Finally we can start talking about something other than “the force” and how a guy in New York had his name legally changed to Darth Vader. “In the Heart of the Sea” is opening this weekend, and it’s an adventure story on a whole other level, involving a killer whale instead of aliens. Set in 1820 and starring such notables as Ben Whishaw in the role of Herman Melville and Brendan Gleeson as his interviewee, Tom Nickerson, this is being promoted as the inspiration behind Melville’s masterpiece “Moby Dick.”
In the film, Nickerson was a 14-year-old lad (Tom Holland) when he joined a whaling expedition that went awry. When he returned a year later, he was a broken young man who had been through hell. Decades later, Melville gets Nickerson’s story and turns it into one of the best loved page-turners of all time.
Directed by Ron Howard, who brings his brand of “go get ’em” positivity to every film (“A Beautiful Mind” and “Apollo 13,” for starters), “In the Heart of the Sea” is high on optimism but somewhat low on the tense, gripping battle between man and sea mammal. That’s understandable; whaling is an issue fraught with politics, and this being a story from two centuries ago probably doesn’t change that fact. Howard treads carefully as he refrains from making the whalers seem like heroes or even warriors.
It’s not a monster-versus-man situation here, but a depiction of how a good chunk of human history was formed by men doing their darnedest to harvest energy from nature, to serve the needs of civilization and make a living for themselves. Whale oil was crucial, and as a whaler says in the movie, “Without us, the world will plunge into darkness.”
“In the Heart of the Sea” seems to suffer from multiple-personality disorder — overly cautious in some places while going all out for action and brutality in others. The results are mixed, and you often feel the director is out of his depth. The ocean scenes sometimes feel tacked on or studio-manufactured, and that’s fatal to a story that, at its core, is about the thirst for adventure and the indomitable desire to conquer the natural forces.
Perhaps Ron Howard does better with confinement. “Apollo 13” was a masterly take on claustrophobic drama unfolding in a tiny steel capsule, and the infinite outer space was portrayed in small slices from the spaceship window. In “In the Heart of the Sea,” it’s the reverse situation. The vast ocean and enormous “demon whale” are the two pillars supporting the story, and yet both seem much smaller and less mysterious than the screenplay would have us believe.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is based on the 2000 nonfiction work of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick, recounting the loss of a Nantucket whaling ship called Essex. After an encounter with a giant sperm whale, the crew was marooned on a desert island, then wandered the sea for months before being rescued. Most of them died, and only a handful remained to tell the tale of the sperm whale that destroyed their ship and stalked them all the way to that island. The owners of Essex, however, put a ban on the survivors telling their story for fear of hurting business.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Replace the 19th-century whaling ship with frackers and oil companies and history is repeating itself, only with much bigger implications — like global warming and irreparable environmental damage caused by rig fires and oil spills.
Philbrick’s book doesn’t give any answers and neither does the film. There’s a faint undercurrent of dystopian resignation permeating the story: If you mess with nature, nature will mess back. Still, humans need that oil and it’s that need, combined with the need for thrills, exhilaration and the sheer joy of the hunt, that kept whaling companies in business. “In the Heart of the Sea” allows us see that far. Beyond that, it’s hard to tell.