Today I saw the movie, “In the Heart of the Sea,” directed by Ron Howard and somewhat loosely based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. How was it? The movie was disappointing. The cinemaphotography is wonderful and the computer graphics are also great. There is no shortage of computer generated storm waves, dolphins or sperm whales. There are lots and lots of sperm whales, viewed from every possible angle and vantage point. The movie is available for viewing in 3D, which I am sure would be very impressive if perhaps likely to induce motion sickness. (I opted to see the conventional projection.) The problem is that the story — the narrative and the characters — ended up feeling wholly contrived. The special effects are great while the storytelling is weak. The movie is 121 minutes long but felt much longer.
The sinking of the whaleship Essex in 1820 by a sperm whale is often credited with inspiring Herman Melville’s novel, Moby-Dick. It certainly provided the ending for the novel. As we posted yesterday, tales of a rogue albino sperm whale, nicknamed Mocha Dick, also contributed to the novel.
In the movie, Melville tracks down the last survivor of the Essex, an aging Tom Nickerson, who had sailed as cabin boy, and begs him to tell the tale which has been covered up for many years. (The chronology is all wrong and there never was a coverup, but this is a movie, so perhaps we should cut them some slack.)
Nathaniel Philbrick’s, In the Heart of the Sea, is based on a book written by the first mate William Chase in 1821 and an account of the sinking by Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy, written over 50 years later in 1876. Nickerson’s version of events was lost until a copy was discovered in 1960. As a work of non-fiction, Philbrick sticks to the history, which is both fascinating and terrible in equal parts.
Then the screenwriters were turned loose to rework Philbrick’s history into a big-budget Hollywood adventure story, hitting all the expected plot points of a modern screenplay. So, a conflict is created between the movie’s notional hero, Owen Chase, and the inexperienced Captain George Pollard, who while not the villain of the movie, is Owen’s antagonist. Their conflict seems to be meant to keep us occupied until the real villain, the whale that sinks the Essex, finally shows up.
The second part of the movie is the attempt by the surviving crew to row or sail to South America. Two of the three boats are finally rescued after the near skeletal survivors have resorted to cannibalism. For reasons that may have seemed to have made sense in a script conference but do not on the screen, the huge sperm whale which sank the Essex continues to pursue the whaleboats. It sort of shows up when the action slows down too much.
Apparently, “In the Heart of the Sea” had a budget of $100 million. Much of the budget looks to have gone toward the stunning visual effects. If they had spent more time worrying about the narrative arc, pacing and character development and a bit less on computer graphics, the movie might have been less disappointing.