“The tragedy of the Essex is the story of men. And a Demon.”
It’s been a long year; a year that seems to have been filled with more guff films than decent ones. Of course, you may disagree; you may not enjoy the same things I do and I may think what you like is complete toilet. The subjective nature of films aside, I think In the Heart of the Sea may be the film that finally killed my 2015. And I was hoping to end it on a high note, too.
Inspired by the true story that inspired Moby Dick – we’ll get to THAT in a bit – In the Heart of the Sea sees Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), an author looking for inspiration for his next book, tracking down and persuading Brendon Gleeson’s Thomas Nickerson; a deckhand and last surviving member of the crew of the doomed whaling ship, The Essex; to tell the story of the ship, its crew and their encounters with the demon that tried to send them all to the bottom of the ocean.
Spinning Melville (and us) a yarn about his time as a teenager upon the Essex at the height of the lucrative whale oil trade of the early 1800’s, Thomas tells us the tale of a ship, captained by George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) a man who shouldn’t be captain and has instead been born into the position; with a first mate (Chris Hemsworth) who really should have got the job but has been nudged back because his surname isn’t Pollard. This man, Owen Chase, is the perfect man to run a ship like this, on a mission like this, but has instead been shunned because of his lineage and now we have a ship with the two people in charge already at odds with each other. This doesn’t bode well for our crew that includes the adolescent Nickerson (Tom Holland) and a sailor trying desperately to stay sober (Cillian Murphy).
As the weeks go on and the whale sightings dwindle, the crew catch word of a part of the ocean far from any known fishing area where the sea is brimming with the giant mammals to hunt. With promises of enough oil to fill their hold twice over, the crew set to these uncharted waters with hopes of a fortune ahead. The problem is, almost as quickly as they find what they are looking for, something finds them; a monstrous whale that dwarfed all those around it takes umbrage at the sailors’ presence there and proceeds to obliterate the whaling boats, the sailors, and eventually the Essex using nothing but its size and strength. The whale – let’s call him Moby – then taunts the survivors for an hour and a half as they Jerry-rig a life raft and try to float home via desert islands, cannibalism and intense beard growth.
In the Heart of the Sea may be the most disappointing Ron Howard film that I’ve seen to date. It acts as if it has something to say but doesn’t even come close to telling me anything of note. The film is about as plain, and by the numbers, as it could possibly be, substituting characterisation for celebrity – hoping that casting Thor will be enough to carry the film – and storytelling for nice special effects. Sadly, neither do their required job and about the only thing I got from my trip to the flicks to see this was a comfy seat for two hours and an excuse to eat popcorn. In truth, the only reason I stayed until the end of the film was the fact that I had already bought my popcorn and didn’t want to leave it, or my Starbucks, behind.
Make no mistake, it’s a very pretty film. The CGI looks great, the boat and its movement on the water look amazing and I’d even go so far to say that a lot of the scenes, especially the underwater ones, look spectacular in 3D. But this doesn’t save the film from being a dull, lifeless two hours where the only thing it serves to tell us is that both Chris Hemsworth and Brendon Gleeson can’t do a Boston accent very well and that humongous fish are not to be trifled with when all you have is a rowing boat and a large cocktail stick to stab it with! Much has been told of Hemsworth’s transition from muscle man to starving survivor. Unfortunately, I have seen Christian Bale do it three times now and I find myself unimpressed when you put yourself through that for a lacklustre film.
Finally, I promised I’d bring this up, but I am really getting a little sick of this “inspired by true events” shit. Every other film is “inspired” by some true story or another and In the Heart of the Sea is the most heinous of these films. The trailer tells us “inspired by the true story, that inspired the legend, Moby Dick”. Forgetting for a second that a trailer filled with huge fuck-off whales knocking seven shades of shit out of boats didn’t need to tell me it was Moby Dick; but this whole “Inspired by…” shit just screams “I wanted to tell this story, but couldn’t make it interesting enough without changing it”. But to do that to Moby Dick? That, Mr Howard, is arrogance of the highest order and is absolutely inexcusable from a veteran director. Shame on you.