Just in time for the holidays, Ron Howard cooked up the film version of a turducken: a movie based on a book that’s based on two different accounts of an event that is one of the inspirations for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. This is a seasonal way of saying that if it seems like the film would have an identity crisis, it does.
In the Heart of the Sea opens with Mr. Melville (Ben Whishaw) himself arriving at a boarding house to enlist the memory of an unnamed and surly old man (Brendan Gleeson) who may have the kind of tale to tell that will turn Melville into a bonafide success story. This Old Man is the last surviving crew member of the Essex, a ship from the Nantucket whaling glory days, and has refused to discuss what happened to the fallen ship his whole, surly life. But in due time, through some bribing with cash and whiskey, he tells of the Essex’s captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), its first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), and the rest of the ship’s crew as they set out on a voyage for the procurement of whale oil.
Y’see, Captain Pollard is the sire of a great Nantucket whaling dynasty, while First Mate Chase is just the of son of a poor farmer and had to work to get where he is now. Even though Chase was promised the level of captain after a successful previous expedition, his experience was no match for the bureaucracy and nepotism of the whaling industry, and thus was demoted to serve under this privileged sissy. Both men resent the other for something to do with male pride, and so, very early on in their voyage, a good amount of dick swinging leads to a pissing contest in which Pollard gives an order that almost destroys the ship. This contest is ultimately of little consequence and its inclusion only feels relevant because it was actually something that happened to the real-life Essex, and it proves that our protagonist, Chase, is indeed the better seaman.
At least, I think he’s our protagonist. The film certainly spends time on building the context and credibility of his character, and why else would they cast Thor if not to emasculate everyone around him, particularly his adversary, who just happens to be Eric Bana and Colin Firth’s lovechild? But just when you think the movie is about Chase’s journey into whaling legitimacy amid the backdrop of an action adventure, this big whale starts knocking everything around as they’re trying to kill it, and soon the plot pumps the breaks. (To cry “spoiler” here feels superfluous, given that this was an actual even that occurred almost 200 years ago. But here it is, anyway.) Halfway through the movie, the Essex succumbs to this whale, the would-be Moby Dick, and the ship’s crew is stranded in several row boats as they watch their vessel burn away in the Pacific. All that whale oil does not make for an inflammable vehicle, after all.
As the crew tries to survive while bobbing in the middle of the ocean 2000 miles off of the South American coast, one begins to wonder what this movie is actually about. Since there’s no longer a ship, In the Heart of the Sea is no longer that blockbuster-looking thrill you were expecting in the trailers. The lack of a vessel leaves the Chase/Pollard fray redundant. There’s a reference to alcoholism that doesn’t go anywhere. The frame narrative had been sliding back and forth through time as Melville prods the Old Man about his experience, and at the height of the Essex crew’s desperation on the sea, the most significant slide reveals the reason the Old Man never told anyone about what happened (Spoiler, again. History!): they had to eat their crew mates to survive.
This admission feels like it was meant to serve as the film’s moral climax, since the Old Man seemed freed of his guilt and was subsequently totally comfortable discussing what ended up happening for the rest of the film. It’s not to say that cannibalism isn’t awful or shocking or reprehensible. In an objective sense, it is, obviously. But that up until that moment, In the Heart of the Sea had little to do with crew camaraderie and brothers-in-arms than whale hunting and the minutia of the industry. Sure, it’s what the actual men involved with the Essex had to do, but in the context of the movie, the plot did not set itself up for the emotional crest that it wanted that cannibalism bombshell to be.
It also turns out that the Old Man, who one assumes would be old First Mate Chase because of course it is because Chris Hemsworth and why else are we here, is actually the grown-up version of the Essex’s cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland). So there’s that.
In the Heart of the Sea is a confused film. If you think it’s about Chase, it’s not. If you think it’s an adventure, it’s not quite. If you think it has to do with a whale, it doesn’t really. What does exist here is a thin vein of commentary about the exploitation of whales and their oil as an energy source, as whale oil was used to light the homes of a burgeoning United States. It may be that I spent most of my long Thanksgiving weekend watching Planet Earth, but the scenes in which the whales were hunted did not feel as exuberant as the men with spears whooping above water. Rather, it felt like the violent chase of a helpless animal. As the crew extracts the oil from one whale carcass early on, there is no mention of utilizing other parts of the animal, like using its meat as a food source. At one moment during the crew’s stranded desperation, Chase wonders if whale hunting isn’t cruel and derivative of human arrogance; to which Pollard retorts with a diatribe about man’s ownership of the earth and our right to bleed its resources dry as we please. Moby Dick himself is not portrayed as a vengeful killer of men or an enemy to anyone aboard the Essex. He swoops to protect a female whale with her calf swimming beside her. Moby Dick is Whale Superman. He’s Whale Lorax; he speaks for the whales by destroying the thing that is destroying them.
Driven home by a late mention of Old Man Nickerson that oil was found in the ground of Pennsylvania, this comment on the destruction of nature at the hands of man would have made for a poignant thesis for a film that is basically about a really big mammal. But this film tries to be about so many other things that it can’t serve as anything other than an unfortunate reminder of the story’s lost purpose. (For god’s sake, there are title cards at the end explaining the writing and publication of Moby-Dick and what Nathaniel Hawthorne thought of it. What?!) Almost worse than its inability to achieve a focus, the film is so inoffensive and bland that it’s hard to avoid an overall feeling of indifference about the whole experience. Howard avoided showing anything that would portray their 90-days-at-sea seem actually harrowing (along with eating their friends, the real-life Essex crewmen also had to drink their own pee for three months) other than restricting the actors to a diet of 500 calories so they’d lose weight and look gaunt; a kind of sacrifice on the part of the actors that was definitely not worth the commitment. But In the Heart of the Sea did not commit to any of its plot points the way Chris Hemsworth did to losing weight, so the end result of this film is so inconsequential that it’d be a more worthwhile journey to go out to Barnes & Noble and spend the $12 on an actual copy of Moby-Dick. At least then you’d know what story was being told.