Like ‘Don Quixote’, the iconic 1851 novel ‘Moby Dick’ has always eluded a definitive translation to the screen. Widely regarded as the greatest of American novels, Herman Melville’s epic has been adapted many times for both film and television, but never with any degree of commercial or critical success. Rather than tackling the novel itself, director Ron Howard takes a roundabout approach with ‘In the Heart of the Sea’, which instead looks at one of the true stories that inspired ‘Moby Dick’. However, the curse of the Great White Whale appears to extend to its wider history as well as the novel itself.
Desperate for further inspiration for his novel, Melville (Ben Whishaw) turns to retired seaman Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who as a young boy (Tom Holland) survived the horrific voyage of the Essex, a whaling vessel attacked by a enormous white sperm whale in the Pacific in 1820. Through Thomas, we hear the story of the disaster, the desperate battle for survival after the ship is sunk, and the tempestuous relationship between first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), an experienced sailor and son of a farmer, and Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), the inexperienced son of a maritime family, determined to prove himself.
Based on the acclaimed book by Nathaniel Philbrick, ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ sounds intriguing as a concept, but in execution ends up being surprisingly lacklustre. It’s hard to pinpoint where the fault lies, mostly because Ron Howard has always been an accomplished storyteller, and some of his cinematic flourishes in this film show he’s still capable of daring and imagination. It’s a handsome-looking film, one that tries to shake off the shackles of period clichés with Go-Pro intense close-ups which create a feeling of immediacy. For the most part it seems to work, especially when capturing the daily workings on the ‘Essex’, but this falls apart when the same visual language is used for more mundane moments, causing the language to feel inconsistent. The greater fault with the film is that the narrative never really takes you in, feeling like a flimsy collection of episodes that don’t coalesce into a whole. The sequences with the whale are spectacular, but they aren’t often enough to position it as the villain, so the film ends up with no antagonist and no genuine structure. The framing device also feels hokey and obvious, especially when it’s used to deliver the film’s message that feels both disingenuous and lazy. The cast make the best with what they have, especially Hemsworth and Walker, but there isn’t much there to begin with except to endure the elements. Like the Norwegian film ‘Kon-Tiki’ from 2012, it has all the obstacles from the natural world without strong narrative or character.
It’s tempting to say that ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ is a missed opportunity, but the fault seems to be in the material itself. You come to see man battle against a monster from the deep, and instead get a shipwreck drama without much of the drama. There are admirable pockets in Ron Howard’s work, but nothing that comes together as a satisfying drama or a testament to the importance of Melville’s novel. As a casual viewing experience it has something to offer, but against all my hopes and expectations, it’s far from the event I’d hoped it would be.
PICTURE & SOUND
The film looks excellent on Blu-ray, though the 1080p 1.78:1 transfer occasionally suffers from the often dark and over-saturated colour scheme of the film. Sequences are occasionally a bit too dark, and some detail is lost, but this seems to be more in the film itself than a fault of the transfer. It still looks great, but this isn’t a reference-quality transfer. The sound however is another matter, with a superb Dolby Atmos 7.1 track that pounds with terrific bass and texture. No dialogue or sound detail is lost, creating an immersive audio experience.
You come to see man battle against a monster from the deep, and instead get a shipwreck drama without much of the drama.
SPECIAL FEATURES There’s a surprisingly strong collection of extras offered on this disc, though quantity doesn’t always translate to quality. In ‘Ron Howard: Captain’s Log’ (15:50), we’re offered a kind of commentary to Howard’s behind-the-scenes Twitter posts, interspersed with footage of the making of the film. More conventional BTS material is offered in further featurettes ‘Chase & Pollard: A Man of Means and a Man of Courage’ (7:28), ‘The Hard Life of a Whaler’ (8:44) and ‘Commanding the Heart of the Sea’ (10:25), while ‘Whale Tales: Melville’s Untold Story’ (9:13) looks at the story behind the connection between ‘Moby Dick’ and the Essex. It’s vaguely interesting, but overall feels very slight and unsatisfying. ‘Lighting Strikes Twice: The Real-Life Sequel to ‘Moby Dick’’ (28:59) is a television documentary that looks at Pollard’s voyages after the disaster (though implying it’s a sequel to the novel is a stretch). Of more interest are the Deleted Scenes (36:02) and Extended Scenes (7:11), not because of the extra story material they offer, but because they offer a more raw look at the making of the film in their unfinished form, emphasising the scale of the production. Overall, it’s great to see a Blu-ray release with a healthy collection of extras, it’s just a pity they weren’t more engaging and thorough.