We end the year with a whale of a tale! Ron Howard directs and Chris Hemsworth stars in this true story that also served as inspiration for the classic novel Moby-Dick…
Screenplay: Charles Leavitt, with the story co-credited to Leavitt, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Source: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
Synopsis: *Spoilers* 1850. Novelist, Herman Melville, visits the home of innkeeper, Thomas Nickerson, and persuades him to recount his experiences aboard the ill-fated whaling ship, the Essex. Nickerson begins to tell his tale…
Nantucket, 1820. Feisty farmer and whaler, Owen Chase, prepares to leave his pregnant wife and head off to sea on a voyage to hunt whales for their valuable oil.
When he reports for duty, Chase finds the Essex’s owners have reneged on a promise to make him captain. Instead, he is to serve as first-mate under George Pollard, who’s less experienced than Chase but is part of a respected whaling family. Chase reluctantly accepts his commission, on written agreement that if he brings in a boat-load of whale oil, on the next voyage he will captain the boat.
The crew, including a teenage Nickerson, prepares to set sail.
Things take a turn for the worse when Pollard orders the crew to sail into a squall, despite Chase’s warning. The ship is damaged and Pollard orders a return to shore for repair. However, the captain grudgingly accepts Chase’s insistence they continue with the voyage and collect the whale oil so they can quickly return home and be rid of each other.
The crew captures a sperm whale and gets a few barrels of oil. However, no more whales are to be found.
Months go by.
The ship docks for a while in Ecuador. The crew meets a Spanish captain who tells of a large pack of whales some distance away. The captain also tells them of a ‘demon’ white whale, some 30-foot long, who caused several of his crew to be killed and more injured. The Essex’s crew dismiss the warning and excitedly go after the large whale pack.
The crew gathers what they can and escapes in the three small harpoon boats.
Days turn into weeks, as they drift in the ocean. Supplies dwindle and tensions increase as the men grow weaker.
Chase notices the demon whale following the boats.
The boats reach an island. Chase finds the bodies of other ships’ crews in a cave and realises they will die if they remain there, as no rescue boats will find them.
Most of the crew members prepare to leave – a few decide to stay and Chase promises to send a rescue boat upon his return home.
Two of the boats set sail. Rations continue to grow scarce and one of the men dies. The rest make the decision to eat his organs and flesh, in order to stay alive.
More time passes. They draw straws to decide who will be shot and eaten. Pollard draws a short straw, but his subordinate cannot pull the trigger and instead kills himself.
The crew once again spots the demon whale. Chase gets the opportunity to take a killing shot position. But he and the whale exchange stares and Chase fails to take the shot.
The boats are separated by currents. Both boats are independently rescued with their few remaining survivors, including Pollard and Chase.
Chase reunites with his wife and young child, born while he was at sea.
The ship’s owners try to get Pollard and Chase to lie to the official enquiry into the incident – in order to protect the industry and their own financial interests. Chase refuses to talk. Pollard tells the truth.
Chase leaves Nantucket with his family.
Pollard leads another expedition to kill the mighty whale, but fails.
The older Nickerson finishes telling his story to a captivated Melville. The older man asks if Melville will put all the story into his novel – the author reassures Nickerson that it will be a work of fiction, intimating he will leave out the cannibalism, of which Nickerson remains ashamed.
Melville finishes his novel – the classic, Moby-Dick.
Analysis: *Spoilers* Sometimes a film can have all the elements in place to be a classic, yet falls short of greatness. In the Heart of the Sea is one such film.
The true-life source material is undoubtedly compelling and the filmmaking assured. However, the characterisation and the human drama feel like afterthoughts, while the film misses what should be the real thrust of the story.
Let’s start with a look at the good stuff…
Firstly, this is the historical film on an epic scale. Opt for the 3D version and you’ll be treated to an up-close-and-personal thrill ride that takes you along for the Essex’s sea voyage – from shimmying up the rigging to braving the harshest storms, via a quick trip into a dead whale carcass (fortunately there’s no smell-o-vision to accompany the 3D!).
Even the sequences that really don’t require 3D benefit from the technology, such as the street scenes and those set inside the elder Nickerson’s home.
Secondly, the set-up makes good use of the historical roots of the story. It’s a neat idea to bring in the character of Melville and get the story recounted to the engrossed novelist, who has developed an obsession with finding out about the mighty demon whale.
Thirdly, there are some strong performances from actors who could have done way more with meatier material. Benjamin Walker is fine as Pollard and Ben Whishaw does a good job with Melville. As Chase, Chris Hemsworth is suitably manly (another advantage of 3D!) and displays some real grit as the Essex’s fate goes from bad to worse. Of all the characters, Cillian Murphy’s teetotal Matthew Joy is the most interesting but suffers from too little screen time.
Now, the not-so-good…
Unfortunately, where the film veers off course is in removing the main thrust of the story that Melville developed for his novel, Moby-Dick. Here, the ship’s captain, Ahab, sets off on an obsessive quest for the titular whale, which was responsible for destroying his previous ship and severing one of his legs.
It’s this obsessive element that’s missing from In the Heart of the Sea. Aside from one destructive encounter, in which the Essex is lost, and a couple of encounters later on in the story, there’s really no sense of anyone’s ‘obsession’ with this whale.
The closest we get is during the wrap-up at the end when it’s revealed that Pollard set off on a second voyage to hunt down the whale. Surely, that’s the story that’s worth telling! Herman Melville certainly thought so…
This is really a tale of a crew struggling for survival at sea. Which is fine, as it goes. But when you sell a film on the premise of a giant whale, it kind of whets the appetite for an epic ‘man v whale’ showdown.
As it is, the structuring of the story seems a little unbalanced. This is especially true during the long stretches of time spent with the Essex boys as they float around in the sea, getting increasingly desperate.
This feeds into the second problem, which is in the by-the-numbers characterisation.
In Chase, we have the strong and reckless, square-jawed hero, with a loving, lip-trembling wife waiting for him at home. In Pollard, we have the legacy captain slightly out of his depth, who manages to ‘man up’ and rise to the occasion when disaster strikes. In Nickerson, we have the young orphan who finds a new ‘family’ on the Essex. Elsewhere, we have the usual array of ‘salty seadogs with murky pasts’ sourced direct from central casting. As a result, it’s just not easy to get all worked up about the fate of these guys.
Even the personal conflict, such as that between Chase and Pollard, feels manufactured and familiar.
Maybe the overall problem is that the film just lacks the very heart that the Essex’s crew exhibited during that fateful voyage.
The verdict? In the Heart of the Sea is one of those films that you can admire from a technical point-of-view and enjoy at face value (if the whole thought of whale hunting doesn’t put you off to begin with, of course). But ultimately, it’s a shame that it doesn’t reach the heights of the classic novel that the true-life source material also inspired.
What can screenwriters take from In the Heart of the Sea? Mostly that going the big budget Hollywood route with real-life material is tricky. You need to fill the screen with visual spectacle, which means that other elements of the story may suffer.
Go over your source material with a fine-tooth comb to ensure you really have found the ‘A’ story. It’s also important not to neglect your characters. If you’re aiming for more than just a shallow cinematic thrill, you need to look beyond the big set pieces and ensure that your characters have sufficient depth to emotionally resonate with audiences.
Issue 14 of RSL is out on 25 January.