IN THE HEART OF THE SEA. Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Ben Wishaw, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland, Michelle Fairley, and Brendan Gleeson. Directed by Ron Howard. Rated M (Survival themes). 122 min.
This drama is based on the true story of an enraged sperm whale which preyed upon a New England whaling ship, the "Essex", in the winter of 1820, stranding its crew at sea for 90 days, thousand of miles from possible rescue.
What happened to both the whale and the crew inspired Herman Melville's classic novel, "Moby Dick", which was published in 1851. The film itself is based on Nathaniel Philbrick's 2000 award-winning book about the sinking of the ship.
The film begins a little clumsily and obviously with a slow unfolding narrative about the events associated with the sinking of the "Essex". The ship was crewed by Captain George Pollard (Benjamin walker)", and First Mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), who were rivals on the voyage.Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland) was a young cabin boy on the Essex at the time, and he tells his story as an old man (Brendan Gleeson) in confessional fashion to Herman Melville. Nickerson is tortured by what he remembers, and he has shared his memories with no one, not even with his wife (Michelle Fairley).
Fourteen months into the voyage and a thousand miles out to sea, "Essex" is rammed and sunk by a huge, white sperm-whale whose behaviour is the animal equivalent of human vengeance. The killer whale forces the crew into three small row boats, and then proceeds to stalk them. The scenes of the animal's rage are exceptional as the whale targets and attacks the hapless crew, leaving them marooned in the ocean waters. Aerial shots of the huge whale on the attack, and being attacked, and the under-water photography of the killer whale and the swirling pod of whales it is protecting are thrilling.
The movie has a lot to say about the whaling hunting industry in an era where whale oil was important to human survival, but the same industry also fed the profit motive that formed the basis of human greed. We learn about the mechanics of blubber production, but more importantly about the lust for profit associated with them.
The film works well both as a sea monster movie, and as a tale of survival for a crew left to fend for itself. Of the men who sailed out from the Coast of Massachusetts in late 1819, only a handful returned. The crew is famous for surviving, but more famous for what they did to manage it. The film is confronting, and hard to watch in parts, but the resolve to stay alive among (some of) the crew wins over human adversity.
The film is much more than an attack at sea. It is about willpower and the importance of companionship to make survival possible. The crew are pushed to their limits. Under the stress of what happens, they do the unthinkable to stay alive, and "pushed to the edge of sanity" they try to cope with utter panic and despair.
This is a film that operates at multiple levels. Scenes of the monster whale are visually dramatic, and impressive. The adventure tone is maintained effectively by the interaction between crew and the whale, and what the crew does to survive. Australian actor, Chris Hemsworth, becomes almost unrecognisable as a massively weight-reduced "Thor" (from the Marvel film series). This is a movie intended to be kind to humans - maybe not so friendly to animals - and deals with animal-human interaction. Human beings give into weakness along the way, but draw the strength to stay alive by relying on each other.
The film is a human tale of shared suffering, and is directed well by Ron Howard who gave us "A Beautiful Mind" (2001). If the choice is available, it is best to see it in 3-D.
Peter Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released December 3rd., 2015