It’s man vs. nature in Ron Howard’s grisly survival epic In the Heart of the Sea, which pits a motley crew of whalers up against the biggest, meanest whale this side of Free Willy – and a couple thousand miles worth of the Pacific Ocean.
Thor and Spider-Man share some screen time ahead of their inevitable Marvel Cinematic Universe crossover as Chris Hemsworth and Tom Holland lead a cast of sailors on the ill-fated whaling boat, The Essex, joined by inexperienced Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and second-mate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy).
Based on the true story that ostensibly served as the inspiration for Moby-Dick, In the Heart of the Sea features Ben Whishaw as Herman Melville visiting the Essex’s last survivor some 30 years later to hear the tale of its disastrous voyage. These scenes are mostly an unfortunate distraction. And not just because they’re a narrative dead-end. Essex’s voyage is reduced to mere fodder for the novel, important not for its own sake, but for the inspiration it gave the author.
The vessel is seen departing Nantucket, Massachusetts, in search of whale oil. Hemsworth’s sea-hardened first-mate Owen Chase repeatedly butts heads with the Captain, who earned his position through the family name, and it’s their rivalry in part that pushes them to take the Essex deep into the Pacific in search of the whales’ breeding grounds – and an enormous, scarred sperm-whale with an almost comically committed distaste for humans. (He makes short work of the Essex.) Left to fend for themselves, the crew make a desperate attempt to make it back to land.
The voice over from Brendan Gleeson’s embittered survivor makes much of the rivalry between the first mate and Captain, but the script can’t quite live up to an early claim that this is “the story of two men” – there’s little to suggest that their conflict played a major part in the Essex’s tragedy, and it’s more the story of how a ship full of men tried to survive after a giant bloody whale took after them with a vengeance.
Hemsworth and Walker do make the most of the pair’s bickering however. The former shows the same boisterous charm and confidence that’s made him such a success as Marvel’s god of thunder, while the latter subtly brings out the inherent insecurities in an inherited position.
Director Ron Howard showcases his natural affinity for tense action beats in the film’s big set pieces, capturing the physicality and kineticism of the Essex’s swinging sails and crashing beams. The camera stays in the thick of the action, at times even sticking to the whales’ sides as they rush underwater, but he also cuts back from this frenetic camerawork at moments, pulling away to reveal the chaos on a grander scale.
The film puts the Essex’s crew through the ringer, and their various trials and tribulations are rendered sufficiently agonising. To be blunt, this isn’t about to sell any cruise tickets. It also doesn’t shy away from the unpleasantness of the whaling industry either. The hunt itself is played as an action set piece, but the butchery of the carcass for its all-important blubber is shown in all too vivid detail. Occasional thinly veiled references to the modern oil industry give a good idea of where Howard’s loyalties lie.
When it comes to depth, In the Heart of the Sea is more garden pond than Pacific Ocean, but there’s enough charm, grit and whale-on-ship action to keep things entertaining – though Moby-Dick this ain’t.
Words by Dominic Preston