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“In the Heart of the Sea” Film Review by Van Roberts

Adventure yarns don’t get any more audacious than “Apollo 13” director Ron Howard’s 19th century seafaring saga of survival and tragedy “In the Heart of the Sea” (*** OUT OF ****), with Chris Hemsworth.  This atmospheric adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s best-selling, non-fiction account chronicles the demise of the whale ship Essex in the year 1820.  Basically, this nautical nightmare charts the final voyage of a Nantucket based whaling vessel that an enormous white whale sinks with extreme prejudice.  Surpassed only by Jonah’s escapade in the belly of a great fish, this incident occurred in the Pacific Ocean, and Herman Melville found it impressive enough to serve as the basis for his classic novel “Moby Dick.”  Not surprisingly, life is stranger than fiction, and skeptics may agree after they read the eyewitness accounts of this calamity documented in the book “Thomas Nickerson, Owen Chase, and Others: The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale.” Actors Chris Hemsworth and Benjamin Walker take top billing in this oceanic opus, but the real stars are the CGI team behind the creation of the menacing sperm whale: special robotics technician David Jonathon Amos and senior visual effects coordinator Eva Abramycheva.  Of course, others too numerous to name assisted them, and the artifice is extraordinary.  “In the Heart of the Sea” wouldn’t have looked half as convincing if it had been made back when Philbrick’s book came out in 2000.  Mind you, it isn’t just the whale itself that looks sensational in every respect, but also scenes above the water line when the Essex flounders in a squall.  Specifically, the scene where a whale is harpooned by our hero and plunges headlong into the briny deep and threatens to capsize the whale boat generates white-knuckled suspense galore!

Things get off to a bad start for our brawny protagonist, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth of “Thor”), whose wife is due to give birth to their first child.  Owen has served as a first mate on a number of profitable voyages for a Nantucket whale ship company.  Chase believes he is going to be promoted to the rank of captain of the refitted whale ship Essex.  The owners regret to inform him that he has been superseded by another man, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”), whose father is a patron of the line.  Pollard takes the helm of the Essex because he possesses the right family connections.  Meantime, a seasoned professional as first mate, Chase amounts to the better man, but he lacks Pollard’s ancestry.  Initially, the two clash over how to navigate the Essex through in a nasty squall that challenges the crew and nearly swamps the vessel.  Things grow worse because they are unable to catch enough whales.  Three months later, Pollard decides to leave the Atlantic.  Taking the Essex around the tip of South America, they venture into the Pacific.  In Ecuador, where they put in to stock up on supplies, Pollard and Owen share drinks with a one-armed Spanish whaling captain (Jordi Mollà of “Colombiana”) in a bar. The Spaniard confides in them about a plentiful whale playground.  Nevertheless, he warns them about an aggressive “white-as-alabaster” sperm whale that killed six of his sailors.  Our heroes treat the Spaniard’s tall tale with great skepticism.

No sooner have they launched their boats to harpoon the whales than disaster strikes.  A whale capsizes Chase’s long boat, and he must return to the Essex to plug the holes.  While Chase is back on board repairing the long boat, something smashes savagely into the hull.  Incredibly, the Essex commences to sink.  A sailor reports that their pumps are kaput, and our heroes barely manage to evacuate the vessel before flames consume it in an inferno.  They row to a desert island and recuperate until Chase discovers a cave filled with the corpses of marooned mariners.  Since they have sighted no ships, Pollard and Chase decide to take their chances with the sea.  Again, no sooner have they entered the water than the whale reappears and stalks them.  The confrontation that Pollard and his men face against this “Jaws” like whale is pretty exciting stuff.  Eventually, Pollard and Chase return to Nantucket.  The whaling company tries to whitewash the debacle, but they try to convince both Pollard and Chase to attribute their tragedy to the Essex running around.  Chase is reunited with his wife some two years later, and he meets his daughter.  Meantime, Pollard struggles without success to hunt down the white whale and his career as a captain flounders as a result.

Unfortunately, Howard and “Blood Diamond” scenarist Charles Leavitt have taken liberties with Philbrick’s source material.  The most significant setback of this otherwise singular story is the manner in which they have approached it.  Everything about the ill-fated voyage is told in flashback as the grown-up survivor of the Essex, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson of “Beowulf”) recounts with extreme reluctance the catastrophe to author Herman Melville.  Presumably, Howard and Leavitt felt that the history of the incident was far too outlandish to present in straightforward fashion without their tedious interludes.  Had this narrative device simply been book ends during fade-in and then at fade-out, “In the Heart of the Sea” would have fared better.  Obviously, suspense of any sort involving the member of the crew that Brendan Gleeson portrayed is jettisoned.  The second problem is the drama that occurs between Benjamin Walker’s captain and Chris Hemsworth’s first-mate.  Actually, unlike the film that claims they have never served together before, the two had been together on an earlier voyage. Furthermore, the captain was older than the first-mate.  The dispute over who was named captain simply turns out to be a Hollywood contrivance to generate more antagonism between them.  Happily, some of this is offset by the novelty of the historical setting.  At the time of the event, whale oil provided the only means of illumination.  Despite its problems, “In the Heart of the Sea” still qualifies as a whale of a tale.

 “Your imagination can take you where nothing else can.” Van Roberts


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