“In the Heart of the Sea”
By Burl Burlingame / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Call me unimpressed.
True confession time: As a wee lad, I lived in a remote place where the local library was so small there was no division between children’s and adult books. In fifth grade, I pulled “Moby Dick” from the shelf and read it. It was tough going at first, but you get used to the rhythm of Herman Melville’s rich language. I became fascinated with the man-against-the-sea challenge of harpooning whales.
So, here we are a few years later, and killing whales is just about the uncoolest thing anyone can do. And here we have “In the Heart of the Sea,” Ron Howard’s visually ambitious retelling of the true story of the Moby Dick yarn, studded occasionally with pop-up segues of plot exposition with an actor playing Melville. The bookending — plus, essentially, chapter headings — by the Melville actor (Ben Whishaw) makes the whole thing seem, well, a little book-reportly, rather than seamlessly organic storytelling.
At a time when whale-oil was all the rage for lighting cities, the dauntless whalers of Nantucket roamed the seas looking for whales to kill. Once slaughtered, the creatures were diced up and the chunks fed into pots for rendering. It was a very dangerous, filthy, grotesque way to make a living, and naturally, New Englanders proudly excelled at it.
“Sea” tells the tale of whaler Essex, her snooty, neophyte skipper (Benjamin Walker) and surly first mate (Chris Hemsworth) on the hunt for whales, and how one whale got fed up and bashed the ship to pieces, and how the surviving sailors drifted across the Pacific for 90 days. They even had to feed on each other as they died, but the movie studiously looks away when that happens.
This really happened. The angry whale, which had white patches on its blubber, became the role model for the “great white whale” Moby Dick. “Moby Dick,” however, is a work of fiction, and “In the Heart of the Sea” is a work of fiction memorializing a true story that became a work of fiction.
Movies aren’t reality, they’re impressions. And so “Sea” does its best to drop you into that particular time and space, but because it’s a movie, the whale is given motive and personality, and because the movie is supposedly a true story, the universal themes are sucked out of the main characters and they seem pale and dull next to the whale.
It’s all very sea-going and wet. At least no one says “Yo-ho-ho!” Howard is reliable at building an action scene, gets good work out of his actors, and the art direction is first-class. The editing is a bit turgid, and the movie is longer than it needs to be, but that’s not the primary problem with “Sea.”
The movie is fatally compromised by a marketing decision. Not just hurt by this decision, but killed dead, as if there were a quivering harpoon in its heart.
The problem is that it was made to be projected in 3D, which affects all visual aspects and compositions.
Let’s get real. 3D only works in intimate settings. “Sea” is a story about the grandness of nature, the boundless horizon of the ocean, and the smallness of man. It requires visual storytelling of the highest order. But to make this production work in 3D, everything is shot in extreme closeup. There are virtually no establishing visual compositions, which completely scuttles the storytelling choreography. This, in turn, leads to jittery editing. To hammer home the 3D aspects, the movie regularly resorts to extreme close-ups of inanimate objects, as long as one end of the object is closer to the screen. The water scenes even leave fake drops of water on the “camera lens,” because it looks more 3D that way.
This tale, which should be expansive and grand, is hijacked by the demands of the 3D process, making it small and crowded, myopically claustrophobic and deeply murky. The movie begins and ends with a character who makes crude, tiny ships inside dirty bottles, which is actually the best visual metaphor that “In the Heart of the Sea” can say about itself.