Ron Howard gets right to the heart of the true story that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. Reteaming again after the success of Rush with Chris Hemsworth, and more importantly DOP Anthony Dod Mantle, Howard goes beyond Melville's story of man vs whale to reveal the harrowing tale of survival that followed the sinking of the whaling vessel Essex in the 1820s.
Melville (Ben Whishaw) visits an old Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), last survivor of the Essex and offers him a wodge of cash in exchange for the full story on what went down in the middle of the ocean all those years ago. So begins Nickerson's version of events; a story of conflict between Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), as the two men hurl their ship across the oceans in pursuit of whales. Their quest for whale oil brings them into conflict with a giant monster of the sea; a white whale that won't even stop when it has destroyed the Essex itself.
Survival at sea has rarely looked so horrible, even after the likes of Life of Pi and Unbroken. The whale is the least of this crew's worries once the Essex goes down. Storms, sun, starvation; attack of the Hollywood skinniness. By the end, Hemsworth and his fellow survivors look like zombies as they resort to unspeakable actions in order to survive. You'll soon forget that you're watching Thor and the future Spider-Man Tom Holland face to face, as their eyes become sunken holes in their scrawny heads.
As the months aboard the Essex pass, there's a sense of excitement and adventure every time the crew find whales. But mixed with the majesty of the great creatures is the tragedy of their hunting, killing and butchering. Howard and Dod Mantle find the oily business grotesque and it shows in the inky, off-kilter cinematography. In fact, In the Heart of the Sea very clearly becomes Dod Mantle's film as it goes on. The shot choices become more bold and more stark as the situation for the crew gets more desperate.
In its heart, it’s a conflicted film. Hemsworth skips around the sails in typical hero style, but then the film mourns the first whale he manages to kill. He's clearly more cut out for the sea than his captain, who for the first half at least, is set up as the villain. But things get far more interesting once the monster whale turns up and cuts them all down to size. Howard does a decent job of making us sympathise with the men, investing just enough to make a few of the characters register above their blooming beards.
But the whale is the real heart of the sea. The tagline of Jaws: The Revenge said it best: This time it's personal. The incredible creatures might all be made of CGI, but that big white whale steals the show. Smashing, crashing and chasing his foes in payback for the family it has lost, it's a stark reminder of how nature can respond if men keep abusing the planet so arrogantly and recklessly.
In the Heart of the Sea is an epic odyssey of survival; much bigger, more emotional, and more exciting even than this year’s other great disaster story, Everest.
Watch the trailer:
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