Skip to content

Movie Review: In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea looks beautiful. Amazing. Stunning. Awesome.

In the Heart of the Sea
Directed by Ron Howard
In Theatres

"The tragedy of the Essex is the story of men. And a Demon."

Let's get this out of the way first - In the Heart of the Sea looks beautiful. Amazing. Stunning. Awesome. There are moments that are like paintings by J.M.W. Turner come to life, the haze, the mist, the light itself becoming supporting characters in this story of survival. A red mist falls on the faces of the sailors as a sperm whale succumbs to its injuries. A storm begins as a dark smudge, a black impressionistic scar across the horizon. A pod of whales moves through the ocean, the young swimming close to the matriarchs, the males protecting the group from aggressors, a three dimensional ballet starring some of the largest animals to ever live on this blue marble. A flintlock gun falls in the water after a suicide, an anchor being raised, whale viscera coating the deck of the Essex, candles melting, empty bottles hanging from a ceiling. Each and every image in this film is really a triumph.

In the Heart of the Sea is the story of the Essex, a whaler that sailed from Nantucket and was sunk by a whale thousands of kilometres off the west coast of South America. It is the story of her crew and their attempts to survive while drifting in the Pacific for 90 days. The movie is based on a book of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick.

And it's a good movie. It's not a great film. But it's good. It's just not going to be a day-changer, like the best of Ron Howard's films are. What's a day-changer? Glad you asked. You have a day off work, but there's some stuff you wanna do and some places you'd like to see but you've got a few minutes so you turn on the TV and, boom, Apollo 13's on and there goes your plans. The next two hours are going to be spent watching Tom Hanks and his crew and NASA work the problems. Apollo 13's a day-changer. In the Heart of the Sea, while fine film-making and looking great and fantastic and all, just won't be day-changer. It's good, it's just not put off buying a new jacket or getting propane good. When it comes on TV the dog will get walked. When Apollo 13 comes on, the dog settles in for the haul.

In the Heart of the Sea has a structure that is seldom seen anymore, the story of the events of 1820 are being told in 1850 by Thomas Nickerson, who was the 14 year old cabin boy on the Essex. The older Nickerson is played by Brendan Gleeson, who does an amazing job here as an aged beyond his years alcoholic tormented by the ghosts of his past. He is telling the story to Herman Melville, portrayed by Ben Whishaw. Melville is doing research for his Moby Dick, his next novel. The scenes of the haunted Nickerson and the curious novelist are fine, they really are. It's just that, sometimes, the cutting between the past and the present breaks up the story too much, interferes too much. Sometimes it strips the tension just as it's building. It really shouldn't feel like this. I mean, this is Brendan frisking Gleeson of In Bruges, one of the great films of ever, in scenes with the new Q. Jesus on a trampoline, the talent in that room.

And then there's the problem of Chris Hemsworth's accent. I don't know what happened, I don't know if maybe his dialect coach had some days off or what, but, man that accent slips and slides like a puppy on ice. And this is an actor who showed what he could do in Rush, where his accent never, ever slipped. Where he completely sold his James Hunt as a man of London, his Owen Chase is like some mix of Australian and north England and I don't know what. It's not enough to take you completely out of the movie, but, at times, it is a distraction. A swing for the parking lot that lands with a solid thud in the infield.

But, overall, Hemsworth's performance is fine. He really captures the hubris and the greed that leads to the Essex disaster. And he really does capture the self-recrimination that follows, as Owen Chase tries to come to terms with what has happened and what has to happen in order to survive. I've been a fan of Chris Hemsworth since Star Trek, when he had to sell George Kirk as a man who would sacrifice himself for the greater good with only mere moments of screen time. And it pains me to write this, but, man, there are moments in In the Heart of the Sea when his accent really does need some work.

The performances are generally fine. Cillian Murphy is fine as second mate Matthew Joy, as is Tom Holland as the young Thomas Nickerson. And I just realized that In the Heart of the Sea is going to be your only chance to see Thor, Scarecrow and the new Spiderman hunt whales. Anyway, the supporting cast is really strong. With lesser actors the roles could have just been a blur of "who was that? I thought he died three scenes ago". Instead, each of the crew stands out as individuals. Also, for Game of Thrones fans this movie is a great opportunity to see a large chunk of that cast doing something different.

Anyway. Overall, In the Heart of the Sea is worth seeing, especially on a really big screen in 3D. It wasn't shot in 3D, but, geez Louise, there has been some serious movement in conversion technology. I actually said "whoa" out loud in the theatre a few times. It is a big, old-fashioned film that just looks jaw droopingly good on a big screen. Sure, it's clunky at times and the imposition of modern mores on 19th century whalers feels clumsy and forced. But, damn, this is a film that needs to be seen in a good theatre on a big screen with a good sound system while wearing those Ray Ban looking 3D glasses. It really does.

And now, let us discuss this - In the Heart of the Sea is probably the worst marketed film of the year.

Going into the theatre, just based on the trailers, I was expecting two hours of man on whale violence. The entire Jaws series remade with a killer whale replacing the killer shark. "Vengeance is mine", the killer whale yells as it hunts our hero across the length and breadth of the world. Ending with a spectacular show down between the killer whale and the wife of our hero when she vacations in the Bahamas. Instead, In the Heart of the Sea is a made up of all the stuff from the best Ron Howard movies - survival, man vs nature, man vs man, hubris and greed and the problems they bring, the respect that is born when rivals prove their worth to each other. If this movie had been marketed as a Ron Howard film, as a film with the multilayered themes that most of us expect from his films, as a film by the guy that brought the world Rush and Frost/Nixon and Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind and Ransom and Apollo 13, especially Apollo 13, this movie would be one of the most anticipated of the year. Instead the powers-that-be decided the best idea was to market it as Thor vs whale and throw in the line "based on the story that inspired Moby Dick". Which might have worked if Chris Hemsworth was a big enough star to open a film on his own. He's a talented character actor and he's distractingly handsome, but he's not that big of a star. Yet. I mean, sure, he's been in some of the highest-grossing films of the last few years. But four of them were comic book movies and one of them was Star Trek. And it still might have worked if anyone under the age of 45 had read Moby Dick. And gave even the minimalist of damns about Moby Dick. But they don't and the early box office notices are showing just how little good the campaign did this film.

And now, some notes.

Usually these things are every two weeks. For the rest of the year they're going to be coming fast and heavy. Next week expect a review of Star Wars: The Force Awakes. And the week after that some kind of year end wrap-up.

And last week I reviewed Creed. And if you're looking for more Creed goodness, check the Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of all Time Period podcast. W. Kamau Bell and Kevin Avery host this podcast that is usually about all things Denzel Washington but this week they interview Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington, the director and one of the writers of Creed. It is a rip roaring good time, with stories of making the movie and such. And top 5 Denzel Washington movies lists are shared. So, yeah, go search for Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period and download the latest episode. You really should download them all, they're all great, not a bad one in the bunch. You can thank me later.