In a lot of ways, In the Heart of the Sea is a well-made, but it also sprawls in too many directions for any of it to really land. The underlying quality of the craftsmanship still makes it thoroughly enjoyable, but it doesn’t quite stack up with Ron Howard’s better films.
In the Heart of the Sea starts with Herman Melville visiting the only remaining survivor of the Essex, a whaling ship that was lost in the Pacific Ocean. That survivor, cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, then recounts the story of the Essex’s last fateful voyage. It starts with Owen Chase, played by Chris Hemsworth, being passed over for a promised promotion to Captain for the son from an well-known whaling family. That starts a rivalry for the more experiences Chase having to answer to the inexperienced and haughty captain. The movie spends a lot of time setting up the two as rivals, and positions Chase as the man for viewers to root for, but as the movie goes on the whole rivalry angle is kind of lost.
Their voyage is not successful, starting with a near disaster with a storm and then months without seeing a whale. The lack of success makes them desperate, so they venture into distant waters to find the whales and tragedy strikes. A rogue whale rams the Essex, sinking it and leaving the crew on the whaling boats 2000 miles from land. Now the movie shifts from to a survival tale.
Both halves of the movie are effective, but they don’t quite fit together cohesively. For instance, when they land on a small island, which does not contain enough food or water to support them, Chase and second mate Matthew Joy reveal that they are close as brothers and he tearfully leaves him behind. While they had showed some familiarity in the earlier parts of the film, that closeness was never mentioned until that point. These sorts of little hiccups are all over the movie.
As an aside, I looked up the story of the Essex after seeing this movie, and I am confused about why some things were changed. The basics are still the same, and I understand some changes to the family stuff back on shore, but other changes, which I won’t detail, are simply not as good as the truth. I okay with some dramatic license, but why change things in a way that makes it less interesting?
Where the film succeeds is in its imagery. This is a beautiful film. Every shot is gorgeous. The ship and its cramped inner working looks amazing. Then there are the incomparable shots of the Essex on the sea, with contrast between the sky and the murky depths of the ocean. It just looks amazing. There are also some very good performances by the cast, with Cillian Murphy being the obvious stand out. To the film’s credit, it eventually gives a nuanced look at the power dynamics between the two leads. Less successful are the cutaways to Melville and the elderly Nickerson, which seem only to detract from the parts people actually want to see.
In the Heart of the Sea is a good story told somewhat badly, but shot wonderfully. Despite its subject matter, it is an easy movie to watch. The sailing shots alone make this movie worth watching. The rest isn’t really bad, but it feels like a lot of different stories haphazardly strapped together. When things do come together, like in the whaling scenes, it is wonderful, but other times is just sort of muddles through. Still, it is worth watching.