In the Heart of the Sea is a psychotic whale tale in the most literal sense. Pulverising everything in its path with its tail, the creature that inspired Moby Dick is not only visually epic, but terrifying. To think it once existed, stalking sailors across oceans and sinking ships, gives audiences cause to pause, to fear the fathomless depths of salt-water surrounding every continent on earth, but also to question the impact human hubris has had and continues to have on nature. The plight of Tillikum in Sea-World resembles the fictional Moby Dick in curiously obvious ways. Ultimately, In the Heart of the Sea realises a simple truth: we know more about outer space than we do our own oceans and all of the complex, undiscovered animals living within them. Both are settings acclaimed director Ron Howard has now tapped, space in his Apollo 13, and now this.
The film is set in Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1820, with frequent returns to the ‘present’, aka 1850, where small-town writer Herman Melville knocks at an innkeeper’s door. A woman answers, shocked by Melville’s presence: the mystery surrounding the characters begins, foreshadowing the emotional thistle of the story about to be begrudgingly told. The man Melville has ventured to see is Tom Nickerson, sole survivor of The Essex, who is traumatised by his past. This prologue is the bread-and-butter of the script: without it, the ordeals of Owen Chase and his crew have no context in which we can place our twenty-first century imagination. The story of The Essex is what made Moby Dick possible, but ironically, it is Moby Dick that has made The Essex’s story one for the ages.
Chase is a sailor of exceptional skill, promised the captaincy of a whaling ship. Side-lined by a Pollard, the most prestigious sea-faring family in Nantucket, the two men start their adventure on rocky water, engaging in a silent battle over their authority. The crew are thus baptised by storms in an effort by Pollard to overrule Chase, and they ply their trade without substantial luck under such crippling and conflicting orders. After months at sea, all optimism is dashed. Docking at a port in the west coast of South America, they come across two survivors of a Spanish vessel, speaking of waters hosting hundreds of whales, thousands of gallons’ worth of oil. Blinded by their home-sickness and rational disgust at the other, Pollard and Chase ignore the warnings of the Spaniards of a huge white whale lurking in the waters, one which had sunk their own ship. Sadistically, they sail off, into the stretches of the South Pacific unchartered by any before besides the now ship-less Spaniards, inevitably finding the fabled treasure trove of whale pods. Inevitably too, the white sperm-whale gives chase to Chase and his men.
The producers have certainly splashed out: this whale-buckling blockbuster packs a punch with its special effects, scenery and sets. When the sperm whale’s tail splits The Essex’s hull in half, sending men sprawling and masts falling, it does so with dramatic zeal that has an edge of the epic in it; a mythical element that Ron Howard encapsulates perfectly without being ludicrous. The entire thing is, well, mast-er-fall.
The tension gestating between Captain Pollard and Owen Chase is plotted not in co-ordinates, but in the trials they face; there is, amongst the pungent dislike, a respect that blossoms in adversity, even if such adversity is the fruit of their chaotic relationship and impatience to be rid of each other. Chase’s descent from farming stock, specifically his father, and his other sailors’ belittlement of him as a land-dweller establishes nineteenth-century sea-faring culture as rooted in heritage, something obvious in social hierarchy at the time, and blends neatly into the politics of The Essex.
Herman Melville provides the incredible context that makes this film more than a blip in history: his quest for the perfect novel and torment over the story of The Essex dilutes well into Chase’s own ambitions to be a whaling ship captain. The two subtly parallel each other, conjoining in Melville’s admission that he’s scared of what will happen if he doesn’t write about the adventure and also what will happen if he does; how can such an epic ever be transcribed in words that will give it the poetic justice it deserves?
In hindsight, we know his fears were unwarranted: Moby Dick is a narrative considered to be an outstanding work of Romanticism and the American Renaissance, and the greatest book of the sea ever written. The story that inspired it and is now digitised in cinemas has clout, courage, Chris Hemsworth, and another word beginning with c that I won’t spoil for you. Visually breath-taking, drowning in unpredictable plot-twists, this sea-story is one you have to watch.