Tuesday, December 15, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea: A Long Voyage Home With An Empty Hull

Chris Hemsworth in Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea.

I’m not prepared to comment on Ron Howard’s career as a whole (Phil Dyess-Nugent’s 2013 review of Rush does that effortlessly already), but I can speculate on what it appears he was trying to achieve with In the Heart of the Sea, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction opus about the sinking of the Nantucket whaleship Essex. He might have been trying to apply the same flashy Hollywood lacquer he did to Rush or Apollo 13 to yet another historical yarn, or he might have genuinely tried to do justice to this incredible true story (both approaches are troubling, for their own reasons). Or, he might have just been indulging his inner ten-year-old, having fun playing with tall ships. However admirable – or otherwise – his intent, the final product unfortunately comes out as a muddled mashup of all three: a bright, but severely undercooked period piece.

I wasn’t aware until recently that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was itself based in part on a survivor’s account of the Essex, which was crushed by a fearsome sperm whale, leaving her crew stranded and starving in the Pacific Ocean. That survivor was first mate Owen Chase, played in Howard’s film by a scarred, swarthy Chris Hemsworth – but the movie takes a step further and frames Chase’s story through the eyes of teenage deckhand Tom Nickerson (Tom Holland), who relates the sordid tale of the Essex as an old man (Brendan Gleeson) to an eager Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw). This framing device has the dual effect of crowding an already interesting adventure story with an unnecessary historical context, and deeply confusing anyone like me who had no idea that Philbrick’s book was at all related to Moby Dick, or that either of them were connected to this film in a meaningful way.

The story of the Essex – that is, her ambitious whaling charter, her disastrous ruin, the prolonged suffering of her crew, and even the disputes of class and rank among her officers – is a ripping good yarn, one that Howard simplifies and glosses over to the exclusion of the story’s most interesting elements. We see the crew draw straws as they starve in their lifeboats – but the horror of cannibalizing their shipmates is left for Gleeson to impart; we don’t see it affect them in the moment. At one point, the young Nickerson is forced to climb inside a whale carcass to harvest its oil, but Howard cuts away from it almost immediately, again, as though to protect us from the uncomfortable details. Why? Linger on that, make me feel the disgust and claustrophobia of it! Nobody else is making a movie in which a teenager has to climb into a giant, recently-dead whale head – but many others have made films in which handsome men shout at each other on the deck of a ship, so keeping the focus on that Horatio Hornblower stuff isn’t doing the film any favours.

I would decry the film’s lack of realism, except that it doesn’t really try for it. Nickerson relates details he couldn’t possibly know due to his character being absent during some scenes, and Melville’s insecurities about being a poor writer – meant to mirror the hardships that Nickerson and crew endured at sea – pale in comparison to the tale he’s transcribing. I just watched a man bludgeoned to death by the tail of a massive animal that’s bent on killing everyone in sight: sorry Mr. Melville, I can’t spare much sympathy for the tortured artist. I don’t think Howard was aiming for verisimilitude, but then if that’s the case, he should have ditched the framing device and tried to mine more fantasy and feeling from the adventure yarn at the centre of the film.

Brendan Gleeson (right), with Ben Whishaw, in In the Heart of the Sea.

The one good thing that can be said for the Melville scenes is Gleeson’s haunted, embittered performance. His eyes are dark with trauma, but will occasionally sparkle with the energy of the fearless young sailor he used to be – especially once the most horrifying parts of his story are told, and his long-dormant confession is made. He’s a real treasure; mostly everyone else is disposable. I frankly don’t sense the same charisma from Chris Hemsworth that everyone else does. He’s a very hunky man with a very imposing screen presence but “charismatic” is not at all how I would describe him – if he looked even half as good as he does, I doubt we’d even be talking about him (like his unfortunate sibling Liam “we couldn’t get the actor we wanted” Hemsworth, from the Hunger Games films to the upcoming Independence Day sequel). Here Chris is handsome, heroic, and speaks in a laughable imitation of a Massachusetts accent, but that’s it – he doesn’t plumb the depths of the psyche that his character’s ordeal might suggest, and Howard doesn’t ask him to.

What Howard does deliver, in his sophomorically enthusiastic way, is some of the same excitement that makes these tales of adventure at sea so romantic and enduring. The sequences in which the crew is hunted by their massive, implacable adversary (likely just doing his whalish duty by defending his pod from this gaggle of tiny ape creatures with pointy pain-sticks) are gripping and very well-edited. The excellent sound design helps in suggesting the terrifying mass of the whale as it cuts through the ocean, and the cinematography by Howard mainstay Anthony Dod Mantle is beautiful and engrossing, if occasionally disorienting. Thankfully I don’t get motion sickness, or I might add “nauseous” to that list. The film relies much too heavily on CGI to generate its action sequences, to the point where even the advertising can’t disguise it (my parents, on hearing that I’d seen the film, referred to it as “the one with all the CGI?”). But the overbearing and occasionally dodgy computer work didn’t stop some of the shots from being full of kinetic energy, including the same kind of low-to-the-ground GoPro shots you see in Rush – except this time the car was a murderous whale whizzing through the sea foam. (I wondered idly which intrepid 19th century naturalist would be brave enough to attach such a camera, if they had one.) The colour timing, full of harsh orange and whites, looked as though they wanted to imitate the tintype photography of the period, and the frequent use of fisheye lenses also gave the impression of looking through a spyglass – but these visual stylings are totally at odds with the CGI-heavy action sequences, making for an arresting but incoherent overall look for the movie.

In the Heart of the Sea touches on fascinating internal conflicts like Chase’s lowborn lineage, the harsh financial dealings of the Nantucket oil industry, nepotism in the naval world, and the darkest parts of survival at sea. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually explore any of these things, supplanting them with irritating concessions to modern attitudes about whaling, which are totally nonsensical in the context of the film’s period (including lingering shots, once their first kill is made, of Nickerson weeping in sympathy for the murdered beast and Chase looking handsomely into the middle distance, like he’s forgotten where he is). The film can’t decide if it wants to be an authentic nautical film full of genuine texture like Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, or an amped-up Hollywoodized adaptation like Rush, and settles for being kinda sorta both. It’s really too bad, because Howard was handed an incredible story on a silver platter, and it was ruined by his internal struggle between the “serious auteur” he wants to be and the boyish genre filmmaker he actually is.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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