual dimension to the proceedings; it becomes more pronounced toward the end of the movie, particularly during Chase’s final encounter with the white whale.
An interruption of the narrative flow occurs every time the story returns to the film’s present. Fortunately, this happens only a few times over the course of the 122-minute running time. Furthermore, since Howard knows quite well how to quickly transport the viewer back into the story proper, I can’t say that I found these breaks to be significantly problematic for the movie as a whole.
One thing that does work against In the Heart of the Sea, however, is that the filmmakers want to deliver an epic tale but stumble and fall along the way. Leavitt’s screenplay contains elements that one recognizes from and that have been done better by other survival dramas, such as Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012).
I loved the gorgeous visuals. Proficient cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle gives In the Heart of the Sea a slightly otherworldly, poetic look that perfectly suits the story being told. The excellent sound design and sound editing place the viewer right in the middle of the action during the most spectacular sequences in the film. Roque Baños’s powerful, energetic music score is another technical highlight.
The ensemble cast does a fine job. Tom Holland’s strong performance is the emotional anchor in the movie. Sure, Chris Hemsworth plays the temperamental primary protagonist and does it solidly enough, but it is Holland’s character who gives the viewer a palpable sense of what these characters are going through.
A noteworthy moment near the end of In the Heart of the Sea involves a rumor that oil has been found by someone drilling into the ground. Considering the implications of that discovery both in the context of the narrative and in general, it’s a poignantly bittersweet scene. Alas, there aren’t enough impactful moments like this in the film to ensure that it leaves a lasting impression. With more storytelling finesse and better-developed characters, the movie might have sailed on the ocean of greatness.