Film Review: In the Heart of the Sea

by Sam Robinson

Rated M. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Brendan Gleeson. Directed by Ron Howard.

Thar she blows!

Director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) has adapted Nathaniel Philbrick’s book In the Heart of the Sea into a two-hour epic set on the high seas. This is the story of American whaling ship Essex in 1820, and the struggle for survival of its shipwrecked crew. In the Heart of the Sea is told through the recall of survivor Thomas Nickerson (Gleeson) to a note-scribbling Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), around a table in a dimly lit room. Melville is seeking inspiration for what will become his famous novel, Moby Dick.

As the Essex crew embark, their mission is to kill whales in order to bottle up precious whale oil – a process sickening to watch – and of course, we get to see how it was done. If you’re squeamish in the slightest, there are scenes here that you will find hard to watch. But an encounter with a sperm whale puts their endeavours to an end, with the crew stranded at sea in rowboats, at the mercy of an angry whale, and with no food to eat or water to drink.

What should be an interesting tale is unfortunately underwhelming in its execution. There are some really engaging sequences at sea, where storms buffer the Essex about, and whales act menacingly (I can’t wait until YouTubers dub the Jaws theme under these scenes) – but it’s the parts in between these that just don’t work. Perhaps the worst part of In the Heart of the Sea is that I felt no reason to personally invest in the story, and in the plight of the characters. The pacing is off – seen particularly in the rushed ending – and the action never seems to know where it is headed, happily floating along. Parched men at sea an interesting script does not make. And a special note of Hemsworth’s vague accent, reminiscent of Tom Hardy’s confused voice in Mad Max: Fury Road.

It’s also hard to decipher what Howard wants you to feel in In the Heart of the Sea. The bloody decks following a whale killing will move you to disgust (and perhaps nausea), but the crew are vindicated by film’s end. A corny line at the end of the film seems like a political throwaway to show that injustice over oil still continues today. But whether this film is about saving the whales, or fighting for truth – In the Heart of the Sea misses a real opportunity to challenge and move the viewer.

‘We’re specks, dust. If we are to die, with God’s grace, let us die as men.’

The conversations between the shipmates during their strandedness head into dehydrated delusion, but many are loaded with substance. The above line arises in a discussion about whether it is humanity’s responsibility to rule over God’s creatures (read: it’s all good to kill whales), or whether their sorry state is due to God’s judgement for committing such an act (read: God is angry at us for killing his whales).

The Bible tells us that indeed humanity is to rule over God’s creation under him (Genesis 1:26-28), but following sin entering the world, we don’t do this properly. This is clear in the actions of the Essex. But we must acknowledge that we are indeed dust, and specks – for there is a God who rules over us, and who calls us to come to him in humble submission and trust, and care for his world and creation.

The Verdict: Although visually exciting at times, this whale tale is a bit of a fail – at least in its ability to resonate and leave a lasting impression. Take some seasick tablets before viewing. 2.25/5

In the Heart of the Sea releases today in Australian cinemas, and will release next Friday 11th December in the USA.

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