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The East

The East emerges as an exciting piece of filmmaking from the independent scene’s hott —Matt Anderson (review...)

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In the Heart of the Sea is a well-crafted yarn documenting the true-life disaster that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

By Endurance We Conquer

Chris Hemsworth is going to need a bigger harpoon
Chris Hemsworth is going to need a bigger harpoon

In unfolding this tale, director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) takes a nice approach to adapting Nathaniel Philbrick’s book. Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw, Q in Skyfall) enters the picture looking for adventure. He wants to journey into the unknown. And he’s prepared to pay every last penny he has to do so, even though he has a family to care for back home.

But this isn’t a physical journey into the unknown. He’s not looking for passage on a ship. He’s looking for an interview with a survivor of the disaster faced by the crew of the Essex decades earlier. From there, he has visions of taking the material gathered during the interview and crafting a book to earn back his expenses and then some.

And so begins a tale of high-seas adventure, whaling and survival. Told in flashbacks from the 1850s to the 1820s, the bulk of the movie takes place on the Essex, a whaling ship commissioned to venture out in search of whale oil, the natural miracle that fueled the Industrial Age’s lights and machines.

At the outset, returning with anything less than 2,000 barrels would be considered a failed journey.

Unbroken

In the Heart of the Sea has a lot in common with another current release garnering Oscar buzz, The Revenant. Both are survival tales. Both have their roots in American history. Both take place in the 1820s. And both make the modern male look like a mere shadow of his former self. Cushioned by things like mobile phones, geo-location, Google Maps and BMWs with butt-warmers, it’s fairly safe to say most men these days wouldn’t last all that long in the 1820s — whether on the high seas or at altitude in the Rocky Mountains.

But that’s also part of the visceral fun of watching both In the Heart of the Sea and The Revenant.

In particular for the Moby Dick story, the crew set off for a journey that takes far longer than anticipated as one disaster after another faces the crew. Poor choices are made and more than half of the 20-person crew is lost.

At the core of the venture’s undoing is a giant sperm whale, which sinks the Essex and relegates the crew to two small boats — wherein they’re stranded for more than 90 days, some 2,000 miles off the South American coast.

History Repeating

In bringing the story to life, Anthony Dod Mantle (Rush, Slumdog Millionaire) provides lush cinematography that actually works well in 3D, especially certain underwater elements. The whale visual effects are also impressive, particularly with that infamous white whale later immortalized as Moby Dick.

And Howard uses his cast well. Following their collaboration on Rush, Chris Hemsworth (Thor) returns to embody another true-life character and he’s supported by an effective ensemble including Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins) and Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).

Naturally, parallels can be drawn between whale oil and modern crude. There are the environmental elements as well as concerns surrounding worker welfare. And when the survivors finally return to Nantucket, there’s the requisite sham inquiry into the disaster and an attempt at a coverup in order to preserve the image of the whaling industry.

The comparisons are right there, front and center, from the very introduction of the whalers and their enterprise. It’s a little unnecessary, then, when a comment is made toward the end about how there are rumors of oil being found in the ground. While it feels tacked on and forced, it doesn’t impede the impact of this brutal tale.