In the Heart of the Sea

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday December 11, 2015

Chris Hemsworth stars in 'In the Heart of the Sea'
Chris Hemsworth stars in 'In the Heart of the Sea'  (Source:Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

There's something soggy and indefinite about Ron Howard's historical drama "In the Heart of the Sea." On land, it's the sight of a New England won in the distance, as glimpsed from the rough-hewn home of Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth); out on the ocean, aboard the whaler Essex, it's the question of where our attention belongs -- and whether it's on the feeble drama that unfolds between Chase, who's serving as first officer despite having been promised a captaincy of his own, and Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker), the man who's been put in charge of the ship due to family connections.

Pollard is unsure of himself and less than fully capable as a commanding officer. This leads him to overcompensate by relying on his authority rather than the years of seagoing experience that he simply doesn't have. As a result, he puts the ship and the men in danger by sailing into the teeth of a squall. When that misadventure works out badly, he attempts to place the blame on Chase -- who, despite his expertise, carries the name of a family of landlubbers.

Classism and Institutional arrogance barely rear their heads, though, when Chase and Pollard catch wind of a place in the ocean where whales gather by the hundreds -- an irresistible prospect, given how poorly the usual hunting grounds are yielding. The ship's mission is to gather two thousand barrels of whale oil, and both Pollard and Chase would love to be done with the task as quickly as possible, so despite the fears of a crew that believe the ship will tumble off the edge of the earth if they venture that far out the Essex makes a beeline.

What awaits is neither the Earth's edge, nor mythical dragons -- but rather an aggressive white whale that defends itself and its kind by attacking the ships of men. When the whale succeeds in scuttling the Essex, its vengeance has just begun: The behemoth continues to stalk the survivors in their lifeboats, thousands of miles from familiar shores.

All this unfolds in flashback. The film begins, ends, and anchors itself with repeated returns to an occasion thirty years later, when an aged man named Tom Nickerson (Brandon Gleeson), by then the last living member of the ill-fated Essex crew, is badgered by his wife (Michelle Fairley), and by an upstart writer named Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), to tell the whole of a terrible tale that includes not only the monstrous white whale, but the atrocities the survivors had to resort to in order to make it home. Along the way are dramatic breakdowns in discipline (illustrated by the reckless antics of Pollard's younger cousin, Henry Coffin, played by Frank Dillane), episodes of male bonding (also aboard the Essex is Chase's best friend, a fellow named Matthew Joy, played by Cillian Murphy), and enough soul searching to keep the wicks burning of half a dozen Hallmark movies.

The movie is supposedly based on true events form 1820 that inspired Melville to write "Moby-Dick." The cinematography, by Anthony Dod Mantle, is glorious in places -- enough so that for a while, here and there, you get a sense of epic visual artistry. What never materializes, though, is Howard's vision for the film.

"Moby-Dick" was not instantly hailed as a classic. Josh Conrad supposedly dismissed it as a "sea shanty," and one imagines what he meant was that it was fine as a popular entertainment but had little enduring power. It's possible that "In the Heart of the Sea" will find lasting acclaim rather than fading pretty promptly into obscurity, but I'd wager neither hardtack nor a day's rum on it.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.