If you must go see In the Heart of the Sea, avoid the 3D screenings.
I realize few people read reviews for critiques of the technical elements, but this sea story has some of the worst uses of 3D I have seen. Director Ron Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle love to shoot with objects between the characters and the camera. If ever a film begged for deep focus, this is it.
But alas: more than half the frame is frequently out of focus for large chunks of the movie. At first I thought this was an accident or something peculiar to my screening venue, but in at least one scene the focus shifts from foreground to background intentionally. And critics at other screenings in other cities mentioned problems with the 3D as well. I’m not a fan of 3D to begin with, since I think the glasses tend to wash out color, but the cumulative result here is a particularly drab, fuzzy picture.
The film’s visuals aren’t its only problem—just the most noticeable. The screenplay is a messy hodge-podge that can’t decide what kind of story it wants to tell or where its dramatic weight rests.
In the Heart of the Sea opens with a self-tortured Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) visiting a self-tortured Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). The author fears he will never be Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Spoiler alert: he’s right.) The last living survivor of the Essex fears that his wife will no longer love him if she ever finds out what transpired on that ship’s fatal voyage. That’s a lot of psychological torment dropped in our lap before the movie even gets out of dock. Nickerson wants to take Essex’s story to the grave, but his wife (Michelle Fairley, who manages to prompt the film’s only laugh) tells him they need the author’s money. She also thinks that maybe finally telling someone his shameful secret will do the old guy some good. All good literature is born out of amateur psychotherapy, it seems.
The frame story is an ill-chosen device that weighs the movie down and accentuates one of Howard’s most irritating directorial tendencies—a penchant for over-explaining. Several times, we get an overstated scene on the ship in which a conflict is depicted, followed by a cut to Nickerson explaining to Melville (and us) what the scene we just saw meant. Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) butt heads over class envy and personal resentments. The Essex was put out to sea late, and the pressure to perform pushes the Captain to cut corners. Young Nickerson, a petrified boy on one of his first voyages, is held by his ankles over the edge of the ship and later pushed inside a dead whale’s head to retrieve some premium oil. These scenes are neither particularly hard to understand nor fathom, so the constant cuts to Melville and Old Nickerson serve only to build anticipation for a truly horrific climax that comes so early in the movie we don’t even realize that was it.
In the Heart of the Sea is based on the book by Nathaniel Philbrick. The historian is able to situate the Essex’s story in the historical context of the whaling industry. Context is always easier to provide in books than films; movies frequently privilege action and spectacle over motivation and meaning. Philbrick, always the good historian, relies on multiple sources to tell the tale.
That’s all well and good, but the film can’t decide if it wants to tell Nickerson’s story or Chase’s. Although we’re supposedly hearing Nickerson’s version of events, we are constantly privy to scenes that must have come from Chase, such as negotiations between him and the Essex’s owners or an argument he has with his wife before going to sea.
Near the end, the film tries to broaden our understanding of the context of the story through a scene in which Chase is pressured to lie about what happened to the ship, but it feels tacked on. Only the first act of the film truly evokes Moby-Dick. The second act reminds us of The Life of Pi. The conclusion morphs into a cross between Truth and The Insider.
If In the Heart of the Sea had picked one of those and truly emulated it, the results probably would have been better. The Moby-Dick connection was supposed to be the selling point; it was certainly the reason I wanted to see the film. Fewer novels in American literature are more esteemed and less understood than Melville’s classic. And when the film started with a quote about attempting to know the unknowable, for just a moment my heart soared as I thought it would explore the deeper ontological questions that permeate and inform one of the most daring and philosophically probing American novels. Even here, though, the film makes the classic undergraduate mistake, conflating Moby-Dick with Melville’s earlier romances (I winced when the author called them “novels”).
If you think Moby-Dick is at heart an action-adventure story that is only accidentally prefaced with four hundred pages about rendering whale fat, then In the Heart of the Sea may be just the thing for you. It’s the perfect movie not for those who think Moby-Dick was great, but who think it could have been great . . . if only it had been written by Tom Clancy.
The most disturbing things that happen in the film are spoken of in hushed tones rather than depicted. Mr. Nickerson relates in some detail an act of cannibalism that has apparently been his shameful secret for many years. Gruesome skeletons are found on a deserted island. One character threatens to shoot another. There is one scene of gun violence, though the camera cuts away so that we don’t see the actual moment of death. Sailors draw straws in a suicide pact to save rations. A character holds a young sailor over the edge of the ship, terrifying him. Violence towards animals (the whales) is depicted, including one fairly explicit scene of a carcass being rendered. At least one character uses God’s name as a profanity. The MPAA lists no nudity to speak of, but I actually couldn’t tell if a character on a deserted island was wearing pants or not—the 3D was that fuzzy. Summary: there are a number of disturbing scenes and elements, but they are not as explicit as they might have been. Younger viewers may be more bored or disturbed than outright frightened, but do take the PG-13 rating seriously.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.