Though a visual spectacle that highlights the barren beauty of the South Pacific, the trials of the whaling ship Essex, in In the Heart of the Sea are as substantively full of air as her sails. Based on the true, riveting struggle of the Essex, In the Heart of the Sea fails to capture the tale in any sort of epic proportion. Grand concepts are not met with grand execution. The minimal characterization leaves hollow feelings toward the Essex’s crew and their plight, drastically stifling the gravity of their two-and-a-half-year journey. Its cinematography is admirable at points, with clear care taken in certain frames as well as a markedly inoffensive use of CG. Despite some shortcomings, In the Heart of the Sea remains enjoyable in its simplicity.
Heart of the Sea is framed by Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) recounting his time aboard the Essex to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw.) After some prodding from Melville, Nickerson re-envisions the past and begins his account. Setting sail from Nantucket, Mass., the Essex is lead by Capt. George Pollock, Jr. (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Around the southern tip of South America, the arduous and brutal business of whaling takes its physical and mental toll on both the captain and crew. Just when the fruits of their labor are about to be fully reaped in a plentiful killing, something strikes back. A giant whale, specifically. The ancient creature incites the ensuing struggle for survival and sanity.
Cinematographically, the intent behind many of the film’s shots is impressive. Mirror images and symbolic pairings served as interesting juxtapositions of thematic ideas pertaining to survival and morality. Certainly the undesirable choices faced by the crew of the Essex warrant such commentary. These instances are few, but their presence is unavoidably discernable in their respective scenes and adds to the visual weight of their narrative moments.
Additionally, the use of CG is sometimes integrated into scenes in unobtrusive fashions. Off in the background, the cityline of 1820s Boston is clearly visible, but is neither the focal point nor a distraction to the scene playing out in the foreground. This kind of CG use is a fluid and constructive addition to the practical sets. The great white whale and the other marine mammals are presented eloquently enough, while it is apparent that they are computer generated. Their presence on screen is brief and deftly designed enough, under the cover of the ocean, to create a striking and believable image of their immense size and strength.
On the ocean, the break of waves over the bow and the spray of water over the haggard crewmates is one of the most visually striking visual aspects, putting the horror of the situation in stark contrast with the beautiful vision of mother nature that the ocean, in its terrifying magnificence, holds. The CG used in the film elevates these effects in certain scenes.
The most vapid part of Heart of the Sea lies in its characterization and narrative progression. Interpersonally, the relationships between characters, like the tensions between Captain and First Mate, are established in a single scene and play out in a predictable fashion. The summation of these relationships leaves something more meaningful to be desired. Only so much time is permitted to glean an insight into the crew’s lives and endeavors at sea. Time on the boat seems to go fast and evolves unimaginatively. The crew’s relationship, therefore, appears extremely underdeveloped as the almost three-year journey is summed up in two or three critical scenes.
In the strongest performance in the film, Chris Hemsworth brings vigor and dominance to the face of his character, shouting for topsails, masts, and harpoons at the ready. The rest of the cast, including Tom Holland as Young Nickerson, does commendable work in the limited capacities they were given to do so.
One of the more unfortunate aspects of the film comes in its handling of the framing story. Ultimately, it could be left out or more easily summed up in a title card or two. The intention behind the scenes is clearly to provide some impression that the actual story will have a moral struggle and anguish, but the intermissions where the film shifts back to the framing story are clunky and obtrude upon the more engaging story. The performances by Gleeson, Whishaw, and Michelle Fairley, as Mrs. Nickerson, are laudable, but the heart of the film lies out under the beating sun of the Pacific. These scenes inconvenience the rest of the film and, in their place, more apt character development could have strengthened emotional ties to characters.
In the Heart of the Sea is an enjoyable adventure, thanks to its visual spectacle. The overall effect of the film is disappointing, especially when considering the grandeur of the tale was such that it inspired a Great American Novel. Suffering from a cluttered narrative, viewers hoping for something more meaningful may find themselves feeling like Tom Holland, a new greenhand, tasked to scoop precious whale oil out of a dead whale’s head. Enveloped by its massive head, he finds the inside rather hollow.
Featured Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures