FORMER Happy Days star Ron Howard is one of the most Hollywood directors of them all. Following in the footsteps of the great Steven Spielberg, he knows how to spin a yarn, crafting formulaic yet well put-together blockbusters that excite, engage and entertain through dialogue, plot and captivating storytelling.
However, In the Heart of the Sea is a letdown. The film tells the true story behind the novel Moby Dick, and author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) is a character in this film. Researching his latest work, Melville visits a survivor of a legendary whale attack. The man – a former sailor named Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) – recounts his story.
At this point, the film transports us back to the 1820s and Nickerson’s memories of the events that unfolded on a fateful whaling voyage. Bent on revenge against humankind, the whale in question waged a campaign of terror on the unsuspecting crew of Nantucket whaling ship The Essex – refusing to relent until it had achieved its aims.
Nicholson tells how, in the face of incredible adversity and certain death, a handful of the crew survives – including first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) – and each returns feeling duty-bound to tell their tale. However, some of the things that happened during that horrifying voyage prove harder to disclose than others.
Evoking films such as Mutiny on The Bounty, Master and Commander, The Life of Pi and even Jaws, In the Heart of the Sea offers up no surprises, and everything on screen has a seen-it-all-before quality. We’ve all seen sea monsters attacking – arguably with more threat and menace than here – and we’ve all seen stranded-at-sea movies, recently more compellingly executed in Angelina Jolie’s flawed Unbroken. We’ve also all seen movies where survivors of extreme situations are pushed to the brink, forced to commit unspeakable deeds – Alive is one of the most memorable. And yet, the biggest problem with Howard’s film is its structure.
Told in retrospect from the perspective of a former cabin boy who at the time was on his maiden whaling voyage (played in flashback by Tom Holland), the audience is consequently removed from the events depicted. This means we are less invested in what’s happening and less able to feel any tension, horror and emotion – and these are all things that are crucial to the success of Ron Howard’s picture, a film re-treading old movie ground. Our heads and hearts are with Brendan Gleeson’s Nickerson and not with the characters he’s relating in the main thrust of the story, many years in the character’s past.
There’s also the problematic element of unreliability. Since all characters and events are recalled and depicted through a single character’s eyes rather than a universal, impartial storyteller who exists outside of the story, questions are raised. Has trauma and the passage of time influenced how he remembers events? Just one of the things you’ll ask yourself while you watch. This
is what ultimately leads to our disengagement with the main events of the film – and this is so damaging to Howard’s apparent aim of making an exciting and moving cinematic blockbuster-type movie.
Introducing a topical storyline involving money-grabbing oil barons, the film claws back a modicum of respect as it draws parallels with the contemporary world, setting itself up as a cautionary tale for modern times.