Review: ‘Heart of the Sea’ is a whale of a tale

11 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

1820s whaling tale ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ has modern-day parallels, screenwriter says.

Ron Howard’s In the Heart of Sea sets sail with barrels of drama aboard, explores dudes being dudes and unleashes the most fearsome seabound villain this starboard side of Jaws. With some prodding, Nickerson tells the tale from 30 years earlier, when the Essex left Nantucket’s port with a mission to collect 2,000 barrels of whale oil — then the life blood of the Industrial Revolution.Call it the calm before the storm: Only one major new release is slated to debut this weekend, one week before Star Wars: The Force Awakens hits theaters. The Oscar-winning director’s adaptation (*** out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday) of Nathaniel Philbrick’s novel doubles as a thriller and disaster film, though the plot seems shallow before the whaling ship Essex sets out and after it gets destroyed by one extraordinarily ticked-off marine mammal. The ship’s owners set in motion the initial onboard conflict, relegating the more oceanwise Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) to first mate to an untested captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), who got his title because of family connections.

They are about white squalls, rope burns, cracked hulls, torn sails, men overboard, malevolent sea creatures, and water water everywhere and not a drop to drink. As described by Nickerson, then a lad of 14 (and played by Tom Holland), Chase and Pollard disagree openly about how to run the ship, but bury their dispute as they seek remote whaling grounds in the southern Pacific.

It’s at once a biopic and an adventure yarn that, with harpoons and ploddingly good intentions, turns a story of survival into an ecological cautionary tale. It could possibly work if you think of the movie as a metaphor for the story it’s trying to tell, but that’s a little too meta for something that should be fairly straightforward. If predictions hold true, that’ll be one of the lower debuts on Howard’s resume, and with a budget just under $100 million, it’s a gloomy conclusion to what has been a dismal year for Warner Bros. It begins with Melville (Ben Whishaw) arriving at a Nantucket inn to interview Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who sailed the Essex as a boy (Tom Holland) and is the crew’s last living survivor.

Pause for even a moment to ruminate on spiritual or existential crises and the great ship starts to list. does a fair bit of listing, because it’s not just about any ol’ ocean voyage. It’s ostensibly about the real expedition that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” that Nathaniel Philbrick wrote about in his nonfiction book. The studio has seen a number of high-profile flops, including Pan and Jupiter Ascending, and San Andreas and Mad Max: Fury Road are the only two Warner Bros. pictures to cross $100 million this year. In fact, Leavitt (“The Mighty,” “K-PAX,” “Blood Diamond”) said in a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles that the idea of whaling as the first oil industry was very important to him. “This was the oil industry before someone figured out how to drill for oil in the ground in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, in 1851,” he said. “It was a lot like the oil industry of today.

Melville desperately wants to hear the story — he senses potential — and Nickerson, played as a glowering old seaman by Gleeson, reluctantly agrees to relive the nightmare. Tom Holland stars as the orphaned teenage Nickerson on his first trip to find and bring back whale oil for the thriving industry in Nantucket, Mass., circa 1820. The movie is a visual marvel, as cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) captures the rugged adventure of 19th-century sailing ships and the vastness of the open ocean. Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt, working from the Nathaniel Philbrick’s National Book Award winner for nonfiction, cannot content themselves with allowing this harrowing survival tale to unfold without reaching for higher meaning. Howard uses Melville as a character (played by Ben Whishaw) and his curiosity about the mysterious circumstances of how the whaleship Essex sank as the audience’s entry into the story.

The two hated each other, but they eventually found a common enemy: a massive whale, “white as alabaster,” oblivious to harpoons and seemingly bent on revenge. Chase puts pride aside for a paycheck as the newcomer’s first mate, yet with his ability on the water he clearly outshines the insecure Pollard, causing strife among them and putting the whole crew in bad straits.

The crew of the Essex is stalked by a 100-foot whale and eventually scattered in rescue boats on the open sea, where they have to do unspeakable things in order to stay alive. The tide turns when on the way to South America, they start finding whales, brutally killing them — by the time they venture too far east and ultimately find a plethora of the creatures to harpoon, Howard has presented the sailors both as salt-of-the-earth men and greedy murderers in a sense.

His chiseled good looks and Aussie joie de vivre translate well to a character who jumps into action, climbing the rigging and cutting loose a sail with hearty enthusiasm. Those who survive — including Chase, Pollard and Nickerson — evacuate to whale boats as the sinking ship burns, for a long and grueling (especially for the audience) search for civilization. Yet Moby-Dick is such a touchstone of American fiction that it becomes Howard’s own white whale, that significant something that his film cannot quite grasp. Debuting in more than 3,000 theaters, it’s expected to open between $12 and $15 million, and while that isn’t the greatest forecast for the pricey drama, it should be enough to secure first place.

Philbrick’s sources are Nickerson’s posthumously published account, “The Loss of the Ship ‘Essex’ Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats,” and Chase’s 1821 book, which has an even more charmingly prolix title: “Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket; Which Was Attacked and Finally Destroyed by a Large Spermaceti-Whale, in the Pacific Ocean; With an Account of the Unparalleled Sufferings of the Captain and Crew” and so on. It’s less a spoiler than a consumer warning to say that when they run out of food, they’re forced to consume the remains of their less fortunate crew members. The final chapter in the story of Katniss Everdeen has grossed more than $230.5 million domestically, and its worldwide total recently crossed $525 million. Once the tormented Nickerson finally starts telling his story, the film flashes back to the Nantucket harbor, when Nickerson was just a lowly cabin boy on the Essex, a vessel commissioned to bring back a bounty in whale oil.

More so than other waterlogged pictures, Howard creates an immersive, gorgeously shot experience pitting man against beast in the ocean for the film’s most spectacular scenes, which are reminiscent of old-school scope of Mutiny on the Bounty and other watery adventures of yesteryear. Charles Leavitt’s screenplay focuses on the sailors bickering and bonding, though the most intense scenes come between Whishaw’s and Gleeson’s quietly profound performances. Pollard and Chase disagree sharply on tactics—Chase, for example, feels it unwise to motivate the crew by steering the ship directly into a squall—but they soon have bigger things to worry about. After falling short in the hunt, the men follow a tip that leads them a thousand miles off the coast of South America, but the bounty of whales they encounter includes a beast of almost supernatural force.

But he was a self-made man who worked his way up through the ranks and thought he deserved the captaincy.” Leavitt paraphrased a line from author Nathaniel Philbrick, who wrote the definitive book about the Essex: “You had a captain with the instincts and soul of a mate, and a first mate with fire and ambition of a captain. First though there’s the typical scene-setting, including some dutiful domestic drama with Owen’s loving yet resentful wife (Charlotte Riley, in a placeholder role), which Mr. A year after directing Hemsworth through the Formula One racing drama Rush, Howard brings the same kinetic style to the whaling sequences here, which throw the camera into sea-level tussles with whales not easily felled by harpoons. Chase flexes his hero muscles early, bounding up a ladder to cut free a tangled sail, and the captain responds with ill-advised bravado in leading the men full-speed into a squall. It saw a steeper-than-expected drop of more than 60 percent last weekend, and although early estimates had Creed pulling ahead, The Good Dinosaur did mange to secure third place with $15.3 million.

He’s not just the hammer-slinging Thor: The Aussie continues to make the most of his dramatic work — as in Howard’s 2013 Formula 1 film Rush — and showcases a considerable amount of gravitas. Chase has a staredown with the magnificent whale in one key moment, him looking haggard and it filled with fury, that is as touching and human as any in Heart of the Sea’s deep end of emotion. Had the film merely been about an expedition gone wrong—the Essex if Melville had never gotten wind of it—Howard might have sailed on fairer seas, avoiding the headwinds of a literary classic. Owen’s dealings with the shipping company introduce some hefty topics — capitalism, nepotism, corruption, democracy — that vibrate throughout the story without ever developing into an argument. In one corner there’s the ambitious author hungrily absorbing a tragic tale that will help lead him to a masterpiece; in the other is the old-fashioned adventure story outfitted with manly action, churning waters and a catastrophe in the wild that meant something very different in the 19th century than it does today.

The Essex becomes a stand-in for humanity’s relationship with vengeful God and it’s too much for the film to handle, especially when it relies so much on the author himself to give it significance. In 2003, Leavitt was hired by Barry Levinson’s production company to adapt Philbrick’s book. “Everyone seemed to love the script, and we met with several directors.

Howard goes all out when the ship finally sets sail: The camera whips around, going wide and eye-jabbingly close as you follow the crew up the masts, across the deck and into the galley. But we never really care about the lead, so there’s little hope that we’ll be interested in the rest of the men once it becomes solely about survival. Outside of the top five, Adam McKay’s The Big Short — which picked up four Golden Globe nominations on Thursday — is launching in a handful of theaters before going wide on Dec. 23.

These often take you out of the story partly because, unlike the impressionistic painted backdrops in old Hollywood films, they’re trying hard to replicate the real world. There’s no such corollary — no frenzied horror, no unspeakable truth — in the movie, which takes a 19th-century story of man’s survival in nature and turns it into a reminder that the whole domination of nature thing wasn’t such a great idea.

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