Moby Dick, the classic novel by author Herman Melville, right? Right?!? I'd hope so. If not, go check out a library. What many folks don't know is that Melville's story is partially based on a true story, the tragic story of the Essex (don't read if you don't want to find out some MAJOR SPOILERS). It's gotten a feature film adaptation getting somewhat mixed reviews, but you should decide for yourself with 2015's In the Heart of the Sea.
It's 1820 on Nantucket and the whaling ship the Essex is set to embark on a long voyage that will last at least a year and could stretch as long as two or three. The ship has a new commander, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), who's relatively inexperienced but who will be aided by a very capable first officer, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). With a crew of 21, the Essex sets sail on a voyage that will take them south through the Atlantic and west into the Pacific as they seek to fill their hold with hundreds of barrels of oil they will produce by killing as many whales as they can track. After months at sea though, they have little to show for their work, forcing Walker to give the orders to go further out into the Pacific where reports of waves of whales offer an enticing potential for success. What awaits though in the vast expanses of the unexplored ocean? Even the experienced sailors on-board the Essex couldn't predict what awaits them.
This recent release from director Ron Howard is based on a book of the same name by author Nathan Philbrick. SPOILERS AHEAD SPOILERS Writing in a simple, straightforward style (much appreciated!), Philbrick goes into detail of the time, the people and the tragic events that took place. While thousands of miles away from land in the Pacific, the Essex was attacked by an immense sperm whale and ultimately sunk, leaving the crew stranded at sea with limited supplies and no real hope of rescue in sight. Knowing it is the truth, it is a terrifying story to read, to know that these men experienced that pure terror. Melville's novel actually ends about halfway through the real-life story so don't think you've read and/or seen it all already! An interesting, uncomfortable read, but one that's worth it if you're a reader. RELATIVE END OF SPOILERS
Howard has tackled a pretty massive undertaking in turning the story and Philbrick's book into a feature film. The book itself isn't that big -- about 250 pages -- but it covers a ton of ground, both in terms of story, character and setting the time period. 'Heart' then has to cram all that into a movie that's about two hours long. It was originally scheduled to be released last March but was pushed back to a December release, and that's never a good thing. The story itself is interesting, and the acting is solid throughout with a cool storytelling and framing device, but it's missing that special something. The music is okay but nothing too memorable. The visual look of the movie is interesting, a bluish/green hue permeating the story. But when taken as a whole, 'Heart' doesn't have that one thing to take it up a notch or two from good to great or even really good.
Where it succeeds is the scope and scale. An early shot of the Essex is startling, a ship that's 87 feet long and barely makes a blip on the ocean's expanse. This is a little ship in a big old ocean. Long establishing shots of the ocean are unsettling, especially considering where the story is heading. There's no easy rescue available. If something happens, these men are on their own. That premise hits you at your very core, makes you realize how desperate survival really can be. The whale attack on the Essex is a quick, unsettling scene that I wish was actually a little longer and more drawn out to really let it breathe. The tension-building and foreshadowing of what's coming is highly effective, a massive whale bigger than any ever seen doing something that has never been seen just waiting in the unexplored depths of the ocean to strike. So yeah, the scope and scale are on point, but as for the more emotional moments...
They just aren't there. I felt very little connection with any of the characters, an issue with the immensity of the story. You've got so much to do as a director, so many goals you want to achieve, but what do you cut? Unfortunately here in 'Heart,' it's that emotional connection that allows us to get to know the characters, to sympathize with them through their horrifying trials at sea where death seems far more welcome than living at so many times. Hemsworth is solid, a capable officer seeking a captaincy of his own with one more successful voyage. Walker too is good as Pollard, a rivalry developing between the two men about how to command, a deep-rooted issue going back to both men's backgrounds and history. This puns sounds so horrifically forced and gimmicky considering the film's title, but it has very little heart. Characters pass away or disappear and we couldn't identify them if we tried. The scale/scope is excellent, but I wish it had evened out some.
Also look for Cillian Murphy in a solid supporting part as Matthew Joy, the Essex's second officer and a longtime friend of Hemsworth's Chase. Tom Holland plays Thomas Nickerson, a teenage Nantucket boy going on his first voyage. In a cool storytelling device, Ben Whishaw (Q in the Bond movies) plays Melville, seeking out a much-older Nickerson in late 1840's Nantucket, Brendan Gleeson as solid as always as Nickerson with Michelle Fairley playing his wife. Among the crew of the Essex, we see a couple faces pop up several times but never get to know them well either. Also look for Jordi Molla as a Spanish ship captain with a warning for the Essex crew as they prepare to head out to the Pacific.
Like so many historical epics and period pieces, 'Heart' seems like a prime candidate for a miniseries of some sort. Maybe a two or three-part series that would have been able to explore in more depth the the time the story takes place in, some more whaling background, the Essex's crew, the attack, and their desperate fight for survival in the wake of the improbable attack by the immense sperm whale inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. A good effort but ultimately a disappointing effort that doesn't live up to its potential.
In the Heart of the Sea (2015): ** 1/2 /****