Some people have called “In the Heart of the Sea” (2015) an unofficial “prequel” to Moby Dick. That’s not the right word. Prequel makes it sound like it’s a story ending where “Call me Ishmael” begins. It’s actually a depiction of Herman Melville and the true-life story he researched while writing his great American novel.
I wish “In the Heart of the Sea” had been released 20 years ago before I read Moby Dick. The book is dense and challenging. Moby Dick went straight into the lives of the characters then shifted to life on Captain Ahab’s ship. I don’t remember it stopping to explore the wider economic motivations behind whale hunting.
“In the Heart of the Sea” provides that background and context. It presents Nantucket as a thriving point of embarkation for the “oil business” (whale oil). Think of it as J.R. Ewing and the Texas oilmen in “Dallas” transported to Massachusetts in the 1800s. The nautical ways of the Old World still prevail with the privileged sons of wealthy men can essentially purchase their commissions as officers. The diffident and inexperienced Pollard is given command of a ship with Chase as first mate even though Chase is God’s gift to whaling.
That’s where we see our first signs of trouble. Not just for the crew, but for viewers. Chase is too perfect. He demonstrates again and again on deck that his knowledge and seamanship is superior to Pollard’s. He’s bigger and stronger than anybody else aboard. Chris Hemsworth, who plays Chase, speaks in a husky, artificially deep voice which is often difficult to understand. It’s like listening to somebody speak through a cheerleader’s bullhorn. There is volume and strength but the words are indistinct. Chase’s main failing is depicted as arrogance, which is easy to understand since he is better than everybody else.
However, another of his failings, which probably was unintentional on part of the moviemakers, is that Chase is totally serious and unfunny all of the time. That entire movie is guilty of that, too. There are very few laughs and rarely a light moment aboard the Essex. The story is presented as the most serious thing that has happened to anybody.
The story itself is a good one, and we can see why Melville thought it would make for a great book. Pollard and Chase are trying to kill as many sperm whales as possible so they can be done with each other and go back home. Despite warnings they get at port in Chile about an aggressive sperm whale, they pursue the whale. The giant beast already has an antipathy toward human ships. The whale eludes capture and retaliates later. The whale is smart and recognizes the crew wherever they go from that point forward.
Like every other shark, whale, or sea monster story, matters worsen for the Essex’s crew. The number of humans dwindle on a long a painful voyage home. Thirty years later, a cabin boy who survived the ordeal reluctantly recounts the tale to Herman Melville, enabling him to finish writing his classic. The witness’s wife, in a rare moment of comedy, is the only character to agree to accept Melville’s payment for consenting to an interview.
Overall, the revenge story and the man-versus-nature conflict make for gripping drama. The special effects of the swelling sea and whale are well-done. The movie has a good pace and doesn’t waste time on irrelevant side stories. The film illuminates the context of the important period of American history that formed the basis of Melville’s book. I’d give the movie an 8 or 9 out of 10 for being so well-made, but I ding it a point or so down to a 7 for being self-important and stodgy.