The white whale that was immortalized by Herman Melville has entered into our language and cultural treasury of images. It’s hard to erase the angry but majestic image of the late Gregory Peck as embittered Captain Ahab in John Huston’s 1956 movie, and director Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea” misses the chance to give us a dose of real drama to enhance the cultural myth of man against sea monster.
You might get hints of trouble when you see that Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (“Jurassic World” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) and Charles Leavitt wrote the story and Leavitt alone is credited with the screenplay. The movie is based upon Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea” which won the 2000 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Jaffa and Silver might have a flair for science fiction where great beasts threaten humans, but here the main adversaries are the sea and men’s minds. The whale is only the catalyst.
Perhaps the most disappointing decision was to take the white out of the white whale. According to the production notes, production designer Mark Tildesley said, “We tried a few images of white whales and they looked fantastic, but, unfortunately, the pure white also engendered a very ethereal calm image. But in our research we learned a lot of older whales start to lose their skin, so we made the whale darker, but you see the white coming through in patches where the skin has flaked off.”
Yet, we don’t begin with the whale. We begin with a man, Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw, “Spectre” and “The Danish Girl”) knocking late at night on an inn. He seeks the alcoholic Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last survivor of the Essex. The gruff old man busies himself making ships in bottles. He initially refuses to talk although the inn is in dire financial straits and Melville offers “Three nights’ lodging for a single night’s talk.” But confession is good for the soul.
What pushes the whalers is oil. Yes, oil. Whale oil was discovered before oil underground. That “pushed men to venture further and further into the deep blue unknown” but “how does one come to know the unknowable?”
Tom was an orphan of only 14 when he and his 17-year-old friend set sail on the Essex. The Essex is handed over to the inexperienced Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker from, of all things, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”), whose blood gives him this right to lead. The first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) has been promised captaincy and comes into Nantucket fulling expecting the commission and the pay to go with it. Instead he becomes the caretaker for a man too proud to listen.
The script quickly establishes Chase as a man to be admired, a man of action who swiftly climbs us to liberate an entangled sail as the helpless captain watches from below as they set sail on August 12, 1819. Determined to prove himself master of his men two days later, Pollard insists driving the boat into a squall. When Chase questions his orders, Pollard insists that this will be a good baptism for the men. Director Ron Howard quickly establishes the dangers of life at sea in a confusion of watery shots. The sails swing so low or the waves so high that they touch. Men cling desperately to ropes as the fierce cold waves sweep across the deck. The foolish maneuvers damage the ship and that means they will need more whales to break even.
They do spot a whale and we follow the men in three boats, rowing hard. Chase is ready to harpoon the whale and once hit, the men rejoice at the Nantucket sleigh ride–the whale swimming fast at the surface, dragging the boat behind. Then, it dives. The men have enough rope for the whale’s long evasive dive, but this one goes particularly deep and the men must borrow rope from another boat. When the whale resurfaces, it is attacked and dies, spouting blood into a mist that baptizes and curses the men.
With only one whale taken in, the ship continues a year out. The crew is restocking food in Atacames, Ecuador when they hear the captain of the Santa Maria tell of hundreds of whales, “fields of flukes” just 1,000 leagues at the equator. The captain lost his ship because of a terror there. Greed makes Pollard and Chase ignore the man’s warnings about this place at the edge of sanity. This is where they meet the white whale in 1820. The whale is large and convincingly attacks the Essex sinking her and leaving 20 men divided amongst three harpooning boats.
From here, it becomes a tale of survival. The whale seems to follow them in a manner that is much less convincing than “Jaws.” The movie does make you feel the brutality of the whaling industry and has a particularly distasteful sight of blood misting the faces of the jubilant whalers and poor Tom being sent down a dead whales blowhole to harvest the oils left in the brain’s cavity. We now know that whales are intelligent, sentient beings. A U.S. citizen is more likely to express disgust and even anger over whaling today. Yet, we don’t see the whale as being engaging enough to root for it. There seems to be a suggestion that the whale is protecting a female whale and her calf. This movie fully embraces the thought of a vengeful whale, but without giving us a social context because we remain mostly above in the world of men. There is also no suggestion that the men hallucinated the whale’s reappearance later.
In the Smithsonian article about this true event clarifies some details. Pollard was convinced by Chase and others to avoid a closer set of island for fear of, ironically, cannibals. They did eventually land on Henderson Island. Skeletons found suggested that staying there alone would be unwise. The three boats set sail again. Eventually there were only two and the two became separated. Both sets of men resorted to cannibalism.
Walker is stiff and well-dressed, but doesn’t suggest the sadness of a man so ill-fated. Hemsworth bellows commands with great authority and a sense of nobility that plays better with Thor, but in “The Avengers” others provide comic relief. Whishaw’s Melville looks eager, but not driven or haunted as his words later suggest. It helps that we know what will happen, that his novel “Moby-Dick” will become a classic, but the Smithsonian article indicates that by 1852, Melville and his novel “Moby-Dick” “had begun their own slide into obscurity.” Melville would eventually abandon novels, drink and become reclusive. The movie “In the Heart of the Sea” doesn’t suggest the ironies and the haunting agony of the true story. This movie pitches the dastardly deeds of big oil companies against men who would be their captains and shows that captains are not kings of the seas, but pawns of big business.
“In the Heart of the Sea” flounders in a sea of Hollywood clichés. Great CGI cannot mend the leaks in this ship. The script doesn’t dive deep enough into the psychology of the terrors the men must have experienced. Ron Howard and his production team seek out Moby Dick, but Moby Dick and the hold he has in the minds of men remain elusive. “In the Heart of the Sea” opens Friday, December 11, 2015.