One of the big casualties of the unstoppable Disney stellar conflict juggernaut appears to have been Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea, a lavish epic aspiring to have all the traditional narrative virtues, yet a film which has clearly struggled to find an audience (and, more importantly, make its money back). One can speculate as to whether this is down solely to all the cinemas as far as the eye can see desperately putting on as many lucrative showings of The Force Wakes Up as they possibly can, thus depriving other films of opportunities to connect with an audience, or whether Howard's latest is a genuinely weak movie.
Everyone seems to have given up on it already, it would appear: less than two weeks after its UK debut, it has already vanished from the cinemas of central Oxford. One wonders whether the big studios will take note of this and simply not bother releasing any big films in the fortnight after Disney's future stellar conflict brand extensions come out (I note that Columbia are still planning to release Passengers, another SF movie, late next December – it'll be interesting to see whether they stick to their guns or just change the date).
With the film already having said farewell to the interior of most moviehouses, I suppose it seems a bit pointless to write about it now (greetings, visitors from the future), but I think the film deserves better than to be simply forgotten about out-of-hand. Plus, I can't bring myself to pass up the opportunity to trot out some tired witticisms on the topic of angry sperm. So here we go.
In the Heart of the Sea is, as I said, a fairly old-fashioned movie, with the meat of the narrative occurring within a frame story set many years later: young writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) turns up at the house of old sea dog Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), last living survivor of the sunken whaling ship Essex. Eventually Melville persuades Nickerson to tell the tale of the ship's final, doomed voyage.
The young Nickerson (played by Marvel's new Spider-Man, Tom Holland) is but a lad on off on his first ocean trip, so most of the story revolves around two men. One of them is Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), an experienced whaler from a humble background – tough, charismatic, a leader of men. (He also has a pregnant wife, which is of course movie code indicating he's about to have many horrible experiences.) Much to his chagrin, Chase is passed over for the captaincy of the Essex, in favour of George Pollard, a man who owes his position solely to his family connections, with little real aptitude for command. Sparks inevitably fly.
Both men are thus determined to load up on whale oil and get back to Nantucket, where they are based, as quickly as possible – but the great beasts prove elusive, forcing the Essex deeper and deeper into the Pacific Ocean. Reports from the crippled ex-captain of a Spanish whaler lead them to offshore grounds where the whales have taken sanctuary from the hunters – but they ignore his warnings of a huge, ferocious white whale, given to attacking whaling ships, something they will live to regret...
So, as you can see, this is a big, stirring, briney tale, of men pitting themselves against nature at its most savage, very much in the tradition of macho nautical shenanigans like The Bounty and Master and Commander – but with Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe both being a shade long in the tooth for this sort of thing, the services of another Antipodean alpha-male have been retained, in the form of Chris Hemsworth.
Hemsworth is one of those actors who has an extremely impressive career box office take, but who's yet to prove his ability to open a movie under his own name – does he have a career beyond just playing Thor, in other words? Well, he gives a very solid performance here – you can't dispute Hemsworth's presence or charisma, but I just wonder if he quite has the ability to suggest emotional depth to really make it as a star in his own right.
Then again, this movie is strong on the rollicking adventure front, but the characters are a little bit thin – you quickly get a handle on the fact that Pollard is a martinet, and Chase isn't going to take any nonsense, and then not very much else happens. Cillian Murphy is also on board as the second mate, and while he is customarily good, he doesn't get a huge amount to do.
Still, the movie remains solidly entertaining throughout the opening voyage and the set-piece whale attack which is, if you'll permit me, at the heart of the film. The producers made the slightly odd decision to show this key sequence in isolation as an extended trailer for the film (I saw it before Bridge of Spies), which seems to have become a common tactic to advertise films about which a studio is getting nervous. Impressive though the scene is, I'm not sure seeing it out of context really does the film justice, and having already seen it, it inevitably loses some of its impact here.
However, once all the whaling and gnashing of teeth is over and done with, the film still has the best part of an hour left to run, and so it settles into a sort of stoical-metaphysical-existential mode which is slightly heavy going. The survivors of the Essex drift about in some open boats, occasionally stopping off at a desert island or engaging in a little light cannibalism to survive, and it's all curiously unengaging. The slightly surprising decision to have the white whale occasionally show up to harass them really strains credulity as well: this happens very occasionally over a period of nearly three months (or so we are assured), and if nothing else the avenging sperm summons up the spectre of Jaws: The Revenge: a never-welcomer prospect.
The film does its best to provide a strong climax, and Gleeson and Whishaw are strong in the frame story, but it's hard to escape the impression that this is a film which starts strongly but then falls off a bit. It is a bit similar to other films in the all-at-sea genre, too, which can't have helped it, and the fact it is so unreconstructedly blokey may have been a bit of an issue as well. (Charlotte Riley and Michelle Fairley have very subordinate roles as wives.) It's not so old-fashioned that it doesn't find time for a few moments of implied criticism of the whole enterprise of whaling, which almost feel all the more jarring for being the only concessions to a modern perspective.
This is by no means a bad film, but I doubt it was ever going to be a critical or popular smash, and releasing it when they did was almost certainly a gamble by Warner Brothers. Whatever else, it's still a worthy, good-looking film with some impressive individual moments and sequences – it's just not quite as epic or stirring or exciting as it really needs to be to completely succeed as a movie.