by Jeff Walls
The last time star Chris Hemsworth and director Ron Howard collaborated, the result was the thrilling racing drama Rush, one of the best movies of 2013. They leave behind the racecars in favor of whaling ships for their next film together, the epic-feeling adventure-cum-survival drama In the Heart of the Sea. It’s the true story of the ill-fated 1820 whaling expedition that inspired the classic novel Moby-Dick. The result may not be a timeless classic on par with the novel, but it is still quite entertaining.
The story is told in flashback as one of the boat’s only survivors finally tells the truth about the expedition to author Herman Melville after years of silence. Through his narrative, we are introduced to Hemsworth’s Owen Chase, a soon-to-be father who expects to be named Captain on his next voyage. As talented of a seaman as he is, however, his family name does not carry any baggage with those who make the decisions and he is instead made first mate to Benjamin Walker’s Captain George Pollard. Chase and Pollard are immediately at odds with each other, much because Chase is immediately beloved by the crew and Pollard wants to make sure everyone understands that he’s the boss.
After struggling to reach their quota of whale oil on their planned route, Chase and Pollard hear the story of a Spanish ship that came upon hundreds of whales far out to sea. Although the Spanish crew members warn them of the dangers, the crew of the Essex decides it is worth the risk. What they could never have anticipated was that the hundreds of whales roaming the deep sea are protected by one giant whale that has no problem smashing large whaling ships. From there on out, In the Heart of the Sea becomes a story of desperate survival.
The seafaring sequences in the movie, as well as every encounter with the giant whale, are exciting and make for an adventurous entertainment. Chris Hemsworth is an incredibly charismatic actor and he brings every ounce of that charisma to his role as Chase. He has to be more than just a movie star here, though, as the movie’s tough second half forces his character to make some very difficult decisions and go through a dramatic physical transformation. Hemsworth very much commands our attention throughout the entire movie and he is so likable that we as an audience are rooting for him to survive from the start.
Walker’s Captain Pollard is not as easy to root for, because the movie strains a little too much to make the two leads rivals from the get-go. The script does this by making Pollard a power-hungry jerk who endangers his crew to contrast Chase’s man-of-the-people: not necessarily someone the audience can easily get behind. By the end of the movie, however, we are expected to have come around, even if he never clearly does.
Howard does an excellent job of directing this challenging period piece. The atmosphere is right and we instantly feel like we have been transported back to a time when oil coming out of the ground seemed like science fiction. The movie feels like an epic, but at two hours long it never feels epic-length.
The visuals are mostly solid and at times awe-inspiring. There were some distracting shots that seemed like a blatant attempt to take advantage of the 3D technology, usually done by putting pointy objects in the immediate foreground, but they are few and far between. It’s is a 3D world we now live in and filmmakers, even a veteran like Howard, are still learning how to properly use the technology efficiently and most effectively.
For the most part, the movie’s structure seems to have been taken straight from 2000’s seafaring disaster flick The Perfect Storm and that hurts the movie some, as it feels so familiar. Nevertheless, that is a minor complaint about a movie that otherwise thrills and even finds some pathos in the challenging final act of survival.
In the Heart of the Sea opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the Century Federal Way, and Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? It’s reportedly gonna happen! Until then, eat local before you go!