Grand epics are often fashioned out of humanity battle to come to grips with something wild and untameable.
It might be the expansive natural world that constantly reminds us that we are not quite the all-conquering masters of our domain that we might like to think we are, or perhaps our own egos and ambitions that can imperil as much as they elevate.
In the case of Ron Howard’s grand sweeping epic of survival and hubris, In the Heart of the Sea, both of these formidable opponents are in play with the whalers of early 19th century Nantucket forced to fight both themselves and a vengeful bull sperm whale for survival.
And the battle is impressive in all respects with towering personas and misguided decision-making giving an appropriate backdrop by breathtaking, in-the-trenches cinematography (courtesy of Anthony Dod Mantle) and well-used, though occasionally clunky, CGI.
Re-telling the ill-fated story of the Essex, one of the grand old ships that were the workhorse of the 19th whaling industry, of which Nantuucket was the undisputed capital, In the Heart of the Sea is the story of what happens when overarching human ambition goes head to head with Mother Nature, a formidable opponent in anyone’s books, and comes off second best.
But it is also takes a hard look at the aftereffects of these titanic battle of wills, at the way in which people deal with traumatic events and the loss of innocence, hope, ambition and a sense of belonging in the world.
At the heart of it all, is the almost-cursed journey that the Essex, under the command of woefully-inexperienced captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a man born into one of Nantucket’s preeminent whaling families with all the expectations and arrogance that entails, undertook in 1821.
It is, by most accounts the inspiration for Herman Melville’s American classic Moby Dick, published in 1851, and if the screenplay by Charles Leavitt, based on the book In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, is any indication, art most certainly imitated life in this gripping tale.
What gives the film its beating heart, and narrative core, is the fact that it’s not simply man against an enormous, vengeful beast.
That is engrossing enough to be sure but what we given as well is a gargantuan struggle between Pollard, and his First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), the latter a man who has worked his way up through the ranks and is furious when the captaincy he believed would be his is handed to Pollard purely on the basis of class and connections.
This sets the men off a dangerous path that might not have necessarily resulted in loss or death if Mother Nature, in the form of the giant whale that pursues them with almost gleeful fury, had not also connived to make what should have been a routine yearlong voyage to source whaling oil into an ordeal that tested heart & soul, and a great many ideas about how the world operates and what is important.
Granted, much of what befalls the Essex is more about the idiosyncrasies of weather and beast, but these calamities are made all the more disastrous by the unwillingness of Pollard to heed Chase’s wisdom and experience, or Chase’s inability to appreciate that softly, softly garners more progress than a combative approach ever will.
Through storms, dangerous trips in longboats to harpoon whales – a massively dangerous undertaking given the size and power of sperm and right whales – and the loss of the ship, privation at seas and resultant horrors unimaginable, Pollard and Chase battle until both realise there is no longer anything to be gained from their destructive enmity.
By this point, however, pretty much all of the early promise of the voyage has been lost, and the men are forced to confront the fact that their greatest mortal enemy may not be the whale that dogs their every step, though it is a fearsome enemy indeed, but their own egos and thwarted ambitions.
This mighty tale of man and beast is framed, in a reasonably traditional but cathartic fashion, by an all-night meeting of Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) and the last survivor of the Essex, Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland) in Nantucket in 1850 where the latter recounts the events of the Essex’s final voyage for the first time.
Melville ostensibly is looking for material for his novel, one he says he must write lest he never write again, but as both men converse the lessons learned back in 1821 prove to have bearing on the events many years later.
In the Heart of the Sea does not always engender the kind of shock and awe that Howard is aiming for, with some sections a little slow and underdeveloped but by and large it manages to hit many of the notes you”d expect of a story of this ilk.
It’s greatest triumph is perhaps that swashbuckling action and a philosophical musing on the frailty of humanity’s then widely-accepted superiority over all things sit comfortably side by side in a tale whose greatest lesson is that we likely have more to fear from ourselves than any monsters lurking out in the great unknown.