In the Heart of the Sea was originally scheduled for a March 2015 release. It was finally released this month (December 2015). Sometimes such delays are a bad sign of a weak film, but current thinking is that the release was delayed to gain more attention for Oscar nominations. Current thinking might be right, but the decision seems ill advised. Oscar nominations seem unlikely beyond visual effects, and the film is getting lost in the wake (pun intended) of The Force Awakens and the other late-season releases. They should have released in March after all.
Despite the low ratings and mediocre reviews, it really isn’t that bad a film. It’s not great, or even near-great, and it misses its many opportunities for something close to engaging time and again. But it’s not a bad film, if simply because the story is compelling.
Actually, the difference between the trailer and the film is telling. The trailer is exciting, energetic and thrilling. The film—not so much. There’s a lesson here somewhere….
The film tells the story of the Essex, the Nantucket whaler attacked by a huge whale and had its crew stranded for months in the Pacific—the story that inspired the Herman Melville classic Moby Dick. It’s regrettable to some extent that this film is going to be the de facto official account of that extraordinary experience; the film gives us a fairly thorough account of what happened without allowing us to enter deeply into the experience or drawing out some of the deeper resonant philosophical possibilities.
As if the story itself needs a “sell,” or because we as viewers need help in putting the story into context, we have a framing device. A young, somewhat successful Herman Melville visits the youngest member of the Essex crew—and its lone survivor, Tom Nickerson—to hear the old man tell the story for Melville’s future novel. Melville is played by Ben Whishaw and the older crewmember by Brendan Gleeson. So we have the film’s two best actors relegated to the framing story, and not in the heart of the film. The framing story has a mini-story of its own, and on paper, I suppose it was intended to be emotionally devastating. It’s not, though these two actors do their best with it.
The film is directed by Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13). Howard is a solid director, and can be quite an intelligent one. But he’s not a brilliant one, and deep emotional moments can often pass him by, as is the case here. After watching the trailer, there was an expectation that the whale attack would be one of the most breathtaking sequences of the year. It’s still impressive, especially in terms of where we are with special effects. But while we see everything that happens, we’re not drawn into the drama of the action, and therefore remain observers rather than participants. (Compare this with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, where all the action is connected with the characters we are relating to, and pulls us into the drama outside as well as the emotions inside.)
Our lead is Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth. Hemsworth is an impressive physical presence onscreen, and comes across as a natural leader, a must for the story. But because of the framing device, this isn’t his character’s story, which hurts the film. This is young Tom’s story. So we are allowed entrée into Tom’s story a bit, but Hemsworth’s character Owen Chase is the real protagonist, the one who leads the ship and makes the major, heroic decisions that drive the story, so our attentions are divided. Who are we to identify with primarily—the young Tom that we know lives to literally tell the tale, or Chase, who is our leader and is faced with his own rivalries beyond the giant whale? It’s a question that isn’t satisfactorily answered.
Chase’s human rival is played by Benjamin Walker, best known on Broadway for playing the title role in the rock musical, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and as another president in the title role of the film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Here he plays George Pollard, the man you love to hate, a slightly doughy spoiled rich kid who makes stupid decisions because he is too proud to listen to the wisdom of the more experienced Chase. He, like the other actors, is forced into a drastic weight loss regimen to go along with the near-starvation experienced by the surviving members of the Essex’s loss. It’s telling that this weight-loss story is presently getting more press than any other aspect of the film.
Walker, because he is set so strongly against our good guy Chase, at least stands out. The film possesses an abundance of excellent British actors, but then does little to differentiate them as crew members, though one is supposed to be “like a brother” to Chase. So we have the talented Cillian Murphy and Joseph Mawle essentially wasted as, essentially, “other crew members.” Another opportunity squandered.
The bottom line, however, is that the story is a classic one, and the fact that the film is based on truth gives it a punch lacking in both the script and direction. For those interested in history, whaling, Cape Cod, Nantucket or any of the lead actors, it’s well worth one’s time. But you have to supply the connection. Unlike The Force Awakens, which pulls one into character and drama, In the Heart of the Sea does neither. We get to observe the story; we just don’t get to experience it.