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There's Entirely Too Much Melville 'In The Heart Of The Sea'

Chris Hemsworth as Owen Chase in a scene from <em>In the Heart of the Sea</em>.
Jonathan Prime
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Chris Hemsworth as Owen Chase in a scene from In the Heart of the Sea.

Seafaring adventures like In the Heart of the Sea do not benefit from gravitas any more than a vessel benefits from extra weight in the cargo hold. They are about white squalls, rope burns, cracked hulls, torn sails, men overboard, malevolent sea creatures, and water water everywhere and not a drop to drink. They are about hearty sailors staving off mutiny and fighting for survival, relying on their wits and resorting to desperate measures if necessary. Pause for even a moment to ruminate on spiritual or existential crises and the great ship starts to list.

In the Heart of the Sea does a fair bit of listing, because it's not just about any ol' ocean voyage. It's about the Essex, the Nantucket ship that was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820 and served as the inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt, working from the Nathaniel Philbrick's National Book Award winner for nonfiction, cannot content themselves with allowing this harrowing survival tale to unfold without reaching for higher meaning. Instead, they bring in Melville himself in the framing story, which has the young author (played by Ben Whishaw) querying Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), one of the few men to survive the Essex's journey to the Pacific.

The crew of the Essex is stalked by a 100-foot whale and eventually scattered in rescue boats on the open sea, where they have to do unspeakable things in order to stay alive. Yet Moby-Dick is such a touchstone of American fiction that it becomes Howard's own white whale, that significant something that his film cannot quite grasp. Take away the framing story, however, and In the Heart of the Sea functions well enough as a frenetic horror-thriller touched by the mythic, with ill fortune chasing these sailors like the wrath of God made manifest. Or perhaps a more sensible Jaws: The Revenge, with a whale instead of a shark.

Once the tormented Nickerson finally starts telling his story, the film flashes back to the Nantucket harbor, when Nickerson was just a lowly cabin boy on the Essex, a vessel commissioned to bring back a bounty in whale oil. Before they even leave port, tensions are high between George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker), an untested captain from elite stock, and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a heartier but less connected seaman. Pollard and Chase disagree sharply on tactics—Chase, for example, feels it unwise to motivate the crew by steering the ship directly into a squall—but they soon have bigger things to worry about. After falling short in the hunt, the men follow a tip that leads them a thousand miles off the coast of South America, but the bounty of whales they encounter includes a beast of almost supernatural force.

A year after directing Hemsworth through the Formula One racing drama Rush, Howard brings the same kinetic style to the whaling sequences here, which throw the camera into sea-level tussles with whales not easily felled by harpoons. In the Heart of the Sea makes an ordinary hunt looks like such a harrowing, white-knuckle ordeal that Melville's famed white whale has no trouble achieving its intended God-like stature. Had the film merely been about an expedition gone wrong—the Essex if Melville had never gotten wind of it—Howard might have sailed on fairer seas, avoiding the headwinds of a literary classic.

But In the Heart of the Sea gets into trouble when assigning a higher meaning to the voyage. "How does a man come to know the unknowable?" asks Melville in the opening narration, threatening the symbolism to come. The story of the Essex carries inherent themes of man's arrogance and hubris in the face of nature, but Melville's presence inflates them with self-importance. The Essex becomes a stand-in for humanity's relationship with vengeful God and it's too much for the film to handle, especially when it relies so much on the author himself to give it significance. Leave that to Moby-Dick.

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Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, where he's worked as a staff writer for over a decade. His reviews have also appeared in Time Out New York, City Pages, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, and The Hollywood Reporter. Along with other members of the A.V. Club staff, he co-authored the 2002 interview anthology The Tenacity Of the Cockroach and the new book Inventory, a collection of pop-culture lists.