I must admit to being more excited than normal when I heard that Ron Howard was doing a big, epic maritime adventure. I’m a sucker for nature porn at the best of times, even finding the cloying and manipulative Perfect Storm kind of a perfect movie. There’s something particularly visceral and thrilling about danger at sea, something primal that speaks to our reptilian brains confronting vast elements outside our control.
The nature-vs-man titanic struggle gains one of its metaphorical touchstones in Herman Melville’s tale of a white whale, a Captain named Ahab and a narrator we’re meant to call Ishmael. Like many I’ve started Moby Dick, and like many other I’ve never been able to make my way through the whole way. For a book set on the water much of it is dry, involving taxonomies of various whale types, minute details about shipwork and so on. It’s a fetish to a lost world, a look into the New England industry of oil salvaging from aquatic leviathan.
In The Heart of the Sea we’re treated to a backstory of sorts, the true story that led Melville to tell his tale. Showing up at the house of the lone living survivor of the wreck of the Essex, Melville foists a fistful of cash at the drunken man in hopes of being told the real tale. We’re then thrust into a typical bout of derring-do, seeing men riding off for years to conquer the sea and extract its bounty.
It’s hard not to see Thor in Chris Hemsworth – when playing James Hunt in the (sublime) film Rush I found he lost himself in the character. Here, despite the radical weight loss and a bunch of bounding about he still feels super heroic. It’s a decent performance, but if he’s not careful there’s going to be more than a bit of typecasting in his future. The rest of the fine cast also seems to be drowned out by the storyline, with no one character really coming to the fore except in broad strokes.
The rest of the cast are also pretty dispensable, overshadowed by Brendan Gleason’s interjections as the ostensible narrator. All kinds of bad things take place, as can be expected, yet for a supposed true story it seems that the film goes out of its way to make things more heightened than they need to be. Rather than allowing for the real tedium and sense of isolation to build up, creating both dramatic and narrative tension, Howard’s film feels the need to continuously interject action moments. It’s visceral, sure, but it’s equally implausible. You stop feeling after a while that any of these guys would have made it, and a bit less physical drama and a heap more psychological confrontation would have helped quite a bit.
Similarly the behaviour of the captain is frankly ridiculous. One can get into nasty situations withtout being malevolent – incompetence goes a long way towards making tragedy. I can handle boorish indecisiveness, but the strong and committed decision to do the wrong thing without any major consequence feels more like cinematic convenience rather than demonstrating a narrative tragic flaw of hubris.
The film does work well when the mighty sperm beast rises from the depths. There are a slew of strange POV shots, as if they stuck GoPros all over the place (but with far better quality) to create often startlingly direct and intimate angles. The fishies are rendered well, the boat blasts convincingly and the makeup on the men shows their emaciation effectively. Yet still it doesn’t really connect, never feeling anything more than a film that needs to get from A to B in as a direct a path as possible.
We’re taken on a wild journey, a so-called Nantucket Sleigh-ride that bobs up and down but really doesn’t get us very far. It’s a competently made film that doesn’t really live up to the magnitude of its story, never quite connecting in ways that it should. It’s a middling piece, and for a film with so much opportunity for real drama as per numerous films that have captured similar dangers it’s most certainly a disappointment.