In the Heart of the Sea review: Chris Hemsworth keeps it afloat

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In the Heart of the Sea
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Brendan Gleeson and Ben Whishaw
Rating: 4/5

“I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.”
- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or, The Whale
There is something about the human spirit: Something foolish perhaps, at once stubborn and unstoppable. There is a thirst, a curiosity to keep discovering, a hunger to conquer all.
As you watch In the Heart of the Sea, the new picture by Ron Howard, another film pops into mind, not one that you would immediately associate with a movie set in the early 1800s. The film is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and what it shares with In the Heart of the Sea is its romantic portrayal of the untamable beast that is the human spirit. Both films couldn’t be more different, yet more alike.

In the Heart of the Sea is based on the ill-fated voyage of the whaling ship Essex and its crew of brave men. The harrowing tale is told through the eyes of Thomas Nickerson, played by Tom Holland as an unblemished 14-year-old and by Brendan Gleeson as an alcoholic survivor with enough guilt to drown a catholic. He drunkenly recounts his life’s adventures to Herman Melville (yes, the very same) who forever lives in the shadow of his hero Nathaniel Hawthorne, insecure and inadequate.

Other members of the crew include the captain of the vessel George Pollard (a solid Benjamin Walker) -- a naive man out to rid himself of the entitlement and nepotism that has plagued him all his life -- and Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth, armed with the charming bravado of a movie star and an iffy accent) as his reluctant first mate, his name and class forever sentencing him to second place. Pollard never misses an opportunity to remind him that he is a land-farer, and that he, Pollard, is the one who belongs to the family that practically invented the shipping business. Theirs is an odd relationship, one that recalls Captain Kirk and Mr Spock.

Their mission is straightforward: Undertake a perilous voyage to gather whale oil, the only known fuel at the time. The hidden black gold under their feet may as well be stuff of fantasy.

Here, the film soars. These sequences of harpooning whales are stunningly mounted. Ron Howard, a man not unfamiliar with the survival epic (he made the timeless Apollo 13), directs with the confidence and sure-handedness only a seasoned blockbuster filmmaker can conjure up.

In his second collaboration with the inimitable cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, a genius in his own right, Howard displays unprecedented style. His digital camera is kinetic, placed in the tightest of spaces, the lens reacting to light and water. The 3D meanwhile, is glorious, both intimate and expansive. The film itself has the look of a bleached Polaroid, the yellows and blues stark in the harsh Pacific sun.

As if the never-ending immensity of the ocean wasn’t enough, the crew meets their foe: A huge sperm whale, ‘a hundred feet long, with alabaster skin.’ The monster is already legendary among seamen, the news of its repeated conquests having travelled all the way to South America. This is the animal that inspired Melville to create his great American novel. This is how Moby Dick was born.

The whale attacks the Essex, forcing them to abandon ship. The tragedy causes roles to be reversed. Mr Chase steps up and takes charge of the ones that survived the attack, finally occupying the role he was born for. And this is where the film takes a rather sombre turn. What was a rousing adventure for more than an hour turns into bleak survival tale for its final act.

The Martian is still fresh in our minds, but where that film demanded rattled consumption of popcorn in its final moments, this one positively dares you to even think about food. Howard’s Apollo 13 comes to mind, as does Cast Away, All is Lost, The Way Back, The Grey, Alive, Touching the Void, 127 Hours and Gerry. All of these are fantastic films and In the Heart of the Sea firmly belongs to this esteemed company.

In the hands of a lesser director, this tonal shift could’ve been unrecoverable (especially a certain plot development that is sure to shock most viewers), but once again, credit is due to the absolutely brilliant work Ron Howard has done here. The same can be said of his cast. Yes, Cillian Murphy is wasted but there are no histrionics on display. There is instead an integrity and honesty, led by the magnificent Chris Hemsworth. One minor criticism that must be mentioned is the score by Roque Banos: It has little personality, often resorting to the generic beats that we have become so familiar with. Perhaps Charles Leavitt’s screenplay could have benefitted from another draft, with more attention to character. In fact, another 10 minutes or so could easily be added to the film, and that is not something that can be said for many movies.

In the Heart of the Sea works as a survival drama, a rip-roaring adventure and even a monster movie, but what it really accomplishes, like Interstellar, is to remind us that once upon a time, humanity was unflinching in its thirst for discovery. We seem to have arrived at a moment in time where the convenience of the Internet has robbed us of all desire to explore: the world is at our fingertips. But imagine Marco Polo, Lewis and Clark, Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Captain Cook and Columbus. Imagine the Apollo missions. We are still human. It’ll take more than a keyboard to kill our spirit.