Brad Johnson is a screenwriter promoting the mantra “Read scripts, watch movies, and write pages.” Brad also works as a script consultant for writers of all levels to develop and grow their screenwriting toolbox. Follow Brad on Twitter @RWWFilm.
Based on the true story that inspired what many consider to be the epitome of American literature, Ron Howard’s IN THE HEART OF THE SEA has several amazing sequences but is ultimately pulled under, like the whaleship Essex herself, by a lack of narrative focus and some questionable directorial choices.
Framed as a series of flashbacks that take place during an interview between author Herman Melville as he researches his next novel and Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last remaining survivor of the whaleship Essex. Howard’s sea adventure stars Chris Hemsworth as First Mate Owen Chase, a seasoned sailor and whalesman who, when denied a promised promotion until he completes one more trip to sea, finds himself heading out to sea with first time Captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker).
As the whaleship Essex leaves Nantucket harbor – charged with collecting 2,000 barrels of the whale oil that fuels the world as it teeters on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution – they find quick success, resulting in some exhilarating and harrowing moments where it’s made abundantly clear exactly how dangerous this job is. And Howard doesn’t shy away from the grotesque here either, and the scenes immediately following – as the crew breaks down and, in one instance, climbs inside the whale’s body – are as disturbing as the chase was exciting.
Eventually, a growing sense of greed and desperation – for Pollard it’s to prove himself while, for Chase, it’s to get home to his family – leads the Essex and its crew thousands of miles out to sea where they encounter the great white whale that will become Moby Dick in Melville’s novel. This mammoth creature’s attack on the Essex is superbly filmed, and you’ll find yourself holding your breath as it decimates the ship and results in the surviving crew stranded in lifeboats in the middle of the sea.
Unfortunately, this is where the film went a bit off the rails. The attack scene takes place right in the middle of the second act and, it’s so impressive and epic that nothing that follows can live up to it. No matter how harrowing the adventures of Owen and the rest of the crew are to survive, it all feels anticlimactic compared to the battle with the white whale. Ultimately, by shifting from being a tale of obsession and the futility of man’s attempt to control the natural world to one of survival – the struggle of man against nature and the choices, sometimes horrific, that men must make in order to survive – the film pulls itself in two different directions and so fails to do either effectively.
These issues are only amplified by the constant intercutting between the events and the interview sessions with Melville and Nickerson. Though Gleeson’s performance is one of the finest in the film, the decision to cut back and forth so often during the story deflates any sense of dramatic tension and keeps the story from being as engaging as it could have been.
Outside of the narrative itself, it’s fascinating to look at IN THE HEART OF THE SEA as a glimpse into the evolution of Ron Howard as an artist. A transformation that really started to make itself known in Howard’s previous film RUSH (also starring Hemsworth), the director is becoming more experimental with shot compositions and depth of focus, and he’s obviously having fun playing with the camera and exploring various manners of telling the story visually. If only as much effort had been applied to building the script as well, everyone involved could have had a much better film on their hands.
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