Monday, April 4, 2016

Review: In the Heart of the Sea

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson
Director: Ron Howard
Genre: Action, Adventure
Rating: PG-13
Run time: 2 hours 2 minutes

In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of the Essex, a whaling ship from New England that sank in 1820. The film has an big budget cast with a respected director. It should have been a hit considering the timing of the release and the way it was marketed. There is an audience for films like this that goes beyond the action/adventure crowd. Anything with a buzz for being based on a true story or inspired by one gets the elderly crowd worked up. Add Ron Howard with a dash of an American classic and you should have the recipe for success.

'A recounting of a New England whaling ship's sinking by a giant whale in 1820, an experience that later inspired the great novel Moby-Dick.'  [Source: IMDB]

There are many problems plaguing Ron Howard's big budget whaling adventure. These problems could have been solved fairly easily with a bit of revision to the script. The film is framed by scenes of Moby Dick author, Herman Melville, interviewing Tom Nickerson, one of the survivors of the shipwreck. The tale that Nickerson is telling gives us the basis for the rest of the film. However, this is where the largest problems come in. 

Nickerson was a teenage green horn on the Essex. The scenes we're shown provide us with information that the teenager was never present to learn rather than show the entire film through his point of view. The novel the film was based on uses both Nickerson's account as well as the account of the first mate, Owen Chase. Simply having Melville mention that he'd spoken with Chase would have provided the additional information instead of relying on what the audience must assume were assumptions by the storyteller.

The other problems come in due to a lack of care when crafting the characters. Most come off as flat and one dimensional rather than fully realized. The Captain, George Pollard, is a highly born, privileged man who has been given his position as captain. Owen Chase, the first mate, is a skilled

sailor, but ultimately from a low class family with little respect in the community. It doesn't matter that he has the knowledge to be captain already. As expected, these two clash, but the conflict isn't given ample time to fester before it's resolved. These two characters don't really seem to grow as they progress. Even in the final aftermath, Owen is still stubborn and George is still bound to what is expected of him as a member of the higher class. Where's the growth and development?

The rest of the crew is given similar treatment with none of the characters feeling fleshed out enough for me to care about their fate when the shipwreck happens. Cillian Murphy is essentially wasted as the second mate and Owen's childhood friend, Matthew Joy. This is a shame as Cillian is an actor I enjoy in most of his films. The relationship between the two friends should have had more impact emotionally when certain events play out. It wasn't from a lack of skill from the actors. Chris Helmsworth and Cillian Murphy are both quite capable. It's the script that's to blame.

The scenes of the whales being speared and killed made me feel sick even though they were cgi. I understand that whale oil was an important commodity in the 1800s. However, seeing a whale killed and men scrapping out it's insides wasn't something I was prepared for. These whaling vessels would be gone for years to harvest thousands of oil barrels. Even these scenes lacked depth as far as the character development went. The only character that elected an emotional response during this ordeal was when Nickerson had to crawl into the whale carcass. 

When they encounter the mythical albino whale, I found myself rooting for the whale rather than the men. Why should I care about these cruel men? The scenes of Melville, Nickerson and his wife were more enthralling. Both men are unburdening themselves with secrets they've kept for years. Michelle Fairley, known for playing Catelyn Stark on Game of Thrones, is great as Nickerson's wife. Sadly, the scenes between these three are too few. The potential for expanding the relationship between Nickerson and his wife could have been great. How had the secret affected their relationship over the years? What about Melville's own demons and how it coloured his life?

If Mr Howard had dedicated more time to those characters or fleshing out the rest of his cast, the tale might have been far more intriguing. Instead, we're given a fleeting bit of big budget action with a cgi wash over it. The completed film feels as if it was a quick grasp at award season glory. 

Rating: 2.5/5

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