November 23, 2020

Review: ‘In the Heart of the Sea’

The seafaring epic boasts stunning imagery and technical wizardry that attracts awards attention. However, for all its achievements in style, there is little substance to be had.

In the Heart of the Sea, directed by Ron Howard, is based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction book of the same name. The film depicts the sinking of the American whaling ship Essex in 1820. Aboard the ship are Captain George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker), first officer Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), second officer Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland), among others.

The ship is split in half by a giant sperm whale and the crew is left shipwrecked for 90 days. During that time, their mental states are tested and they are forced to commit heinous acts in order to survive.

This story would later become the inspiration for the classic aquatic tale, Moby Dick.

The film is told in non-linear fashion, with an older Thomas (Brendan Gleeson) relaying the tale to author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), which helps to break up the sea adventure with moments of quiet. However, it is these moments where the trials and tribulations of this voyage are given much thought. These moments between Gleeson and Whishaw can sometimes cheapen the drama.

What has always been clear about Ron Howard as a director is that he has commercial sensibilities that tie together with a keen visual eye. For all the film’s story flaws, the technical aspect just about makes up for it…but only just.

Palettes of gold and blue fill the screen, with the ocean adding flavor to the adventure. The camera mostly deals with either establishing shots or close-ups, both of which are wonderfully effective. They help to paint the scale of the film while also reeling it back in for emotion. The work by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle is astounding.

Another important aspect of the film is the whale, the most impressive special effect this year. The ginormous beauty is painted with shades of green and light blue with a rough texture that is breathtaking to behold. The camera gets up close and personal with the whale, and the amount of detail put into the design is stunning.

As the characters spend a longer time at sea, their skin starts to thin to the bone. This is effective because it is a combination of the actors shedding mass amounts of weight and make-up that lays out a horrifying image, turning these men into ghosts of their former selves.

Underlying all of the images is a pulsating and effective nautical score from Roque Baños.

Howard has assembled an interesting cast, all doing fine work. Hemsworth, though relatively one-note at first, shows emotions never seen from him before when his psyche is pushed to the max. Another standout is Cillian Murphy, who is lively in his role. Holland does a fine job as well.

However, they are doing fine jobs for characters that are underdeveloped.

For as technically magnificent as In the Heart of the Sea is, it can feel at times like a pedestrian telling of this horrifying tale. All of the focus is given to Hemsworth and Holland, leaving the other characters in the background. Even then, there is not much of substance to learn about Hemsworth and Holland. Characters change attitudes and commit acts that come out of nowhere. This development of the central crew is lost and only touched upon when it services the plot. Gleeson and Whishaw, for all their talent, are given nothing to do.

The most disappointing thing about In the Heart of the Sea is that it aims so high. It wants to be this high-seas epic and succeeds in points. But a technically perfect whale can only cover up underdevelopment for so long.

In the Heart of the Sea is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material and runs for 2 hr 1 min.

Rating: 5/10

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