East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

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I often write about the joys of doing research.
The good part is you find out a lot of incredible stuff (most of which will be completely useless for what you are writing), and you have an excuse for reading books or watching movies.

Case in point, In the Heart of the Sea, a 2015 movie that did not make a big splash (aha!), and that I had missed at the time.

Let’s admit it: you are writing a story about a giant killer whale called Livyatan melvillei, and open with a quote from Herman Melville, you gotta watch the movie based on the true story that inspired Moby Dick.
So I watched it.

OK, I’ve got a bit I have to get off my chest straight away: sixteen minutes into the movie, a preacher’s sermon mentions how the whale oil is keeping the lights lit against sin, how it’s keeping the machine of progress going, allowing humanity to evolve.
The year is 1819.
Charles Darwin published his On the Origins of Species in 1859.

In_the_Heart_of_the_Sea_posterI’ll admit it grated on my ear.
On to the movie.
But that’s nitpicking.
In The Heart of the Sea is based on a non-fiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick and tells the story of the tragedy of the Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket that in the year 1820 was rammed by a sperm whale and sank, leading to a long ordeal for the surviving seamen. The whole is narrated in flashback by one of the survivors – now an old troubled man, cornered by Melville, who’s obsessing about this whole story.

The first part of the movie focuses on the disagreements between experienced first officer Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and green but well-connected captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). Then the Essex meets the whale, and it’s a free-for-all.


Set in a brutal time and in a brutal business, In The Heart of the Sea manages to keep the worst off-screen, but it is no picnic anyway. Whaling was (and is) one of the most distasteful industries in human history, and life on a ship in 1820 was equally rough.
The scenes in which the Essex goes through a squall are disquieting – and as a personal note, reminded me of my father, who ran from home to join the Navy (he was caught and brought back) dreaming of storms at sea and being on top of the mizzen mast under heavy weather. I blame movies for such silly ideas.

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The moment the sperm whale (supposedly an 85 foot bull, based on the documents at the time) starts wreaking havoc with the Essex, the movie reaches its spectacular peak.
We are 70-odd minutes in, and what comes afterwards is the long, horrifying story of three boats trying to cover 3000 miles to terra firma.


It could be emotionally wrecking, but Ron Howard’s direction makes the whole strangely cold and detached – maybe the true problem is, we don’t really care about any one character. There is a sense of haste that is not urgency, but just the need to make this already long story not any longer, that sacrifices character interaction and development, wasting an excellent cast.
This makes the movie weirdly devoid of empathy.
It remains an impressive action movie, with some great set-pieces and a few really stunning visuals, but leaves one with the need to check out the book in search of some unidentified missing piece.

Still worth a look, but could have been so much better with fifteen more minutes devoted to character development.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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