In the Heart of the Sea resorts to lingering on cold, robotic characters”

by Steve Pulaski

Watching a two hour film showing a static shot Herman Melville slaving over a typewriter, mumbling under his breath, and sweating profusely while writing “Moby Dick” would be more interesting and insightful than Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, a film about the story that inspired the classic novel. The film revolves around Herman Melville (played by Ben Whishaw) obtaining the story from Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson in his later years), who survived a shipwreck in 1820 that left him and his crew stranded on a life-boat in the middle of the ocean for three months, more than a thousand miles from land. The story recounts the ship known as “Essex,” captained by George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker) and Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Also on board is the boat’s second officer, Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), and a young Nickerson, who serves as the ship’s cabin boy.

Upon the ship wrecking and subsequently ripping in half by an enormous bull sperm whale, the four men take refuge on a small life boat with dwindling food supply. They realize that if they can somehow attack and kill the whale with the equipment they have, they can put themselves out of harm’s way and perhaps have a sustainable food source. The idea is so outlandish that it just might work.

When I first heard about In the Heart of the Sea, I immediately grew excited. Knowing that most of the film would take place on the seas, I automatically assume human interest and character development would take prominence over everything else, and even hoped for Charles Leavitt’s script to hit some survivalist notes. The problem with “In the Heart of the Sea” is its emphasis on cinematic polish, resorting to dialog that feels and sounds heavily scripted and situations that feel directly stripped out of a screenwriting book about concocting a problematic, but more elegant and story-based, disaster film. Rather than focusing on a minimalist premise and making a film in the vein of All is Lost, Life of Pi, or Open Water, In the Heart of the Sea resorts to lingering on cold, robotic characters, an unsubtle score that emphasizes how you should feel and when you should feel that way, and a narrative that lacks any compelling human interest.

In the Heart of the Sea
Directed by
Ron Howard
Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson
Release Date
11 December 2015
Steve’s Grade: D

While recognizable faces like Chris Hemsworth, Brendan Gleeson, and Benjamin Walker may prolifically grace the screen, they may as well be up-and-coming actors with how little personality Howard and Leavitt have given them. Everybody here doesn’t feel invested in the screenplay, nor too motivated or entranced by the story and legacy of “Moby Dick.” This isn’t necessarily the actors’ fault because there’s nothing to really grab on to in terms of their character nor their motivations. Everybody speaks with that stunning coldness that dehumanizes people in films and leaves them as nothing more than empty vessels that spew dialog when required. Not a single line of dialog in this film resonates, and when you have four characters stranded at sea and made even more helpless by the presence of a dangerous behemoth of a whale, nearly every word should have some sort of resonation or, at the very least, carry some weight.

But In the Heart of the Sea never really finds itself focusing on the story’s vast setting of the ocean, due to the fact we have to keep cutting back to Melville talking to Nickerson in his old age. The constant desire and impulse to change settings in order to break free from one core setting is the biggest screenwriting flaw with films that should be confined to a sole setting. We have the potential to feel as trapped and as wayward as the characters, but by constantly backpedaling or flashing-forward, there is no locational connection. Throw in a score that needs to capitalize on every emotional occurrence in the film to make the audience realize that what we’re witnessing should effect us in some manner, and you have a film with desperately little confidence in its audience.

In the Heart of the Sea was originally going to be released in March of 2015, but was pushed back until December, yet had release date conflicts with Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and was pushed up a week in advance (because, you know, that one week advantage over Star Wars will guarantee that everyone who wants to see this film will see it and then not totally forget about it the next week in favor of the biggest film of the decade). A lot of effort to try and obtain Oscar nominations that this film likely won’t get and doesn’t deserve.