Friday, 11 December 2015

In the Heart of the Sea

Based on the 1820 event, a whaling ship is preyed upon by a giant whale, stranding its crew at sea for 90 days, thousands of miles from home.

Warner Bros release In theHeart of the Sea could take advantage of its 3D showings and lack of strong early-December competition to do a decent opening, before succumbing the following week, to the white whale known as Star Wars: The ForceAwakens. Weirdly, I found this film devoid of texture. It took Melville's vision to shape the story of the Essex into an epic meditation on man's capacity for obsession and this Great American Novel that we all know: Moby-Dick. Ron Howard's movie though, is under no such obligation and gives us a devastating story of loss. Call me indifferent but this film is not nearly as deep as the waters in which its characters find themselves stranded. Still you can catch the scent of bigger concepts such as man versus nature, moral of hunting or the cost of oil. Given the weighty themes of Melville's novel, In the Heart of the Sea doesn't have a lot going on behind the outward action. Plus, screenwriters felt the need to remind us again and again that men lust for oil has been a cause of trouble since before we even knew it could come from the ground.

This movie pictures a dangerous voyage on behalf of the greedy jerks that sit behind their desk  while good men put their neck on the line. Actors are all functional, their persuasive display of weight loss and the scorched-skin make up effects are excellent. This movie is movie star material and Chris Hemsworth is the perfect movie star. However the key rivalry between his character: Owen Chase and Captain George Pollard starring Benjamin Walker, has none of the intensity of Rush's competitive protagonists. This setup is told in flashback. Here, Ben Whishaw plays the author in a frame story occasionally interrupting the action and to be honest, it's not strictly essential. 

Having captured the world of Formula One racing with such an impressive sens of stylistic adrenaline in Rush, Howard tries to do so similar here and he does a solid job at getting the smell of salt off the page and into the screen. Altogether though, it generates less suspense than Jaws managed 40 years ago with a single Robert Shaw monologue. In fact the first half of the movie works quite well but when the action comes and goes that's when they run into trouble. Don't get me wrong: it's just tat rolling from serious drama to action-adventure and back to drama again can make you seasick. The enormity and danger of the ocean is more than enough drama on its own.     

The best sequences reside in the second act, with some pretty unique camera angles. Director sends the camera in all directions over the deck of a full size replica of the Essex, aiming to sweep us up in the barely controlled chaos that ensues. The stunt shots that don't include too much whale-watching are all quite thrilling. Finally, the white and grey flecked bodies nearly as long as the 88-foot ship itself, is rendered with impressive CGI. Nevertheless, I believe there is nothing cathartic or even particularly fascinating about the sight of these whalers slowly fading away, or for that matter in the attacking scenes of this majestic and largely defenceless prey. The blood is there, even if I have to admit that the brutality of the whole process feels largely sanitised. 

Overall In the Heart of the Sea is solid from start to finish. The seafaring adventure is perfectly functional but never really hedge of your seat thrilling. For a story inspired by Moby-Dick it should have reached bigger.

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