Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Out upon that deep water, these men saw the horizon


Possessing certain elements that are positively fantastic, in every sense of the term, it's easy to ignore the parts of In the Heart of the Sea that aren't—including the parts that are actively aggravating.  Taken all in all, however, Heart is fun and sober-minded in equal measure (and in all the right places, too)—and I kind of half-love it, just for existing.

Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver (based on the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick)
With Chris Hemsworth (First Mate Owen Chase), Benjamin Walker (Capt. Ben Pollard), Cilian Murphy (Matthew Joy), Brendan Gleeson/Tom Holland (Thomas Nickerson), and Ben Whishaw (Herman Melville)

Spoiler alert: moderate

By pure stroke of luck, I had the chance to finally catch up with the would-be blockbuster that blundered into theaters just a week before Star Wars, and, predictably, all but vanished upon impact.  However, that word "luck"—though you might have assumed I was using it ironically—tends to imply good fortune, not bad.  And this is largely the case indeed with In the Heart of the Sea, Ron Howard's new attempt to give Chris Hemsworth some semblance of a career not based entirely upon Thor movies.

However, let's measure our enthusiasm: it is by no means perfect, or even especially great, and in itself this is a disappointment.  Now, it may be less of one, thanks to the 1,001 shrugging critics whose efforts successfully lowered my expectations, but the story of the whaleship Essex, tarted up with a healthy veneer of gloriously fictional nonsense, should have been a much easier win than the film I actually saw.  The Essex' fate, you know, was the inspiration for no less a tale than Moby-Dick, and perhaps it would have been better for all concerned had Howard simply skipped this sideways adaptation altogether, and just made Moby-Dick.  After all, it seems like everything Howard and his screenwriters wanted to do with the Essex story—namely, turn it into a vaguely anachronistic fable about capitalism, environmentalism, and the rights of cetacean citizens—could have been more easily accomplished, and perhaps with more splendor, by merely filming Dick, rather than a history book.

Plus, you wouldn't even need to pay Melville.

Not that Heart so much as attempts to escape the shadow of its literary forebear.  Instead, it finds the penumbra cast by the great white whale to be a warm and comforting place, and direct reference to Dick the easiest way to strike a chord of recognition with its audience.  Thus it lives, and sometimes dies, completely within the boundaries of that legendary shadow—and that's where we begin, not with the Essex' captain, Ben Pollard, nor with its first mate, Owen Chase, but with Herman Melville himself, whom the screenplay finds dicking around (so to speak) in New England, chasing after the last living survivor of the Essex, Thomas Nickerson, once the Essex' cabin boy, in order to get material for his novel.  But, as Melville endlessly plies the old man for the secrets of the Essex' demise, we are at last transported back to 1819, when the night found itself banished by the flickering flames of oil lamps, and a sprawling industry had sprung up to harvest the seas for the burnable goo to be found within a murdered whale's head.

Here, we settle upon our hero, Chase, embarking upon a new voyage.  He can barely conceal his excitement to his pregnant wife, for he's been promised that he'll be captain this time, notwithstanding his family's humble origins.  Unfortunately for Chase, the money men behind the new whalship Essex have already given the job to the more qualified applicant, Pollard—who, conveniently, also happens to be one of their numbers' sons.

So Pollard and Chase take the Essex out, and Pollard is soon revealed to be almost cartoonishly inept.  Thus do the tensions between the foppish child of privilege and the experienced sailor grow, but presumably only to keep the audience's interest, because none of it matters a bit once the Essex reaches its destiny in the Pacific.  Hearing tell from some Spanish mariners that vast pods of whales have congregated in the waters a couple thousand miles west of Ecuador—and although they also warn that these whales have a protector that they won't say much more about—Pollard and Chase take the Essex right out into the yellowish-green oblivion of the open ocean.  They find whales aplenty—but their joy is short-lived, for nearly the very moment they put out their whaleboats, the promised white leviathan appears from the depths, stoves the Essex, and sends their ship to the bottom.

But, because this is 2015, Ron Howard uses the excuse of the whale oil aboard the Essex to have the whole thing explode like it was carrying dynamite.  (And I heartily approved.)

The crew of the Essex, now stranded in the middle of this great watery desert, engage in the time-honored traditions of cast-away sailors as they make their way back to land.  Some live, some die; but we should recall that we're being a told a story by a survivor, which puts an extremely hard limit on just how surprising Heart can be, even beyond its basis in historical fact.  (And I don't mind spoiling that their first meeting with the angry whale isn't also their last—because this is a screenplay, and not a history.)

This circles us back to Melville and the aged cabin boy, which is a good place to begin talking about what's wrong with Heart.  About as worthless a framing narrative as there could ever be, it presumably exists solely to assure the audience that the filmmakers are indeed aware of a famous novel.  Now, it isn't actually bad, but its sole claim to relevance within this story rests on a "reveal" that ought to end with the storyteller's wife saying, "Oh, my sweet, I figured that out thirty years ago."

No, the bigger problem is how eagerly it eats up time: there is a superior version of Heart that is twenty minutes shorter; and there is a hugely superior version that is exactly the same length, but uses those extra twenty minutes to more prominently feature the striking gorgeousness of its setting—the beautiful yet existential loneliness that accrues to these whalers, even before their ship's destroyed, and especially once we're confronted with the sight of their whaleboats adrift on that hateful and unforgiving ocean.  Even a few minutes more spent focusing on the deterioration of the men on those boats—without adding a single, solitary word of dialogue—would have been more worthwhile than watching Brendan Gleeson alternate between a snarl and a mewl, the two things which the script has decided constitutes the cabin boy's character as an old man.  Why, it would've been well in the film's favor simply to beef up the existing scenes of whaling as it was typically practiced in 1819: one of Heart's most awesomely memorable moments is young Nickerson getting dropped into the gory skull of a dead whale, to scoop out the last bits of precious headjuice remaining.  For a film this unfriendly to whaling, more of just this kind of gruesome business would have done it an infinite amount of good.  However, committed to the screenplay's story-within-a-story conceit—and no doubt under pressure to bring this beast in at not much more than two hours—Howard and his longtime partners in editing, Daniel Hanley and Mike Hill, cut the film like they're afraid the audience will lose interest in any shot lasting longer than two or three seconds, regardless of its stately subject matter, and surprisingly indifferent to the magnificent, doom-soaked tableaux that cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle has cooked up for them.

Of course, "tableaux" wouldn't be the first word that comes to anybody's mind while ruminating on Heart's cinematography.  Mantle has acknowledged that he was inspired by the documentary Leviathan; and thus Heart's photography whips between the classically handsome and the queasily off-putting.  Yes, Leviathan has its charms—once it settles down, it's pretty great industrial porn—but it was never a good idea to translate the aesthetic of Koyanisqaatsi On a Boat into any kind of narrative feature, let alone one with as old-fashioned roots in high adventure as this one.  Thus corrupted, Howard routinely ignores his instincts about where to place his camera and how to move it—and the smaller the camera he has before him, the worse he gets.  The result is a movie that readily manages to convey the awful, claustrophobic feeling of being on whaleship—but which also crosses the line between "formally rigorous" and "notably unpleasant" much too often.  Thankfully, Howard keeps enough of his populist sensibilities about him that Mantle's camerwork never quite reaches the level of actual seasickness; and the problem clears up entirely once the Essex sinks, and there are no longer interior surfaces upon which Howard might affix any of his stupid little fish-eyed lenses.

But, as long as we're on the subject of the constant tension between loveliness and its opposite in Heart, we might as well talk about the effects work.  Heart is amazing when everything is practically-achieved on a set; it is equally amazing when it's 100% CGI; and it is laughably bad when it's any mix of those two things.  Now, you still can't deny that Heart doesn't deliver: it pairs the spectacle of a real, physical set collapsing around real stuntmen with the grandeur of a digital sperm whale whose vengeful fury is believable enough that he becomes a legitimate character.  (Meanwhile, even the CGI boats we see in long shots are rendered with an unmistakable storybook charm.)  Unfortunately, when Heart splits the difference between these two extremes, with some greenscreen compositing that competes with Tippi Hedren flailing about on a rowboat in Bodega Bay, even the most engaged viewer (like this one) is still going to find themselves jarred right out of the film.

With such a mixed bag visually, that leaves the story—brought to life principally by Hemsworth, whose performance as Owen Chase is not too much more than the blonde giant's physical evocation of an easily-riled manliness, although this is surely enough.  Anyway, while Hemsworth might be the show, it's likewise nice to see Cillian Murphy settling fully into his niche as the new-model William Fichtner, the kind of actor who takes on small, thankless roles—like ship's mate and recovering alcoholic, Matthew Joy—and elevates them to the status of "lived-in character" with scarcely more than a couple dozen lines.  (Finally, Benjamin Walker, the co-lead, probably deserves some kind of mention, but I don't know what to say about him that doesn't seem a little mean.  Or is it possible to call a performance "perfectly adequate" without it sounding like a criticism?)

As for the screenplay itself, above all it's never boring.  Still, if we disregard its fucked structure (though we shouldn't), the worst sin Heart's writers commit is to textually insist upon their own allegory to the point that it stops being cute.  To this end, Heart shoehorns in a reference to one of those newfangled "oil wells"—just in case its very dumbest viewers didn't get that this movie is as much about our modern energy regime as it is the whale oil economy of yesteryear.  Yet, condescension aside, that's not too much of a strike against the picture, and otherwise it's an excellent allegory nonetheless, taking aim at the kind of ravenous extraction that rapidly outpaces the Earth's finite bounty, blithely indifferent to lives it claims and all the damage it does.  It scores a rhetorical point at the expense of historical accuracy with its old-timey version of a cover-up, the money men making certain that the tale of the Essex is relegated to unreliable local legend.  If, in its climactic sequence, Heart goes completely overboard with sentiment, well—you can't blame its intentions, can you?

But, as enjoyable as its central metaphor may be, in the tradition of good movies everywhere, Heart is more about itself than anything else—and it remains an easily-enjoyed, serious-minded tale of primordial monsters, tall ships, and survival on the high seas.  It might not do what it does flawlessly, but when no one else is doing what it does at all—the last, I think, being Peter Weir's Master and Commander, over a decade ago—I can't describe it as anything less than one of 2015's essential entertainments.

Score:  7/10


  1. Wow, I was not so kind to this film. Then again, I have little to no feeling about ships.

    1. I like ships, and I wanted to see that whale destroy it all year. I definitely came in with a pro-In the Heart of the Sea bias. In any event, I liked it more than Rush (or Blackhat).

      I meant to mention it in the review, but I am deeply suspicious of Hemsworth's accent in this movie, however.