- on Friday, 11 December 2015 15:03
- by Frank Wilkins
Call me disappointed. (Oh yes, I did.)
With such rich source material and a near bottomless barrel of timeless literary themes from which to pull, how does Ron Howard miss with In the Heart of the Sea, his adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s best-selling book about the real-life events that inspired the great American novel Moby Dick?
The film’s shortcomings begin with Howard himself, who has struggled of late to regain the once-bright shine of his Hollywood star. Never one to dabble much in the intangible concepts behind a plot, Howard has always been more comfortable as a straightforward A-to-Z storyteller. And what A-to-Z commercial success he’s had with films such as Apollo 13 and The DaVinci Code!
Sharing a bloodline with Melville’s fish tale, the story being told in In the Heart of the Sea begs for a secondary level of thematic exploration… something Howard just doesn’t do well. Too bad. The result is a rather bland man vs. nature tale that occasionally hits full steam with its glossy production and handful of worthy performances, but mostly founders adrift on the high seas.
Chris Hemsworth leads the cast as Owen Chase, A Nantucket whaler who dreams of helming his own ship. But born outside the whaling caste system of the 1820’s, he’s relegated to first mate on The Essex under the command of green but arrogant Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). Both men are of great honor and tremendous pride, so it’s not long before we realize that Chase will struggle to get along with the brash young Captain whose poor decisions eventually put The Essex in great peril.
Their first conflict comes when the ship is torn apart by a treacherous squall that rips her sails and splinters her masts. But rather than return to port for repairs (as suggested by Chase), Captain Pollard sails on with hopes of filling the Essex’s holds with valuable whale oil.
The action soon ramps to heart-stopping levels once the crew finally happens upon a large pod of whales. The bravery of these men who launch into dinghies (without life jackets, mind you) smaller than the whales they’re after and row towards the roiling danger is unimaginable. Once harpooned, all hell breaks loose as man and whale are thrust into an epic battle of survival as the whales plunge to the depths while the men try to keep their boats from being pulled under. Incredible stuff.
These whale hunt scenes are absolutely fascinating and represent some of the film’s best moments, but unfortunately there are far too few of them. The film’s pace comes to a screeching halt when The Essex is smashed to bits by a revengeful white whale (actually patches of pale, peeling flesh) that renders what’s left of the crew adrift in rowboats for months. These extended stretches of watching the men basically starve to death are extremely tiresome and nearly unwatchable. We got enough of it in last year’s Unbroken and it was handled much more effectively in 2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. We get it. They are tired. They are hungry. They do desperate things. Not sure what is the right amount to get the point across, but In the Heart of the Sea surpasses it.
The closest semblance of creative storytelling comes in the form of a framing device that involves Ben Whishaw as a timid young Herman Melville who tracks down and interviews Brendan Gleeson as Thomas Nickerson, the only surviving member of the ill-fated whaling mission. The mind-numbing scenes of survival at sea are occasionally broken up by the interview which, of course, becomes the source of Melville’s eventual novel.
In the Heart of the Sea has its occasional moment of fascination, but as it is, works better as a captivating historical piece about the New England whaling culture of the early 19th century than it does a tale of heroism and being tested beyond limits. Somehow, despite all that time spent adrift with the men, we never get to really know them, and there’s precious little time spent with the whale.
Had the script, written by Charles Leavitt, more often visited the target rich source material and had Howard more creatively presented those timeless literary themes of ambition and sacrifice, animals and nature, and life and death, In the Heart of the Sea might have reached its goal. But that’s not what Ron Howard does. His In the Heart of the Sea is a poorly told whale of a tale. (Oh yes, I did.)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material.
Runtime: 121 mins
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Charles Leavitt
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson
Genre: Adventure | Action
Tagline: Experience the true encounter that inspired the myth Moby Dick
Memorable Movie Quote: "We were headed for the edge of sanity... like we were aberrations, phantoms. Trust gave way to doubt. Hope to superstition."
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Official Site: http://www.intheheartoftheseamovie.com/
Release Date: December 11, 2015
Own it on DVD/Blu-ray: March 8, 2016.
Synopsis: 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. The real-life maritime disaster would inspire Herman Melvilles Moby-Dick. But that told only half the story. In the Heart of the Sea reveals the encounters harrowing aftermath, as the ships surviving crew is pushed to their limits and forced to do the unthinkable to stay alive. Braving storms, starvation, panic and despair, the men 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.
Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet
Own it on Blu-ray - March 8, 2016
Screen Formats: 1.85:1
Subtitles: English SDH; Frecnh; Spanish
Audio: Dolby Atmos: English Descriptive audio 5.1; Dolby Digital: French 5.1 (dubbed in Quebec) Spanish: 5.1.
Discs: 50GB Blu-ray Disc; Single disc (1 BD); digital download
Region Encoding: A
While handled masterfully from a technical standpoint, In the Heart of the Sea’s hi-def 1080p transfer can only be described as a bold and noble effort. The colors are just and true with bright vivid hues in the daylight scenes and murky period darks in the film’s many night shots, but it’s just too difficult to see past the shaky CGI. I get it. It was a difficult shoot and safety called for moving most of the action scenes to the studio tank, but the lighting never seems quite right and the whales and dolphins are simply not believable. They move too fast, don’t quite match up with their splashes and the surrounding digital masks don’t mesh well with the live action.
The score and sound however, are a different matter. The 5.1 Dolby surround action scenes soar through the room with waves, water, flames, and breaking timber working the room like a veteran insurance salesman while Roque Baños’s score perfectly reflects mood. The Dolby Atmos is a great touch on this release if your equipment is so equipped to handle it. Water and rain splash readily from above during the open sea sequences.
There are a ton of extras, most of them headed by Ron Howard himself that detail everything from the grueling shoots to the difficulties encountered filming on the open sea to the scoring and editing processes. A true treasure for the collection of any blu-ray cinephile. A DVD copy with but a single extra features, and the code for a digital download round out the package. All-in-all a good treatment if only the film were handled with such professionalism.
The plethora of extra features are a collector’s dream with no fewer than 15 behind-the-scenes featurettes and documentaries on the blu-ray disc with even more deleted and extended scenes available for your viewing pleasure.
Ron Howard’s Captain’s Log
- Intro (00:58) - Director Ron Howard talks about his use of his own cell phone to live tweet from the set
- Location Scout (01:24) - Howard discusses the process of scouting the main locations and how he uses snapshots to begin a visual picture of the film.
- First Day of Filming (01:09) - Howard expresses his excitement of the first day of shooting. Includes video of Hemsworth’s first appearance on set in costume.
- Into the Tank (01:03) - Hoawrd talks about shooting the film in the new Warner Bros. studio water tank outside London.
- Controlled Chaos (01:43) - Covers more of the interior water tank work and shooting a storm scene inside.
- Out to Sea (01:41) - Covers the dangers of shooting on location in the open sea of the Canary Islands.
- Getting in Ship Shape (02:22) Behind-the-scenes look at the actors and their preparations (taking in only 500-800 colors per day) to look like stranded survivors.
- Production Wrap (01:50) - Looks at the filming of the final scene (with tired emaciated actors) before being rescued.
- Editorial and Score (02:47) - Putting the movie together in the editing suite. Uses a montage of mostly Ron Howard’s Twitter and Instagram pics. Also goes a bit into recoding the core at Abbey Road Studios.
- Journey’s End (00:49) - Ron Howard shared the release of the film’s first teaser trailer to his nearly one million Twitter followers.
- Chase Pollard: A Man of Means and a Man of Courage (07:28) - Hemsworth and Walker discuss their roles and how their characters clashed throughout the story.
- The Hard Life of a Whaler (08:44) - A near 10-minute featurette that goes into quite a bit of detail about what the whalers and sailors of the period endured and how the actors prepared for they roles including the use of period terminology, knot-tying, and spear throwing. This is the star feature of the entire package.
- Whale Tales: Melville’s Untold Story (09:13) - A rather dry feature that discusses who Moby Dick the book was used to form the film’s story.
- Commanding the Heart of the Sea (10:25) - Visual effects discussions and the process of incorporating practical with CGI effects.
- Lightning Strikes Twice: The Real-life Sequel to Moby Dick. (28:59) - A near 30 minute documentary of the discovery of a lost Nantucket whaleship
Deleted Scenes - Spanish Sailer; Dockside Godly; Loading the Essex; Essex Sets Sail; Hard Life at Sea; Mooning Midas; Chappel Fight; Men Argue; Bump in the Night; Pollard Suicide Moment; Chase Trapped Under Mast; Catching Wind; Barz Body’ Chase Rescues Pollard; Pollard & Chase Goodbye; GraveyardExtended Scenes - Peggy Chase House; Bring More Whisky; Singing Sailors; Chase Near Death; Island Montage.
The included DVD contains but one featurette - Chase & Pollard: A Man of Means and a Man of Courage