IN THE HEART OF THE SEA – A REVIEW BY HAYDEN PITTMAN

Based on the story that inspired the tale of “Moby-Dick”, acclaimed filmmaker Ron Howard’s newest film, ‘In the Heart of the Sea’, releases in theaters this weekend, and while this film tells a unique story for anyone interested in where the myth of the giant whale came from, it’s far from a flawless presentation.

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Tom Holland, Michelle Fairley, and Brendan Gleeson, this American biographical adventure thriller has an old fashion look or feel to it, uses a variety of nontraditional camera angles, features decent acting and storytelling, and has its share of dramatic moments that usually revolve around a whaler ship surviving at sea and the sailors attempting to defend themselves from a fierce giant whale. While I found multiple issues with this film, what surprised me the most were the cheap-looking special effects.

In 2000, author Nathaniel Philbrick wrote a nonfiction novel of the same name that detailed the sinking of an American whaling ship, the Essex, in 1820, which ultimately led to the tale of Moby-Dick. In both the book and the movie, a group of American whalers sail far out to sea in search of oil, and upon finding what looks to be a gold mine of whales, they encounter a large and enraged white bull sperm whale, who proceeds to stalk them and tear apart their ships. This results in the remaining sailors being shipwrecked at sea for more than 90 days, which forces them to do unspeakable actions to survive.

Because of the nature of the oil and whaling business at the time of the incident, the greedy men in charge attempt to alter the truth about what happened, so that they wouldn’t hurt their business or scare away future sailors. The movie begins some years after the major events of the story, when Herman Melville (Whishaw), the writer of “Moby-Dick”, approaches one of the only remaining survivors, Thomas Nickerson (old version played by Gleeson), in hopes that he will reveal the true events of what happened at sea. As the film goes on, it alternates between past and present as Nickerson tells his story.

Award-winning director, Ron Howard, is clearly a gifted filmmaker. He fills his film with mostly quality actors mixed with a few fresh faces, tells a solid story, and uses many unique and nontraditional camera angles. For example, deviating from the straight on, eye-level focal point shots, the film uses various perspectives from a stationary or mobile object, person or location – like a whale, ship anchor, the water, ground level, below the water, or from a bird’s eye type view. This can be distracting at times, but also seems to add something extra to the drama and action.

While the film has some solid elements, I expected more from this director, pointing to my main complaint: the vast amount of very obvious computer-generated imagery (CGI). From very early on in the film, the audience sees several wide shots of the coast and port of Nantucket, and the majority of it appears to be noticeably computer-generated. It has that shiny, glossy look to it, and the difference between what looks to be real buildings and backgrounds (sets at the very least), versus the CG scenery, is quite noticeable. Similarly, when out at sea, amongst all of the drama and action with the whales, there are several shots that have the same fake-CGI-green screen look to it.

At one point in the film, the ship’s Captain, played by Benjamin Walker, makes a statement about how men are made in God’s image, at the top of the chain, meant to rule the Earth and use nature in whatever way they see fit. It is ironic to see how quickly circumstances change, as the men are soon powerless against the giant whale and unable to control hardly anything. The movie also shows a class system of sorts at work where certain families and names hold higher authority or priority over lower citizens, which creates hostility between certain people.

There are a few scenes or moments that are difficult to watch, such as when the sailors are hunting, killing, and gutting the whales. It is fairly intense or even startling when the whales come soaring out of the water and/or come crashing into the boats and crush any man in its path. Eventually, the food runs out and the crew is forced to eat the men who die. Similarly, it can be pretty shocking to see how skinny (bones showing) and rough some of the men become after so many days without proper food and care. Chris Hemsworth, who plays First Mate, Owen Chase, describes the preparation for the film as “physically and emotionally the hardest movie I’ve been a part of”, in regards to the necessary weight loss for his character and others like him. 

‘In the Heart of the Sea’ is the kind of film that ten different people could see and give ten completely different accounts of what they thought. It has its ups and downs, quality moments and extremely weak moments, powerful at times and a let down at others. For whatever reason, it features too many cheesy, clearly fake looking special effects for my taste, and sometimes the film can be a bit dull. On the other hand, I had never heard the full story behind Moby-Dick, and I’ve long been a fan of Howard, Hemsworth, and others involved.

In the end, ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ is a mediocre adaptation of a well-known story, and attempts to tell an epic tale through a far from epic film. Assuming the look of the film is unintentional, have we not learned that even the best movies can suffer from poor effects? I expected more, especially being a film from Ron Howard, but overall, it’s not a total loss. 

This film was released in Brazil, Russia, India, and 37 other countries on Dec. 3rd to avoid competition with the new ‘Star Wars’ movie, and it will be released nationwide in the U.S. on Dec. 11th.

Rated 2 out of 5

‘In the Heart of the Sea’ is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material. The running time is 2 hours and 1 minute.

By: Hayden Pittman

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