Overview: The crew of a whaling vessel are attacked by a giant whale. Warner Bros. Pictures; 2015; Rated PG-13; 121 Minutes.
Rising Tide: Lately in Hollywood, there’s been an increasing number of productions that market themselves as an “untold” or “real” story of a famous piece of literature. Director Ron Howard brings us the newest in this trend with In the Heart of the Sea, an adaptation of the 2000 Nathanial Philbrick novel of the same name, a story of true events that inspired the writing of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Howard does a good job at framing this source narrative, focusing on the recounting of the tragic events as told by a single crew member struggling with personal demons. Witnessing Thomas Nickerson’s (Brendan Gleeson) confession unfold as a singular narrative, supplemented by his crew’s shared fears and shortcomings at least sets up the characters and conflicts of the main story in an interesting format. It’s just a shame that the second half of the film doesn’t put those established components to good use.
Shallow Waters: There are a number of ways the story of Moby-Dick could be told and adapted to a different medium. The film could’ve been anything from a story of a man obsessed with taking revenge on a sea beast that attacked him, to a movie that advocated animal rights. But the film itself expresses no interest in tackling any of those deeper topics, and instead opts for a trivial and shallow survival story. The film totally drops the ball in the second half, as stretches of runtime go by wherein nothing happens. All of the tension between characters and their motivations are figuratively lost at sea when every drawn-out scene is solely focused on showing how depressing it is to be in said predicament. There’s one scene wherein Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) contemplates not fighting nature, namely the whale, and the climax tries to be pay off from that scene, but the development is too thin and the character’s dynamic with the whale itself, as object or symbol, is never clearly defined. It’s like Life of Pi without any overt themes of spirituality, or 127 Hours without the extreme depiction of the perseverance of the human spirit; instead, In the Heart of the Sea is a survival film without any life force to strive for.
Oh Whale: Howard’s approach to the material is questionable, as the film is slow paced without driving towards not anything remarkable. It’s not even the visual journey that the marketing made it out to be. The film itself looks dour and ugly, with awkward cinematography to match. It was probably replicating how it actually feels to be on a ship for a few months, but even so, it just made watching the film an unpleasant experience. That being said, the visual design of the many featured whales was the most attractive aspect of the film, even if the film treats the main whale as a random occurrence of special effects instead of an actual character.
Overall: In the Heart of the Sea is an unremarkable addition to the Moby-Dick mythos. It would rather focus on a dull, starved drama than explore the deeper themes of America’s most famous literary epic.