Release: 2nd May 2016
Format: BR / DVD / DGTL
In the winter of 1820, the New England whaling ship Essex was assaulted by something no one could believe: a whale of mammoth size and will, and an almost human sense of vengeance. Braving storms, starvation, panic and despair, the crew will call into question their deepest beliefs, from the value of their lives to the morality of their trade, as their captain searches for direction on the open sea and his first mate still seeks to bring the great whale down.
Never mind the white whale, Ron Howard’s operatic tale of man versus nature turned out to be a bit of a white elephant. For all intents and purposes, Warners had set this one up as Howard’s big Oscar contender for 2016. From the man who, ‘brought us Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon’, this should have been a shoe-in for the great ginger one.
Instead of tiny space modules or television sets, In The Heart Of The Sea’s protags find struggle in the confines of a tiny row-boat. The problem is that their acting is more wooden than the vessel keeping it afloat. And therein lies In The Heart Of The Sea’s biggest problem, watching these men get tormented by a seemingly malicious whale is more rewarding than seeing any of them survive.
The film is bookended with Ben Whishaw’s Herman Melville, slavishly goading old drunk Brendan Gleeson into detailing his murky history. What initially promises to be a, ‘dead men tell no tales’ salty sea dog story, quickly descends into feathery Hallmark material. The film’s atmosphere runs from the fishy retch-fest of guts and gills to something far worse; ugly green screens and clunky dialogue. This is all very surprising, as Howard is not one to flounder (pardon the pun) too much in the gauche, but he somehow loses himself in a world that is neither true to the romantic tone of Melville’s novel, or indeed to Howard’s own melodramatic voice.
As the voyage gets underway, we unload some of the boredom and watch Chris Hemsworth heroically(?) murder young whales. This is In The Heart Of The Sea’s more interesting themes, as it neither condemns or condones his actions. There is some twisted logic about Hemsworth ‘respecting’ his kills, but Howard cannot skirt the issue that these men simply killed for the sake of profit. So instead, just chooses to show it. This was a living to some at a given time, and there is little thought given to the attitude of it being inhumane. This does, at the very least, momentarily spark up the old grey matter in your noggin’; which no doubt to this point in the film had all but shut down.
The odd set piece follows, and as you might expect, Howard is a deft hand at all that. One cannot deny that with a film such as this, visual effects are necessary, but for some reason the effect artists here have mistaken DaVinci Resolve as an effects tool rather than a colour grading programme. Greens and greys are used in such liberal quantities; one might be forgiven for thinking In The Heart Of The Sea is somehow set in the same universe as The Matrix. There’s tone, and then there is colour-blindness. At one point, half the actors look as though they have jaundice and/or haven’t seen sunlight in a decade.
With a cast as promising as the one provided here, you’d expect this to be the film’s strength. Unfortunately, our thesps have less to chew on than the starving crew of the Essex, and we are (literally and metaphorically) left with lethargic, skeletal characters. It isn’t a bad film, per se, but rather a pretty uninspired one. As an audience we should at least be feeling some of the loss on show. Instead, In The Heart Of The Sea, leaves you feeling really rather cold and more than a little sea sick.
Film Grade: C-
Go beyond the movie, and find that In The Heart Of The Sea is packing a healthy dose of special features. First on the bill is Twitter advert, Ron Howard: Captain’s Log. In fairness to Howard, this seems to be a nice scrapbook for him and explains why he is keen to share.
A few looks at the film’s authenticity come as Chase & Pollard: A Man of Means and a Man of Courage, then in The Hard Life of a Whaler and finally in Whale Tales: Melville’s Untold Story. The latter is the most enjoyable to watch, if only to witness all the euphemisms for, ‘yikes, Moby Dick is a pretty dull book.’
A more concise making of can be found with Commanding the Heart of the Sea. It is a half-decent exploration of the film’s creation, and worth a watch. Meanwhile, you can probably skip the Deleted and Extended Scenes and the Island Montage.
The biggest feature is conservation doc / historical narrative, Lightning Strikes Twice: The Real-Life Sequel to Moby-Dick. It is a truly unbelievable look at the pig awful luck of Captain Pollard. Seriously, you would not have wanted to be at sea with the man.
Special Features Grade: B-
In The Heart Of The Sea, like the Essex, took a real beating. Catch in Blu-Ray, and you’ll see the backlash was a tad unfair, but this is Ron Howard far away from at his best. Shame really.