Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 121 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 15+. This film about the whaling disaster that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” doesn’t really skimp on the tragedy of that event: people drown and kill themselves, die of infection or starvation, and resort to cannibalism to survive; there is some cursing; some kissing; and some grotesque imagery, like the starving men, boats littered with bones, and corpses. The details of whaling aren’t ignored, either, so there are numerous scenes of whales being hunted and harpooned and others of whales being butchered, with lots of blood and gross-out imagery, including a child being sent into the dead body of the whale to retrieve its insides. Not for the easily squeamish.
‘In the Heart of the Sea’ depicts the real-life whaling disaster that inspired the classic American novel ‘Moby Dick.’ But while visually detailed, the film operates at an emotional distance that makes it difficult to be invested in the tragedy onscreen.
By Roxana Hadadi
“In the Heart of the Sea” is a movie that revels in the disaster it depicts. In its exploration of the origin of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” the film loves building its characters as muscled and masculine, only to equally delight in ruining those men’s bodies to prove their strong will. The narrative is mostly accurate, given that the movie sticks very closely to the real-life tragedy that inspired “Moby Dick,” but there are too many shortcomings here that keep this story from transcending averageness.
Perhaps it’s the heavy use of CGI in the film, which keeps its antagonist – a larger-than-life whale intent on destroying the humans hunting it – obviously fake. There’s no real emotion felt from an animal that we are first supposed to fear fully and then eventually sympathize with.
Maybe it’s the lead performance from Chris Hemsworth, who is certainly handsome – the exact kind of man you would want to play an experienced, roguish sailor – but who seems to have transported his portrayal of the Norse warrior god and Avenger Thor into Nantucket instead of building a separate character.
Or perhaps it’s the film’s last-minute flirtations with philosophy, a retread of the discussions about humanity, mankind, God, and nature that dominate Melville’s “Moby Dick” and all analysis of the novel since it was published. The film operates as an action-adventure for 90 percent of the time and then tries to squeeze in this other talk 10 percent of the time, and the thematic dissonance is jarring. Certainly these are conversations to be had, with teenage viewers especially, about the journey of the men, how we consider the whaling industry now, and the dichotomy between nature and religion, but “In the Heart of the Sea” doesn’t handle these questions with the depth they require.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is told through two storylines: On Nantucket Island in 1850, author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw, of “Spectre”) meets with old sailor Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson, of “Suffragette”), the last survivor of the Essex, a ship that supposedly ran aground some dozens of years ago. But in reality, the Essex was the victim of a whaling disaster with a more-complicated history that Melville wants to hear as inspiration for his next novel – the book that would become “Moby Dick.”
With that frame in place, the film jumps back to his time on the Essex, when at 15, Nickerson (Tom Holland, of “The Impossible”) joined the whaling boat led by Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker, of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”), First Mate Owen Chase (Hemsworth, of “The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron”), and Second Mate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy, of “Transcendence”).
There was friction between Pollard and Chase – the former from a wealthy whaling family and trying to exert his dominance over the crew, the latter actually respected by the fellow sailors but refused the Captain title by the upper crust of the industry – during their quest to return with 2,000 barrels of whale oil. The job could last years, and becomes more tense when the crew crosses paths with a gigantic white whale that seems to target them specifically. Another crew calls it a “demon,” but Pollard and Chase each see their futures tied to the whale – and their dreams of fame and fortune quickly devolve into despair.
It’s not difficult to see where “In the Heart of the Sea” is going, with Nickerson’s talk of the “abominations” the men had to engage in to survive. But what is surprising is how unflinchingly director Ron Howard depicts the whaling industry – a scene of a whale being butchered is revolting and unforgettable – yet how much he whiffs on the ending. By making the film’s protagonists typical “heroes,” Howard undermines what should be the message of the film: that the white whale changed these men, haunted them, altered how they viewed nature and themselves.
Yet “In the Heart of the Sea” flirts with that idea without committing to it, and the tacked-on, faux-happy feeling of the ending feels particularly disingenuous for a story that is more tragedy than anything else. The film has numerous strong points – Gleeson’s and Murphy’s performances, the visual spectacle of fields of whales – but the flawed handling of its philosophical components and its ending are irrefutable disappointments.
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