Cinematic Releases: In the Heart of the Sea

Andrew gets capsized by the inspiration behind Moby Dick.

Herman Melville's Moby Dick, that timeless tale of Captain Ahab versus Leviathan in the form of a white whale deep in the no-man's-land of the ocean, gets a new take (sort of) with Apollo 13 director Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea.  An IMAX 3D venture with just a few more CGI spectacles of disaster, whale blubber, starvation, water and interchangeable human characters, this could make a good double-bill with Everest, that other uninvolving IMAX 3D movie which took a terrifying story of duress and survival and drained whatever life the tale had dry.  Told in flashback, In the Heart of the Sea concerns Melville's (Ben Whishaw) interview of Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last survivor of the Essex which was attacked and sank by a white whale.  Think the introduction to James Cameron's Titanic in which an elderly Rose recalls her account of the events and the proceeding film consists of elaborate flashbacks, darting in and out of the present-time interview.  

Ready to harpoon my own career.
The premise behind In the Heart of the Sea, based Nathaniel Philbrick's non-fiction novel of the same name, is an intriguing 'what-if' set to torpedo pop cultural consciousness' interpretation of Moby Dick and sheds light on how much truth found it's way into the classic work of fiction.  The only problem here is Melville's take on Nickerson's harrowing ordeal featured Captain Ahab and was a compelling parable that made you care about it's cast of characters and was therefore infinitely more frightening.  Whether this was intended or not, Howard's film version of In the Heart of the Sea gives you little reason to care about any of it's stereotypes, whether it be Chris Hemsworth's heroic and veteran whaler Owen Chase or Benjamin Walker's tyrannical Mutiny on the Bounty captain George Pollard, Jr.  Even Cillian Murphy's role is pretty much thankless and underutilized beyond staring in horror at CGI images of a towering whale approaching crashing down on the ship.  This is another one of those disaster films with a star studded cast that isn't given much to do beyond looking frightened.  What could have been a genuinely terrifying story made all the more harrowing by it's connection to reality instead is a half-baked cartoon of CGI water, mammals and half-bored performances by it's unlucky cast.

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And by unlucky, Howard has really put his actors through the gamut.  Augmented by the 3D effects, In the Heart of the Sea shows its characters facing starvation, drought and dementia, growing steadily more emaciated, bloodied and sickly looking as the ominous whale relentlessly pursues the flailing lifeboats Jaws the Revenge style.  Clearly there's a lot of physical acting being asked of the actors and given the poor box office reception currently facing In the Heart of the Sea, it's kind of sad seeing the actors' weighty sacrifice to little avail.  Much like the aforementioned Everest, this is a 3D movie intent on highlighting a gradual foray into physical human suffering in close-up, drawn out to make the sunburns and starvation weigh as heavy as possible on the viewer.  References to cannibalism are implied but they never come out and say or even show it, surprising given how much In the Heart of the Sea gleefully rubs our faces inside a dead whale's blubber and oil covered maw.  Visually, the film is peppered with moments of inspired close-ups of things we'd rather not be knee deep in, such as a wide-angled shot of whale fat being sliced or harpoons being sharpened with the 3D threatening to poke our eyes out.  The film also has, much like Everest, a decidedly bleak look to the proceedings thanks to Lars Von Trier's cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, with many green and baige hues giving the film a somewhat seasick tonality.  

'A whale of a tale or two'!
It grieves me to say that I won't be recommending In the Heart of the Sea despite my affinity for Moby Dick.  My friendly suggestion would be to see John Huston's 1956 adaptation of the story instead with a searing performance by Gregory Peck as Ahab, in my opinion the definitive interpretation of the character.  I'm sure the non-fiction work upon which In the Heart of the Sea is a compelling ordeal to read, but as for Howard's film, it's an overproduced misfire that never really registers despite how many loud sound effects and pounding waves of water hit your 3D glasses.  Word has it this was originally set to come out around March this year but was pushed back to December, an odd decision as dumping ground stuff (which this absolutely qualifies as) is generally reserved for January through March.  No matter.  Whatever the reasons were for releasing it in December, it's yet another failure to add to Warner Brothers' growing laundry list of flops for 2015.  A real shame because Ron Howard is more than capable of making a solid historical piece based on a true story which deserves to be told.  Perhaps one day he'll have another great film in him, but after In the Heart of the Sea, that sadly won't be for a while.


-Andrew Kotwicki