Back in the early 19th century, whaling was a massive and dangerous industry. Whale oil was a precious commodity, used for oil lamps and soaps. The inherent risks and general hard labor required for expeditions meant that the sailors recruited were usually those who didn’t have many other options or were born into the job.
There’s an interesting story to be had in a whaler’s life, and that’s exactly what Herman Melville is looking for when he meets Thomas Nickerson, a man who spent his formative years hunting one particular whale.
His story begins with Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) heading out for one last whaling trip, ensuring that he and his very pregnant wife will have the money they need to live comfortably. His experience whaling makes him a valuable asset on any whaling ship, but because of his lowly status, he can’t be a captain. Instead he’s first mate on the Essex to George Pollard, a first time captain whose family has controlled a sizeable portion of the whaling industry for generations. The two are put immediately at odds with one another, but they’ve got a job to do and they’re going to see it through. Where’s Thomas Nickerson in all this? He’s a greenhorn on the Essex, a witness to Chase and Pollard’s battle of pride.
If that seems a little blasé to you, it’s because this kind of story has been played out a million times before and here is not much different. What sets In the Heart of the Sea apart is its setting. Ron Howard is an excellent director, and the shots of sailing, the open ocean, the whales, and even the hunt are all interesting and exciting to watch as standalone moments. This is a profession that rarely, if ever, gets the spotlight in movies, and seeing it all rendered in such high quality makes In the Heart of the Sea an interesting history lesson, if nothing else (at least for the first half of the movie).
It’s a fascinating industry to be sure, but in no way does it lend its characters any sympathy. The fact that documentaries like Blackfish can so easily capture people’s attention and outrage means that a movie whose dramatic center is “whale poachers have their boat sunk” isn’t a drama that modern audiences are looking for. It’d be like if one of those wolf hunting helicopters went down in the forest and the survivors had to outrun a pack of hungry wolves. Odds are you care about the animal and not the hunter.
Which means that when the Essex invariably ends up in the cross hairs of a particularly vengeful whale, you’re on the whale’s side. And when the ship is sunk and the crew must somehow survive long enough to either find help or dry land before they die of thirst or starvation, it’s hard to care. It wouldn’t be impossible to find some way to empathize with the whalers. They are humans after all and their job isn’t much different from that of the crews on Deadliest Catch. But we’ve seen the cruelty of their job up close and beyond that, the characters don’t get much more development. So why should we care about these sailors stuck in the ocean when all we know of them is how much they want to harpoon whales to death? And if you’ve seen Life of Pi, you know pretty much everything they’re going to endure as they float endlessly on the water. Endlessly, because they spend what might well be the entire second half of the movie slowly withering in their life boats.
In the end, In the Heart of the Sea boasts some impressive visuals but can’t measure up with a lackluster story. The visuals of the great whale and the sailors emaciated bodies from spending weeks at sea are awe inspiring and horrifying respectively. Though there is clearly passion behind the production it doesn’t translate into a more compelling drama. If the life of a whaler is something that interests you then definitely seek this movie out. If you like movies about sailors and the open ocean you’ll get plenty of that here. But in terms of human drama you won’t get much more than you could find in a dozen other movies about desperate survival, at least two of which star Tom Hanks.
In the Heart of the Sea debuted Saturday, August 27. Catch on most of HBO’s platforms.