In the Heart of the Sea is based on the book of the same name which details the true story of the ill-fated whale ship Essex and her crew. The movie is told through a series of flashbacks to Herman Melville, the writer of Moby Dick. It attempts to be a love letter to Herman Melville and Moby Dick, while taking a deep look at the folly of man, via an action filled survivalist movie. It tries too hard and ends up being a poor adaptation. ITHOTS’s compelling foundation is marred by its unfocused direction.
ITHOTS’s storytelling isn’t horrible, it’s just mediocre and leaves you wanting more. Using Melville as a framework for the plot is a neat starting point but it leaves a lot to be desired. It’s interesting yes, but unfortunately, just an afterthought to the film. This is a shame because a lot of effort was put into Melville’s character. We feel his pain as he strives to write what he knows in his heart will be an epic masterpiece, but his bristling angst about his rivalry with Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom almost everyone, including himself, acknowledges as the better writer, gets in the way. Unfortunately, his screen time is surprisingly short. An entire other movie could have been made based on Melville’s struggles to write Moby Dick.
Much like the storytelling, the acting and characterization are average at best. Of all the crew members of the Essex, we only become familiar with Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), The Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), and the young cabin boy Tom Nickerson (who is also the narrator). So when the situation goes from bad to worse, their calamity didn’t carry any emotional weight. We never really learn about the characters and thus we don’t care if and when they die. Most of the whalers are just nameless grunts aboard the ship. Which is a shame considering that these actors were put through brutal caloric reductions for their roles. The naturally compelling and dramatic narrative of a whale staving in a ship and men surviving at sea for ninety days is utterly wasted here.
The film takes a stand against the dangers of rampant greed, capitalism, and the folly and hubris of man in the face of nature. It just blatantly shoves it in your face. The whalers come across as ignorant and greedy, murdering graceful whales in front of their calves and other kin for profit. When the white whale of legend shows up and begins to wreck everyone's day, I was pleased that finally there was some action and even grateful that the whalers’ awful short-sightedness was being punished.
The white whale is surprisingly the best part of the film. Part Jason Voorhees and part Beatrix Kiddo, the white whale plays a horror movie monster, a stalker, and a killer. More impressively so, the whale acts as an arbiter of righteous vengeance in the face of human hubris and against the reckless excesses of human greed. Honestly, in the presence of such poorly defined characters, most of whom I didn’t know, I was rooting for the whale. The movie is a lot less entertaining when the whale leaves. The film’s defining moment comes when Owen Chase learns to accept that he (and by extension all humans) is not a god, and is subject to the whims of nature just like everything else. This is the strongest narrative thread, and along with the film’s action sequences, are the best parts of the film.
ITHOTS has lofty ambitions but it falls short of its own goals. It struggles to be a tribute to Melville, a warning of mankind’s hubris, plus a whale-action flick, and a survivalist story. In spite of that it still manages to entertain, even if it’s a bit chaotic and most of its actors are poorly characterized. Its action scenes are fun but few and far between. In the Heart of the Sea isn’t terrible it’s just shallower than it realizes (pun intended).
TLDR: In the Heart of the Sea bites off a bit more than it can chew. In spite of its harrowing true story base, it’s a poorly developed film that has moments of flair. 2.5/5 Stars