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Overall Rating

Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look: 12.5%
Average: 12.5%
Pretty Bad75%
Total Crap: 0%

1 review, 2 user ratings

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In the Heart of the Sea
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by Jay Seaver

"Disappointing, but there may be the raw materials of a good story here."
2 stars

So much time is spent during "In the Heart of the Sea" on reminding the viewer that this tale was the inspiration for "Moby Dick" that said viewer might find himself or herself wanting that as opposed to the movie they're watching. We know Herman Melville (here played by Ben Whishaw) is going to refine this story into something brilliant, and we never get the sense that this film's creators are going to do better than okay.

Scenes of Melville visiting Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last survivor of the 1820 voyage of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship that, officially, ran aground. When Melville and Nickerson's wife (Michelle Fairley) finally coax the real story out of him, it's revealed that the ship, voyaging far from land in the Pacific during a particularly lean voyage, encountered a gigantic whale that not only wrecked the ship, but seemed to continue on the trail of the survivors in the small whaling boats they used to escape. Desperate to simply survive, the conflict between ship's captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a young and inexperienced scion of a notable Nantucket whaling family, and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), born to farmers but an extremely gifted seaman, is rather petty.

There's a sort of truth in fiction that is harder to find in stories that hew closer to actual events, an ability to focus, isolate, and emphasize; it may lead to a simplified story, but there are worse problems for a film to have. This one, for instance, spends a lot of time setting up various elements - the conflict in the backgrounds of Pollard and Chase, the extreme lengths of whaling voyages, the unpleasantness of certain parts of the job - only to shove them very far on the back-burner when it comes time for the grueling fight for survival to start. There's honesty to that; most whalers were likely practical enough people to not waste time on such things when their lives are on the line. The trouble is, even that aspect of it isn't given much time - the whalers' struggle to survive seldom feels like an extension of who they were before the Essex was destroyed, beyond Chase being quite practical and capable.

And whie the actual time at sea has a fair number of harrowing moments, the continual cutting away to the "present" of 1850 gives the audience a respite. It's not just reminders that at least some characters will make it back alive - that's not necessarily ideal, but it's not itself a real problem - as much as it is that it breaks up the ordeal. In some cases director Ron Howad does just give the viewer a chance to release tension but actively undercuts it, making sure to offer forgiveness even before the horrible thing done has sunk in (and also providing an excuse to cut away and distance the audience from it). Perhaps most frustrating of all, there's a scene where Melville's nervousness at how to approach telling this story is positioned as equivalent to the secrets Nickerson has been carrying around - it is not, and including such a scene feels like a tone-deaf act of egotism on the filmmakers' part.

The biggest surprise, though, is how drab the film soon becomes. The early images of ships at sea are beautiful and exciting, and the details of how these men sail the Essex intrigue, but when the action starts, Howard seems to lack creativity. The battles with the whale lack thrills or dread, or even a modern revisionist feel of these guys getting what they deserve. Howard, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, and the effects crew always seem to be too close to the action, seldom taking advantage of the freedom to show what is going on in both context and detail that the sea offers. It's somewhat surprising, because Howard is usually quite good at laying a situation out so that the audience can understand the stakes, but almost everything about this filmis flat and disconnected.

To a certain extent, that goes for the cast. Chris Hemsworth is a fairly bright spot as Owen Chase, even if his accent does seem to wander; Chase's private frustration and the well-earned self-confidence that allows him to be an effective leader are put across well. It's a dull crew on the ship after him, though, with Benjamin Walker unable to find a spot that makes Pollard interesting and Cillian Murphy wasted as the second mate - we're told he recently stopped drinking, but otherwise he just blends in with a lot of bearded (mostly) white men during the film's second half. Even Brendan Gleeson has a hard time stealing scenes that are almost handed to him.

"In the Heart of the Sea" is not actively disappointing while one is watching it; the people involved are good enough at their job to not obviously misstep. But when it gets to the end and the fact that its events inspired a great novel remains foremost in the mind, that's fairly damning - a story with such dramatic events and rich background should inspire more emotions for its own sake, not for what someone else would later do with it.

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originally posted: 12/14/15 05:51:41
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User Comments

12/24/15 Langano Decent flick, nothing special. 3 stars
12/14/15 rcurrier I thoroughly enjoyed this film. 4 stars
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  11-Dec-2015 (PG-13)
  DVD: 08-Mar-2016

  26-Dec-2015 (12A)

  DVD: 08-Mar-2016

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