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A Whale of a Tale


                Ron Howard’s films are generally hit or miss. For every Apollo 13 there’s a How the Grinch Stole Christmas. But what I’ve always admired about his projects is how he always tries to do something new, he ever gets stuck in a particular type of film or style. Keeping to that, In the Heart of the Sea is unlike any other film he’s made.
                The film tells the true story of the loss of the whaling vessel Essex in 1820. Told in flashback by Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) researching for his novel Moby-Dick, we’re introduced to Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) an experienced whaler who’s risen to the officer class despite a poor background based on his skill alone. He’s first mate to Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) a sterner, more removed man with a family name. Nickerson himself (Tom Holland) is the ship’s fourteen year old cabin boy. Months after setting out from Nantucket, they encounter a massive whale who destroys the ship and forces the crew to survive on the open sea.
                This film looks great. Yeah at times the whales definitely look CGI, but the cinematography really pulls you into this world. You feel the scope and weight of the situation these sailors are in. There are a couple tracking shots like when the boats are going after a pod of whales that are amazing to look at. However it’s in the plot that the film somewhat falters. We know the story and what’s going to happen, which dispels a lot of the tension. By the time we get into the survival portion of the story it begins to get more unpredictable and even uncomfortable, but in doing this it loses momentum and isn’t as exciting. There’s also an overreliance, particularly in the beginning and end, on the reputation of Moby-Dick, which the marketing and the film itself reminds us time and again, was inspired by this story. It’s kind of counterintuitive in telling the story that we’re constantly reminded of a much more famous and better one. This story doesn’t have the fascinating themes, attention to detail, or memorable characters that the one it inspires does. There’s no Captain Ahab hell-bent on revenge, no exploration of obsession or paranoia. In short, In the Heart of the Sea is no Moby-Dick, Chris Hemsworth is no Gregory Peck.
                That doesn’t mean he does poorly. Hemsworth and most of the cast perform very well. Especially Brendan Gleeson, who’s one of the most underrated actors working today. His scenes with Whishaw, telling this painful story and confessing long-held secrets are actually some of the best in the film. (Though how he remembers a number of scenes where he’s absent makes for a noticeable plot hole.) We also get good performances from Cillian Murphy, Michelle Fairley, Charlotte Riley, and Donald Sumpter. But none of the characters really have a lot of character to them. Chase and Pollard’s backstories are curious but undeveloped. They’re suffering, trying to survive, but there was nothing much about them to be invested in to begin with.
As we edge closer to Awards season, In the Heart of the Sea comes just short of being a significant contender. It’s a decent film but doesn’t have enough consistent and legitimate tension or character to make it a great film. But as I said, it looks great. If you do want to see it, see it in theatres as the big screen is really the best environment to feel the scale of the action. It’s worth a watch, but you’d be better off seeing this kind of story in Life of Pi or Moby-Dick itself.

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