Ron Howard's "In the Heart of the Sea" (2015): Moby Dick Returns with Wild Images Unleashed

A visual treat to be relished on an IMAX screen

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Anirban Lahiri

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

In the Heart of the Sea (2015) - By Ron Howard
Our Rating: 7.5
IMDb Ratings: 7.3
Genre: Action | Adventure | Biography
Cast: Chris Hemworth, Cillian Murphey, Brendan Gleeson
Language: English
Runtime: 122 min
Color: Color

Summary: After the Whale-ship Essex was stove by a white sperm whale, the twenty surviving crew took shelter in three whaleboats. Would they survive after three months in the deep South Pacific, without food or water?

After a long time, here is another Hollywood film that deals with wanderlust – pure thrills of seafaring adventures under the pretext of sperm whale hunting. While adventure sports is seen more of entertainment, by onlookers, today, navigation and venturing out were the way of life for a section of Europeans, between the Sixteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. They bridged the gaps between the world’s isles. They brought the idea of professionalism, mercenary-living and the shift from mercantilism to capitalism, to the world.

Moby Dick in Illustration
Tony Millionaire's Penguin illustration of Moby Dick
Moby Dick (1851) is the story of such passionate sailors, whale hunting and a particular whale that retaliated the wanton massacre of the marine life by the human species. Herman Melville finished the novel in 1850. It was published the next year. While Melville had good personal exposure to sea and whale-hunting sailor’s life, along with extensive stay in cannibal communities, mutiny on the board and ship-hopping, he never experienced a ship wreckage on the level of his fictional work. 

Ron Howard chooses to come back to the novel through an imagined first-hand account of one of the sailors from the whaling-ship Essex that drowned in the Pacific. On a failed whale hunt, in 1820, the Essex went down and its surviving crew had to take shelter in whaleboats. A big white sperm whale, harpooned by the ship’s whale hunters, staved the ship to take revenge. The incident was unprecedented in the known whale hunting history. 

In the Heart of the Sea: The Whale, Directed by Ron Howard
In the Heart of the Sea: The Whale
Herman Melville was not the only person to pen a book after this sensational disaster, after going through documents on this not-too-old, sensational, disaster. The first mate, Owen Chase, wrote a polished account himself. Both the cabin boy, Nickerson and the Uncle Charlie (another survivor) wrote their respective accounts of the three months (in fact, more) in the sea, 4500 nautical miles away from land. The wreckage of the ship was not so big a spectacle compared to the miracle that some of them survived.

The film brings those moments, literally, on the screen. Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction book of the same name recounts the story from Nickerson’s point of view. The film adds one layer to that – it is Melville interviewing an old Nickerson. In reality, Melville went to Nantucket, the island village famous for its whale-oil business and shipping, from where the Essex launched, to meet George Pollard, the Captain of the cursed Ship.  His next novel, Pequod, Would be based on that.

Chris Hemsworth as Owen Chase in In the Heart of the Sea, Directed by Ron Howard
Chris Hemsworth as Owen Chase in In the Heart of the Sea
But, life is more interesting than stories. Nobody really knows what happened in the deep of the ocean. Melville’s Moby Dick ends in the Essex blowing up. Philbrick’s story starts there.

Charles Leavitt, the story and screenplay writer, in the process of adaptation, took the story through more dramatic progression. The first mate, Owen Chase, is made the hero of the film. Chase,  played by Chris Hemsworth, is initially stalled against the Captain of the ship, George Pollard, played by Benjamin Walker. In the Quaker society of Nantucket, the social hierarchy came from a person’s position in the whaling business. The merchants and owners had their bungalows on the Pleasant Street – furthest from the madding nausea of the whale blood, while the Captains used to stay on the high dales opposite wharves, and the mates practically lived in the underbelly of the town shadowed by the elites’ dwellings.

Chris Hemsworth embraces his lover, In the Heart of the Sea, Directed by Ron Howard
A Still from In the Heart of the Sea
In the Heart of the Sea pulsatingly picturizes the transition period between feudalism and capitalism. In such times, people like Chase represented the changing faces of society. They would challenge their ascribed social position. It is amazing to remember that the idea of caste was prevailing worldwide even two hundred years ago. It was unprecedented for a merchant to dine with a cabin boy; and it was impossible for a cabin boy to be promoted to the rank of the first mate, let alone the Captain of the ship.

That feudal structures changed with mass-migration and colonization. It is interesting to remember that history today, during another intense phase of mass-migration and corresponding changes in socio-economic structures.

Chris Hemsworth as Owen Chase, Fights Sea Storm, Directed by Ron Howard
A Still from Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea
In the Heart of the Sea mesmerizes by throwing us into the open sea, in the background of such social tug-of-war. A visual treat to be relished preferably on an IMAX screen, the magnitude of the white sperm whale and its final humane communication to the indomitable whale-hunter Owen Chase must be experienced visually.

I prefer this film to Life of Pi (2012). The contexts are different; maybe comparison would be absurd. But, Ron Howard’s brought the real much closer, making it more intimate.

Readers, please feel free to share your views/opinions in the comment box below. As always your insightful comments are highly appreciated!

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