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In the Heart of the Sea

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There is no question Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is the most well-known tale of a murderous sperm whale in the world. It is so highly regarded that you have probably lied about reading it to people at parties-not that I have, of course. Somewhat lesser known is the real life tale of the whaling ship Essex, which was sunk by what I can only assume was a sperm whale with an enhanced understanding of irony in 1820. Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea tackles the latter story in theaters on Friday.

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In the Heart of the Sea’s action mostly centers around the conflict between the whaling ship Essex’s brash first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and pompous Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) as told through the eyes of young deckhand Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland). The tension grows as the sailors head ever further out to sea in search of their quarry only to find themselves fallen prey to an enraged and enormous denizen of the deep bent on vengeance and with its sights set on the Essex and her crew. What comes after tests their mettle in greater ways than any man should ever be tested. Here the price of survival becomes their very humanity.

Tom Holland as Thomas Nickerson
Tom Holland as Thomas Nickerson

While it’s fairly well known that the story of the Essex inspired Melville’s Moby Dick years later, Howard’s one conceit is that Melville actually interviewed the grown Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) as the last remaining survivor of the tragedy and used his account as the factual basis of his story. The entire film is told in flashback, which is a surprising device since it spoils the fate of at least one crew member. Still, the movie manages to keep the suspense coming throughout in spite of the bizarre decision to tell the story in such a manner.

The cast does a commendable job with a premise quite literally large enough to overshadow their performances and Hemsworth most of all proves he’s more than just glistening, rippling eye candy. Unfortunately, the very nature of the story hampers the entire cast and crew’s efforts at every turn. These men, after all, are whalers and in this day and age it’s hard to make them appear sympathetic. And while any attempt to have the players reflect on their chosen profession in a negative light would be out of place in the period, it certainly didn’t stop Howard from giving it a shot. In the end, the decision to even acknowledge the horror of whaling leads to the affair feeling tonally confusing.

intheheartofthesea2The cinematography is pretty enough, though littered with some middling computer generated imagery and backdrops that appear to be old timey oil paintings. The former is likely a product of budgetary restraints while the latter may very well be a purposeful attempt to give the film an antiquated feel, but it just makes the world seem too small for a movie that wants to be so big.

At the end of the day, a compelling story and game cast make for a pretty solid viewing experience in In the Heart of the Sea, even if it drags on a hair and wallows a bit too much in despair occasionally.  It’s got a practically shirtless Hemsworth fighting a giant, angry whale. In the industry, that’s known as “something for everybody.” As I left theatre I wasn’t even all that disappointed that Iron Man didn’t show up.

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In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
Director:  Ron Howard
Studio:  Warner Brothers
Genre:  Action, Drama, Adventure
MPAA:  PG-13
Release Date:  December 11th, 2015
Author:  Steve Hanning

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