Ron Howard and Chris Hemsworth’s latest partnership gives us some of the magic from their work on Rush. Adapted from the book of the same name, Sea gives us the tale that inspired the classic novel, Moby Dick. However, it doesn’t achieve anything nearly that powerful nor does it hit the lofty standards of Howard’s previous films.
By Kenneth Shipp
Immediately, we are introduced to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw, Q from the new Bond movies) who is insistent on talking with Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) about his time spent on The Essex and their encounter with a whale. The film would then shift between this vantage point and Nickerson’s account unfolding with the experienced first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) butting heads with the novice and affluent Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). The decision to switch back and forth between narratives is always maddening to me. If it’s done correctly and we have vested interest in both stories, then it can actually be a pretty effective storytelling tool. However, I feel like Melville pursuing a story lead, which could have happened, just comes off flat making the entire experience disjointed.
Chris Hemsworth holds up his end of the bargain though. I enjoyed his presence very much and wish they could have squeezed him into the film more. That wasn’t going to happen given this screenplay, but one can always hope. It’s hard to really get involved with the other shipmates, even the captain that was supposed to be a central figure in the story. When two characters are set against one another, you have to make the audience believe or be torn between them both. I feel like it works better if they both have legitimate styles of command or decision making. In the beginning, Pollard just comes off looking like an inexperienced moron, which may have been the historical case, but we never respect his position as captain at all. Because the setup preferred to flaunt his upbringing and privilege rather than strengthen his argument, it will run you right into the other character’s arms.
Let’s chat about the visuals for a sec: it’s a very mixed bag. On the one hand, Howard did a great job with *some* of the weather effects and water heavy shots. Moments that captured the crew working the rigging of the ship were excellent as well and gave us a unique feeling of the Essex. Even the whale and some of the CGI scenes were well done. However, every time they left the boat to capture whales, I was less than impressed. They opted for a glare effect on the characters that was clearly unnatural. I believe they were going for the extreme brightness that can occur of the surface of water. It comes off a bit weird and so I was more excited when they stayed on land or on the Essex.
A theme that Howard pursues in the film revolves heavily around the whale trade and it’s damaging effects. The greatest scene showcasing that is in the whale oil harvesting on the Essex. If you assumed that they would just gloss over that like most movies would, you’d be wrong. When I saw their first captured whale on the side of the boat, I was excited because it’s rare to see someone delve into the details like this. The younger Nickerson (played by new Spider-man Tom Holland) is chosen to go inside the whale and keep gathering blubber. Overwhelmed by the smell and sights, he has the reactions that we all would doing such a task. This drives home the point rather viscerally in regards to whaling.
In the Heart of the Sea is no Moby Dick, but it does serve nicely as a strong period piece. The graphic detail of the whaling trade is an excellent section to this tale. But there’s just not going to be enough here for repeated viewing despite Hemsworth’s effort.
In the Heart of the Sea: 7 out of 10
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