Tuesday, December 15, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: In The Heart Of The Sea

In The Heart Of The Sea was written by Charles Leavitt and directed by Ron Howard. 

Leavitt has a very uneven track record as a screenwriter, having previously written K-Pax, Blood Diamond and Seventh Son. Howard of course had a very successful TV career as both Opie Taylor and Richie Cunningham before becoming a prolific film director. He previously directed Splash, Cocoon, Gung Ho, Willow, Parenthood, Backdraft, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon and Rush, among many others.

In The Heart Of The Sea is based on the book of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick. The book tells the true story of the Essex, a ship that sailed from Nantucket in 1820 and sank after being attacked by a sperm whale. The story of the Essex was the inspiration for Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick

Did you get all that? This is a movie based on a book about a true event that inspired a fictional story that inspired several film adaptations. Whew!


Since it's the inspiration for Moby Dick, I was expecting an old fashioned high seas adventure pitting the crew against a monstrous killer whale. We get a little bit of that in the first half of the movie, but unfortunately it completely switches direction and becomes a dull and tepid survival tale. That's right, once the crew's ship is destroyed, the film grinds to a halt as the survivors literally sit and wait for rescue. Not quite the rousing story I expected.

Even people who were never forced to read Moby Dick in high school can still tell you it's a metaphor for the dangers of obsession and revenge. That's all but forgotten in this film, which instead opts for an environmental message. 

I don't know for sure if that's the theme of the book, but if I had to guess, I'd say not. The greed and corruption of the whaling industry as it hunts its sole resource to extinction is very obviously supposed to echo the oil corporations of today. I have a feeling the environmental commentary was grafted onto the screenplay in an effort to make the film more relevant for our times.

Chris Hemsworth stars in the film as Owen Chase. Although Hemsworth has the looks and charisma of a leading man, so far he's never managed to headline a big hit apart from the Thor films. If he's smart he'll stick to playing the God Of Thunder till he can no longer lift his hammer.

Unfortunately the film's tanking (heh) at the box office. The subject matter has to be a big reason here. Even though it's not a direct adaptation of Moby Dick, the fact that it's connected to it in any way likely scared away moviegoers who still remember having to read the book in school. And even though Star Wars doesn't open for another week, it likely caused empty seats at the cineplex, as fans hold onto their ticket money as they nervously await the Third Coming.

SPOILERS FOR A STORY THAT INSPIRED A BOOK WRITTEN OVER 160 YEARS AGO!

The Plot:
In 1850, young author Herman Melville interviews Thomas Nickerson, the last living survivor of the Essex, a whaling ship that was sunk thirty years earlier.

Nickerson reluctantly agrees to tell Melville his tale, which he's never told to anyone before. In 1820, experienced whaler Owen Chase (played by Chris Hemsworth) is expecting to be hired as captain of the Essex. He's angry when he's made the first mate, while the captaincy is given to George Pollard, an inexperienced seaman from a prominent and wealthy family. Owen is reluctant to accept the first mate position, but fears turning it down will sabotage his career.

The ship sets sail the next day, with young Thomas Nickerson aboard. As it's his first voyage, Thomas suffers from seasickness. Owen manages to cure him, which forms a bond between them.

The inexperienced Captain Pollard orders the ship to sail directly into a storm to save time. Owen tries to talk him out of it, but Pollard insists. His actions damage the ship and nearly sink it, causing Pollard to head back to port. Owen warns Pollard that if the Essex returns without a hold full of precious whale oil, both their careers will be over. He eventually convinces Pollard to continue the voyage, and they agree to work together for the good of the mission.

The Essex spots a pod of whales and successfully harpoons one, netting them forty seven barrels of oil. Unfortunately three months pass with no further whale spottings. Pollard declares the Atlantic has been "fished out," and heads toward the Pacific. During a supply stop in Equador, Pollard hears rumors of a vast whale breeding ground a thousand miles to the west. He's warned that a monstrous white whale protects the breeding ground and attacks any whaling ships that enter. Pollard dismisses these warnings as fables and heads toward the breeding ground anyway.

The Essex arrives in the breeding ground and begins hunting. The white whale appears and rams the Essex, damaging it. Owen harpoons the whale and ties the rope to the ship's mast. The powerful whale pulls the mast over, killing several of the crew. The ship begins sinking, and the whale oil in the hold ignites and explodes. The remaining handful of crew members, including Pollard, Owen and Thomas, survive in three salvaged whaling boats.

The survivors, now thousands of miles from land, have no choice but to try and make it back to civilization. After several weeks they spot an island, but it's a desolate place with little or no food or vegetation. Four men decide to stay there anyway, as the rest sail on. After several months at sea, the crew are starving to death. When one of them dies, the others are reluctantly forced to eat him in order to survive.

The whale returns, and Owen realizes it's been following their boats. As it approaches, he starts to harpoon and kill it. He sees the great beast's eye as it swims by, and drops his harpoon. The whale doesn't attack and swims away. Shortly afterward the men, now close to death, spot land. They're rescued, fed and taken back to Nantucket.

Owen is reunited with his wife and the daughter he's never met. The ship's owners tell Owen and Pollard there will be an inquiry the next day. In order to avoid scaring away potential investors, the two are ordered not to mention the white whale sunk their ship, and to say that they simply ran aground. Owen refuses to lie and storms out.

At the inquiry, Pollard starts to go with the "run aground" story, but changes his mind and says the Essex was sunk by a great white whale, causing a huge uproar at the inquiry. Pollard captains another ship to try and find the whale, but fails. Owen becomes the captain of a merchant ship.

Thomas finishes telling his story. Melville assures him that he'll write a fictional account, and will protect his reputation (because of the whole cannibal thing). Later he sits down at his desk and begins writing Moby Dick.

Thoughts:
• This may be the Game Of Throne-iest movie I've ever seen. I counted four former Thrones cast members in the film: Michelle Fairley (who played Catelyn Stark), Donald Sumpter (who played Maester Luwin), Joseph Mawle (who played Benjen Stark) and Jamie Sives (who played Jory Cassel).

Of course this just confirms my belief that there are only about twenty five actors in all of England.

• Tom Holland plays young Thomas Nickerson, which should be of interest to Marvel movie fans. Holland has been cast as the new Spider-Man, so this film gives us our first good look at the new Peter Parker.

• Ben Wishaw plays Herman Melville in the film. He's probably better known right now as the new Q in the James Bond movies. I still think he'd make a really good Doctor on Doctor Who when Peter Capaldi decides to hang up his sonic.

• Ron Howard and Chris Hemsworth previously worked together in 2013 in Rush.

• I know it's an historical fact, but the idea of sailing out to sea for years at a time and killing whales just to turn them into lamp oil seems like an insane amount of trouble. Surely there was a better, safer and less complicated way to light lamps?

• At the beginning of the film Owen strolls through the port in Nantucket. At one point he passes a couple of South Sea natives, one of which has elaborate tattoos all over his face. I'm assuming that's a nod to Queequeg from the Moby Dick book.

• Was Chris Hemsworth trying to affect a Nantucket accent (rather than his normal Australian one) in this film? If so, he failed miserably. It never quite sounded right, and it came and went throughout the film as if he forgot about it and suddenly remembered he was supposed to be doing it.

• Longtime readers of my blog know that I absolutely hate it when a movie is one long flashback. It's my absolute least favorite storytelling device, right up there with "It was all a dream."

Take Life Of Pi, for example. Gods, what an annoying movie. At the beginning of that film we meet the main character when he's fifty years old, as he tells us the unlikely story of that time he was marooned at sea in a lifeboat with a tiger. So thirty seconds in we know that no matter happens, he survived, since he's telling us the story as an old man. So there's no tension or suspense, and the audience might as well gather its belongings, demand a refund and leave.

In The Heart Of The Sea uses the exact same flashback format, but here I didn't hate it. Yes, Thomas Nickerson is telling us his story so we know he survived, but we don't know the fates of main characters Captain Pollard or Owen Chase until the very end. So for once I didn't mind the flashback structure.

Of course that doesn't mean there weren't any problems with the way the story's constructed. Remember that everything we see in the film is being told to us by Thomas. There are many events and exchanges in the film that he didn't witness, and yet he somehow knows about them. Things like Owen's parting words to his worried wife, Captain Pollard's chance meeting with the one-armed Spanish captain, and everything that went on in the Essex inquiry. Maybe someone told Thomas about those things after the fact?

• After the Essex crew kills their first whale, they begin processing it right there at sea. Crew members cut a hole in the top of the whale to reach in and extract the precious oil from inside its body. Eventually they get all they can from outside, and Owen immediately orders them to get inside the whale and scrape up the remaining bits of oil, so as not to let any go to waste. The crew balks at this, saying the hole's too small for any of them to wiggle through. Owen then tells Thomas to slither though the hole, as he's the only one small enough to fit.

Um... the crew cut the hole in the top of the whale themselves, right? So why couldn't they just get out their knives and make the hole a little big bigger so they could all jump into it?

I have a feeling the crew knew they could have done this, but were playing dumb so they didn't have to enter the disgusting corpse of the whale.

• Because this is a PG-13 film, the whale hunting and slaughtering scenes are no doubt much less bloody than the real thing.

In a similar vein, Ron Howard decided to deal with the topic of cannibalism by talking about it, rather than showing it. I suppose that was the right move, since this isn't an Eli Roth film, but sidestepping it also strips the situation of much of its horror. 

I freely admit I don't have a solution to this problem.

• After the white whale destroys the ship, it looks like the film's going the Moby Dick route, as Owen seems determined to have his vengeance on the creature.

Owen spots the whale coming toward his boat, and raises his harpoon. But as the enormous beast swims past, Owen looks it in the eye, sees the remains of his spear protruding from its head, and drops his harpoon. The whale then swims off, never to bother the survivors again.

So why did Owen decide to drop the whole revenge thing? Empathy? Resignation? Shame? The realization that it was a creature just like him, trying to protect its own? Your guess is as good as mine, as it's never really addressed. I supposed maybe Owen realized his obsession and thirst for revenge would only end up destroying himself.

• As the months at sea wear on, the survivors become positively skeletal as they slowly starve to death.

Believe it or not, the cast, including Chris Hemsworth, actually went on a 600 calorie per day diet to get that starving supermodel look! 

Jesus, is that really still necessary? In this day and age of realistic CGI, you'd think they could digitally hollow out an actor's cheeks without requiring him to endanger his health by fasting. I hope it was worth it! Now he's gonna have to bulk right back up again for the next Thor movie.

In The Heart Of The Sea could have been a rousing, old-school maritime adventure, but halfway through it completely switches direction and becomes a dull and predictable survival film. You'd be better off renting one of the many Moby Dick films that have been made over the decades. I give it a B-.

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