*/**** Image A- Sound A+ Extras B+
starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson
screenplay by Charles Leavitt, based on the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
directed by Ron Howard
by Bill Chambers In the Heart of the Sea is Ron Howard's water movie, just like Backdraft is his fire movie, Far and Away is his earth movie, and Apollo 13 is his air movie. It's also his first fish movie since Splash, suggesting that Howard is retracing his steps in a career reboot that began with Rush, his first car movie since his directorial debut, Grand Theft Auto. But one waits for history to repeat itself with some sign of accrued wisdom beyond obvious markers like technical proficiency. In fact, in its show-offiness and ersatz emotionalism, In the Heart of the Sea seems the less mature film next to Splash, which has a formal self-control and hints of real pathos despite a fantastical premise that sees a landlubber falling in love with a woman who's secretly a mermaid. (It's the first film to seize on Tom Hanks's Jimmy Stewart quality, as well as the rare one to tap into his anger.) There's hardly a genuine moment in In the Heart of the Sea, and a framing device only exacerbates the problem by adding another layer of dramatization to something that already plays like a big-budget History Channel re-enactment.
Screenwriter Charles Leavitt (The Mighty, K-Pax) adapts Nathan Philbrick's eponymous, National Book Award-winning account of the cursed Essex, an American whaling ship sunk, in an apparently singular occurrence, by a sperm whale. The survivors drifted towards South America in smaller whaling boats, subsisting on a diet of human flesh as their rations expired and numbers dwindled. The footnote to the Essex tragedy is that it loosely inspired Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, which becomes In the Heart of the Sea's raison d'être as Howard sets out to conquer the white whale of literature with all the legitimacy of Melville and none of the author's high-school syllabus stigma. In the aforementioned framing device, Ben Whishaw, playing a far too soft and obsequious Melville, shows up at the inn of pickled, traumatized Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson, typecast) one dark and stormy night seeking raw material from the former Essex cabin boy for his upcoming novel about whalers. It's unlikely that Melville reached out to Nickerson like this--prepared to fork over his life savings, no less (the onscreen date of 1850 means he would have had a wife and infant son to consider)--when he had his own experiences as a whaler to draw from and the published journals of Owen Chase1 (Chris Hemsworth), First Mate of the Essex, were readily at hand. But the reason these scenes feel contrived is because of how badly Howard overestimates the cultural cachet of Moby-Dick ("So it is true!" a wide-eyed Melville remarks after Nickerson mentions a white whale, strictly for the benefit of some nerd class of filmgoer2), and they gradually descend into smug historical irony of the "Picasso dialogue in Titanic" variety, as the two men discuss a rumoured alternative to whale oil siphoned from a hole in the ground. Why, have you ever heard anything so ridiculous?
Still, I almost came to prefer the Melville-Nickerson interactions to the flashbacks, and as dawn broke on their conversation I began to wonder whether this all-night therapy session couldn't've sustained a movie in and of itself. (Think My Dinner with Andre. Hell, think The Hateful Eight.) At the very least, it would take an unorthodox filmmaker; Ron Howard is not an unorthodox filmmaker. He plays at being one, having twice now enlisted Anthony Dod Mantle, the cutting-edge cinematographer of Dogville and Slumdog Millionaire, but it's disingenuous, and In the Heart of the Sea's hyperstylizations--Howard and Mantle fabricate various tableaux that trap the cast in digital evocations of marine art by the likes of Turner and Friedrich, for starters--are more likely to alienate Howard's milquetoast fanbase than to convince skeptics of his artistry. By and large, these self-consciously CG environs need similarly heightened (as opposed to superficial) characters inhabiting them in order to transcend the reality of, well, actors in a bathtub on a bluescreen stage--the delicate difference between Sin City and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Alas, the men of Howard's Essex are, to a one, typically stock and performed with drab professionalism. Paul Bettany's self-flagellating albino monk in The Da Vinci Code is pretty silly, but what prompts laughter is the disbelief that something so queer has infiltrated the Opieverse.
"The career I would like is John Huston's...you know, very varied, many different subjects...never fashionable or hip or trendy or prone to fads. That's the career I would like. I'm not a visionary. I'm not Fellini. I'm not Kubrick. I'm not Fritz Lang. Sometimes I wish I were, but I know that I'm not." That's Steven Soderbergh, talking to the French magazine POSITIF in 1993. I suspect Howard feels the same way, and here actively invites comparisons to the director of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Man Who Would Be King with a heavy-handed aquatic colour grade that recalls, spiritually, the innovative dye-transfer process DP Oswald Morris employed on Huston's Moby Dick. But Huston, who falls in and out of cinephile fashion like an American Bergman, is often unfairly saddled with a middlebrow's reputation despite bringing Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, Fat City, and, yes, Moby-Dick to the screen in faithfully bleak renditions for which no one was clamouring. Howard is the perverse one, though, for doing what he can to commercialize these tales of schizophrenic mathematicians, Nixon interviews, and cannibalism on the high seas.
Indeed, for Howard, history is hagiography. (A better Howard analogue is Richard Attenborough, who once stated, without irony, "I adore courage.") At one point Essex survivors started a death lottery, volunteering their bodies for food. Owen Coffin's number came up; Coffin, 173, was the cousin of Captain Pollard, who refused to accept that a member of his family should die and tried to take his place, but Coffin lay down like a dog and Charles Ramsdell, the 15-year-old who came up with the idea for the lottery, reluctantly killed Coffin. Howard changes the first name of Coffin (Frank Dillane) to Henry, presumably to avoid confusion with Owen Chase. Less pardonably, he changes the particulars of Coffin's sacrifice: Pollard (Benjamin Walker) draws the short straw and Coffin disobeys Pollard's order to execute him, shooting himself in the head instead.4 It's a comparatively black-and-white martyrdom that preserves the others' innocence--and ours. Even if you don't know the truth, the slow-motion embellishments and cries of "no!" feel coddling. The plight of Essex is a compelling story of human error, an accumulation of bad judgment, but that's not inspiring, thus (too) much of the crew's poor navigation and simple idiocy--these chowderheads burnt an entire island to the ground during a prank gone awry--is elided in favour of holding both the whale and the whaling industry ultimately accountable for their fate. Having Chase stump for disclosure when the latter resists acknowledging that their vessels might not be whale-proof isn't just trite grandstanding for the sake of a crowd-pleasing payoff--it's profoundly hypocritical.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
With a movie this synthetic-looking, it's almost impossible to tell where the Blu-ray presentation could be falling short. The opening shot has pinstripes of sunshine poking through the surface of emerald-green waters to a reef below, and on first pass I thought they were banding, but a closer inspection suggests the beams' compression-like gradient decay is intended to mimic the Northern Lights. Definition starts out fairly dewy but grows steadily harsher as conditions worsen for Pollard's men; sometimes black crush swallows detail whole, again in a way that seems premeditated. (Ditto the contrived grain of the Ecuador section, when they first learn of the white whale. The Arri Alexa-generated image is otherwise noiseless.) Note that the 1.78:1, 1080p transfer is misidentified as 1.85:1 on the packaging. Attending the video is a sensational Dolby Atmos track with a 7.1 Dolby TrueHD core; sound is the one area where In the Heart of the Sea doesn't disappoint. Squalls and sea monsters pummel the subwoofer while tides natural and reactive make good use of the sidewalls. Too, there's dynamism in the mix as the Essex splinters apart with simultaneous subtlety and ferocity. (And always with unnerving clarity.) The lamentably clear dialogue has persuasive acoustics.
Extras are plentiful for a newer Warner title. Culled from what Howard calls his log--his Twitter, Instagram, and iPhone record of the production--and fleshed out with B-roll and soundbites from the director, "Ron Howard: Captain's Log" (16 mins., HD) is chopped up into so many tiny morsels (there are 10 segments in all) that it never develops a head of steam, and Howard's observations can be somewhat vapid, as if his own thoughts were hemmed in by a 140-character limit. The most revealing chapters deal with the actors' losing weight over the course of filming--a Method-y dedication to their real-life counterparts that, sad to say, doesn't meaningfully register on screen. Also intriguing is a chapter on the "Editorial and Score," where Howard talks about instructing the other units to "never stop shooting," leading to an unwieldy amount of footage that was pieced together documentary-style.
Conventional making-of content begins with "Chase & Pollard: A Man of Means and a Man of Courage" (7 mins., HD), in which Hemsworth and Walker laboriously recount the root of their characters' conflict. (The title, I believe, gets the order of the names wrong.) The best observations come from author Philbrick, who compares Pollard to Hamlet and introduces the term "fishy man" (as opposed to fisherman) to describe Chase's gift but moreover drive to pursue whales. Howard, interestingly, brands Chase "myopic," announcing a willingness to portray him as fallible, but the picture never does so in a way that casts doubt on Mr. Movie Star. Production designer Mark Tildesley provides an informed explanation of how spermaceti oil was harvested in "The Hard Life of a Whaler" (9 mins., HD), a look at the hardships encountered in the titular profession (simulated for the cast with a boot camp of sorts) that features more edifying quotes from Philbrick. "Whale Tales: Melville's Untold Story" (9 mins., HD) finds various members of the cast and crew echoing each other's evaluation of Moby-Dick as tough but rewarding, while "Commanding the Heart of the Sea" (10 mins., HD) delves into the visual effects, with Howard calling In the Heart of the Sea the most complicated production of his career. Everyone bangs on about how "realism" or "authenticity" was the goal: obviously they're not referring to aesthetics.
Lastly, "Lightning Strikes Twice: The Real-Life Sequel to Moby Dick (sic)" (30 mins., HD) is an outsourced documentary covering the recent discovery by marine archaeologists of Pollard's second downed vessel in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (Boy, the Nantucket Whaling Commission really believed in second chances.) They knew it was a whaler because of the presence of "try pots": big kettles that were used to melt down blubber. Also on board the platter is a raft, no pun intended, of Deleted Scenes--i.e., 16, for a total running time of 36 minutes. The abandoned prologue is noteworthy for directly setting up the whale as a horror-movie antagonist, as he or she picks off the crew of La Santa Maria. The only thing missing is John Williams sawing a cello on the soundtrack. More than one of these probably landed on the cutting-room floor for being too derivative of Jaws, like a scene where the ship goes bump in the night. Reminiscent of a very different Spielberg film (Schindler's List), a wisely-excluded epilogue meanwhile sees Melville or maybe Whishaw visiting the graves of Nickerson and Chase. For what it's worth, even though they're in 1080p these look pretty lousy, like motion-smoothed video, and in many cases have unfinished (or unstarted) effects. Additionally, there are four extended scenes running 7 minutes altogether. Here we discover Chase did initially have some rougher edges that got sanded down in post. Capping the supplements is an "Island Montage" (3 mins., HD) of inscrutable purpose. A trailer for the upcoming Batman Loves Superman: Dawn of Lust cues up on startup of the disc, which comes with DVD and digital copies of the film. Warner has separately issued In the Heart of the Sea in the Blu-ray 3D format, and that version is, oddly, the only one Amazon U.S. carries at this time.
1. Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, goes the catchy title.
2. Incidentally it's not true: The 85-foot whale that stove Essex was uncommonly large but not white--that part came from an article published in THE KNICKERBOCKER about "Mocha Dick," a legendary albino whale frequently spotted off the coast of Chile. Howard and Leavitt conflate them because otherwise there's literally no reason for Melville to source Nickerson, since their conversation ends with Melville promising to keep secret all the post-whale attack Hannibal Lecter stuff that Chase's record glossed over...and keeping his word.
3. Would it be too sad, too unbelievable, or too difficult to contextualize that most whaling seamen at the time were under 20? (All of the above?) At 28, Captain Pollard was the oldest person on Essex; Chase, played by 32-year-old Hemsworth, was only 22.
4. How, by the way, is Nickerson remembering this, given that he was on a different boat at the time? For that matter, how is he remembering Chase's life portside prior to meeting him and after they've parted ways? First-person narration hasn't played this fast and loose with P.O.V. since Saving Private Ryan.