Originally written for ReViews Magazine
Trying to make a human survival drama/monster film must be tremendously hard work. On one hand you have to develop rich characters in a larger-than life ordeal, facing interpersonal conflict in the process. On the other, you have to show a mammoth creature ripping things apart and eating people. It has to have a little of everything. And though Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea does not succeed in bringing all the ingredients to the table, it certainly tries hard. For that, I believe some applause in order.
Howard’s vision must have been to always focus on the mythical element of the story, as opposed to a straight-laced recount of whatever historical records are out there on the incident that inspired the book Moby Dick. The movie begins, as many like this one do, with a young creative type (Ben Whishaw as Herman Melville) trying to spew an old yarn out of an old curmudgeon (Brendan Gleeson)who needs to tell the truth because it is so, so important.
Everyone agrees it is indeed important, then the tale begins. And what would an epic myth be without the epic egos of men? In that, we get our leads: First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). Hemsworth puts his Thor training to use as Chase; his cocky, entitled demeanor transforming him into an unforgiving yet noble bully. Nothing will stop him from elevating him to a status he deems worthy of himself. He commands with strict authority, like when he forces a young “greenhorn” to dive into the head of a dead whale to fetch the last of the oil. Ah, sweet nectar of the Gods.
Pollard has similar traits, but with a more intolerable aristocratic sense of arrogance. He has no problem poshly reminding Chase of his lower
status—all while draped in a fine-fitting captain’s tunic. Howard is a talented enough director to know that the real story exists in these men, as their tale of arrogance, creeds, and their quest for glory leads the men into the heart of chaos…or the sea, I suppose.
And what epic, sweeping chaos it is. Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle make much use out of the harsh, beating sun, illuminating the men, the ship and the sea in a wash of orange and teal that is the South Pacific. How it shines and drapes over everything is at one time grand, exciting, sensitive, grim, and dramatic. In short, it makes everything as larger-than-life as the story itself. A notable scene involves the very first butchering of whales (as merchant whalers tend to do), wherein whales are stabbed and prodded; all while, Chase looks regretfully on as the whale rolls over dead in the ocean, its blood spurting on their faces. The lighting seamlessly helps shifts tones from bloodlust to regret. I mean, I detest whaling, but it’s hard to hate it when it looks so damn pretty.
The same happens too, when the true chaos arrives—swimming, smashing and monstrous chaos in all its CGI glory. Much like Gareth Evans did in last year’s Godzilla, Howard takes a page from the Jaws handbook and never really shows too much of the whale. Mostly it does its work off camera or in stunning aerial shots as it rams into the ship which, for it, must be a mere bath toy.
In today’s filmmaking realm, many directors would make these scenes seem bleak with some unappealing gray color palate, but Howard makes all the destruction as beautiful as it can possibly be. The tail of beast shines in the light, majestic and wondrous and then crashes into the men sending them to the depths below. An antithesis for nature itself, the whale is one moment awe-inspiring then relentless and merciless.
Sadly, here is where the movie really ends. The survivors, including Chase and Pollard, make for the sea on life rafts, spending the final hour simply surviving. Whatever the message was about, at that point, the story’s conflict leads to trials, trials lead to teamwork, and teamwork leads to a boring movie.
Sure, Howard and Mantle make every shot as interesting as possible, whether it’s titling the frame to make a thin and sickly Chase seem more intense or to make the sea seem more unforgivingly endless. Still, the characters have little else to do except starve and discuss their options—only to be driven deeper into oblivion as the whale makes the occasional appearance to mess shit up.
This is why I am a firm believer in distorting the truth. Sea does its absolute best to tell everything as it happens. The men were at odds, and greater odds brought them together for survival. But there is no story or conflict in that last part. Yarns must be spun. If the conflict wasn’t there it should’ve been written in. This is the part where I am then asked what I would’ve done instead. But I have no idea. That’s why I am quietly judging instead of creating.
Like I said earlier creating this blend of Cast Away meets Godzilla cannot be an easy feat. You have to give the audience both a riveting tale of human drama but also try and appease the masses by having Hemsworth ride down the back of a whale on a knife like Peter Pan. Neither of those fully materializes, but I stand by my intro. This movie deserves praise for its ability to take a legend and make it seem legendary thanks to stunning cinematography, sweeping set pieces, and committed performances from the lot, even if it’s not all 100 percent. Yeah, the last half is about as interesting as being drifted out to sea, but when it looks like an oil painting, it is hard to complain.