At long last, In the Heart of the Sea has finally arrived. I'm not saying that because it's been my most anticipated film of the year or anything like that, but because of the many delays. I was looking forward to it, but I was never psyched out of my mind about it, although the many release date changes did make me a bit curious, especially since it was dropped right into the middle of Oscar season. Unfortunately, I don't see this wait as being worthwhile as In the Heart of the Sea is not a film that will end up taking home a bunch of gold statues next year. That being said, I still really enjoyed it.
The film begins with an author named Herman Melville (Ben Wishaw) approaching a man named Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last known survivor of the Essex, a ship that was attacked by a whale when Thomas was just a teenager. Thomas has never spoken of these events to anyone, not even his wife (Michelle Fairley), but a bargain is struck and Thomas recounts his experience on the Essex for the sake of Herman's book, which he intents to call 'Moby Dick.' It's the tale of a sailor named Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and his captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), as they go out with the intention of hunting whales for oil, but are left stranded and "on the edge of sanity" in what ends up being a tragic tale of survival with deadly consequences.
What makes In the Heart of the Sea really worthwhile are its stunning visuals. The film is visual effects heavy, most of the movie taking place out at sea and it's these scenes that are rather gorgeous. There's a few moments with rather obvious green screen work, especially a scene where the characters all take rowboats out to hunt a pack of sperm whales, but everything else is quite the visual treat. The scenes all involving the infamous whale are practically flawless, every shot having a different, but cohesive feel to it. Nothing feels repeated. Everything has its own style.
Adding to these wonderful visuals is the cinematography. The cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, is a frequent collaborator with Danny Boyle, his filmography including 127 hours and Slumdog Millionaire, but more recently, Mantle teamed up with Ron Howard for an underrated movie called Rush. The camera work in that movie is mind blowingly good, and with In the Heart of the Sea, his second collaboration with Howard, it's just as visceral. He captures the beauty of this scenario, as well as the terror. Mantle is yet to disappoint.
While none of the performances are necessarily bad, none are overly fantastic, either. Everyone in this movie does a good job. Not a great job, but a good job. Hemsworth steals every scene he's in and his performance is leagues ahead of films such as Vacation or Red Dawn, neither of which are good movies, but to me, his performance in Rush just felt so much more alive. He's not bored in this role, he's just not as excited. He looks drained, even in the scenes where his character is meant to be alive and well, full of energy.
While the plot does revolve around this beast of a whale, the film is a tale of a group of men being put into a situation that most people won't live through. They know that and so it's up to them to figure out a way to survive. The whale isn't the main plot of this movie. In fact, the whale doesn't even show up until almost an hour in. This does make the first half drag, but it also allows for further development of these characters. There's more time put into their backstory and their lives. The film establishes who's who and where their power lays and when disaster strikes, this development creates tension. I wanted these characters to survive. Well, some of the time, anyway. There were other times where I was rooting for the whale....
By the time the film had wrapped up, I felt physically drained. Not emotionally drained, but just exhausted. I really can't explain why. The film didn't have me on the edge of my seat and it wasn't too long, but when it was over, I struggled to stand up and leave the screening. The film had taken the life out of me and I was exhausted. In the Heart of the Sea is certainly not a feel good movie, I'll say that. It's an entertaining one and I did enjoy it, but it doesn't scream with rewatchability. It's not a fun movie. Although, to be fair, I'm sure the real life people didn't have much fun in this scenario, either.
To sum up, In the Heart of the Sea is a slow paced, but worthwhile experience. It's visceral and exciting, but also rather draining and not very rewatchable. The release date change may kill this movie, especially with Star Wars on the horizon, but it's a good film nonetheless.
3 1/2 Stars