When I came across Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” for the first time, what I read was a criminally abridged version for elementary school kids. I did not know that at that time, but I enjoyed reading it anyway, and then I was surprised to learn later that this classic American literature novel is a lot more than that relentless manic obsession of Captain Ahab. As reading the full version during my first high school year, I was particularly impressed by its vivid, detailed description of the whaling industry during the 19th century. I enjoyed small episodes among the crew members of Pequod, and then I devoured some interesting details on how they extracted and stored tons of oils from whales. When I read it in English a few years ago, that impression of mine remained same as before, and I appreciated again the painstaking efforts of Melville, who was not appreciated much by others except his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne when his monumental work was published in 1851.
In Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea”, there are several moments which took me back to my small recollections of reading “Moby Dick”, and that is not so surprising, considering that the real-life story the movie is based on was one of the key inspirations for Melville’s novel. While the movie did a solid job of recreating the epoch of one bygone marine industry on the screen, it is sadly unimpressive and underwhelming in case of plot and characters, and that problem becomes more apparent as it constantly keeps itself being moored to Melville’s novel. This looks more unnecessary especially during its pedestrian second half, and I had a gradual sinking feeling as it plodded to its expected ending.
The movie begins with Melville (Ben Whishaw) visiting Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last surviving crew member of the whaling ship Essex. While it has been known well that the ship was sunken in the southern Pacific Ocean in 1820 due to a big white sperm whale, Melville wants to know more about what happened around that time, though Nickerson is very reluctant to talk about that. Melville is persistent despite Nickerson’s initial refusal, and Nickerson eventually begins to tell the story from the very beginning as Melville attentively listens to him.
We hear about how things were not exactly ideal when Essex was about to leave Nantucket, Massachusetts in August 1819. Other whaling ships already left the port, and there is also considerable tension between its new captain and his first mate. Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) is frustrated to be notified by the owners of the ship that he will be the first mate of the ship again despite many years of work and experience, and he is certainly not so pleased to know that he is going to serve some younger guy from an influential family in the industry.
With his ambition of living up to his family name, Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) is eager to show his capabilities as the leader of his ship, but, not so long after their departure, he only comes to show Chase and others on the ship how much he is inexperienced for his first voyage. When he attempts to give them some tough time for tightening them up, it turns out to be a pretty tough one for him as well them, and the movie puts a lot of efforts in conveying to us that unforgivingly tumultuous nature of the ocean.
Young Nickerson, played by Tom Holland, came on board along with his friend for earning money and seeing the world outside Nantucket, and he surely experiences and learns lots of things as a first-timer. After one exciting moment of whale hunt, he is assigned to the unenviable job of collecting the most valuable asset inside sperm whale’s head, and his stinking predicament vividly reminded me of the lucid description of the same collection process in Melville’s book.
Meanwhile, the situation becomes desperate as the ship keeps wandering around the oceans with no particular success, and Captain Pollard and Chase ironically stick together in front of a slim chance which may enable them to return to Nantucket with full stock. They search for an elusive place for whales in the southern Pacific Ocean, and they succeed to locate it at last, but then there comes a gigantic adversary as they were warned before. The special effects are effectively used for this tense, dynamic sequence, and the sense of awe and terror is palpable as the circumstance gets worse for the crew of Essex thanks to their opponent’s mighty fury.
However, the movie begins to spin its wheels after this big moment as the crew of Essex experience a fate worse than the one experienced by the crew of Pequod during the grand finale of “Moby Dick”. The screenplay by Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, which is adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction book “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”, does not provide enough ground for this part, and it feels flat and meandering even when the characters come to face the grim logic of their impossible situation in the vast ocean.
The actors in the film look convincing as their characters going through various ordeals and hardships on the sea, but their characters are not that distinctive or colorful compared to those memorable characters in Melville’s novel, and it is sometimes hard to distinguish one from another. I also have doubts on whether the part involved with Melville and Nickerson is really necessary, though Brendan Gleeson is interesting to watch as usual as a bitter man still haunted by the dark memories from his past. While Chris Hemsworth and Benjamin Walker occupy the center of the story, Tom Holland holds his own place well as he did before in “The Impossible” (2012), and Cillian Murphy gives a nice supporting performance as the level-headed second mate of the ship who is also Chase’s good friend.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is not a complete dud at all, and I did enjoy some of its details and spectacles, but I was ultimately left with disappointment and reservation while the movie was drifted back to its starting point with the overlong epilogue sequence. As Melville finally writes that famous opening sentence, this solemn account of what inspired him feels plainer than before, and you may really want to read his great novel as soon as the movie is over.