by Gabriel Valdez
There’s no way to put this simply or without making a really bad pun, but critics are missing the boat on “In the Heart of the Sea.” It’s too many films, they say. It wants to be a seafaring adventure, an epic test of wills between two men, an environmental paean, and an allegory about the pitfalls of vengeance.
Very broadly based on the destruction of the whaling ship Essex by a whale in 1820 and the struggle of its stranded survivors, the story is framed by author Herman Melville’s visit to the vessel’s last living crew member in Nantucket, Mass. Though Melville did base American classic “Moby Dick” on the story of the Essex, this visit never actually happened. It does provide a nice frame story about confession, however.
Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com echoes a complaint many critics have had. He specifically criticizes the film for lacking Spielberg’s famous storytelling notion of “an idea you can hold in your hand.” This is a misreading of the film – it has no interest in being held. “In the Heart of the Sea” is about what choices you make upon facing the fury of God, or the majesty of the universe, or the sublime in nature – pick your preference. That’s an idea that can barely be held in the head, let alone the hand.
Look, I’m as Socialist Pinko Liberal as the next Socialist Pinko Liberal, yet even I have to admit that there’s a blind spot in film criticism when it comes to movies about religion. (Many of them are bad, yes, but how does that make the genre different from any other?)
And make no mistake, “In the Heart of the Sea” is a film about how we come away from facing God. Do we rage at loss? Do we double down on our own narcissism and place faith in our superiority? Is the universe unfeeling and arbitrary, or have we been personally selected out by it? Do we look at what happens around us and respond with the anger of violence and vengeance?
Or do we see ourselves as a speck in the universe, and find beauty in that? When we face the sublime, that which is more meaningful and permanent in nature than ourselves, do we respond with humbleness and respect? Or do we seek to master it? Is ours to master the world around us, or to acknowledge the world around us does not need our mastering it?
Every year, there’s a film that tackles “Book of Job” territory. “In the Heart of the Sea” is a more obvious gambit, and it suffers for its obviousness. Seitz criticizes the movie for not being a darker adventure filmed by Werner Herzog or Terrence Malick. Not to put too fine a point on it, but 99% of all movies would be better if filmed by Herzog or Malick. “In the Heart of the Sea” isn’t even the best “Book of Job” riff about being stranded at sea and facing the overwhelming wrath of God/Nature – that would be my call for best film in the last decade: “Life of Pi.”
That said, “In the Heart of the Sea” is a good film. While it travels fast and feels a bit obvious at points, it is a solid and fulfilling yarn.
There are many of the same problems here that have burrowed into director Ron Howard’s recent films – the “historical” movie that makes 90% of its plot up, the near-complete disinclusion of women, and a misplaced belief that Chris Hemsworth can do accents.
The whale also stalks the survivors for quite a while after sinking the Essex. This never happened. Whaling was huge business in the 1800s and whale oil was somewhat equivalent to the petroleum industry of today. Whales are intelligent animals, and there are several accounts of whales targeting whaling vessels and deliberately sinking them. Whether this was a direct predator-prey response, or the animals had a more complex notion of what was happening, whales did target, attack, and sink whaling vessels on multiple occasions.
The whale here is more akin to the wolves in “The Gray,” the monsters in “The Descent,” or the debris field in “Gravity.” The wolves didn’t act like real wolves because they weren’t real wolves; they were the existential nature of loss and desperation closing in on you. The monsters in “The Descent” didn’t act like real echolocating, underground manbeasts because real echolocating, underground manbeasts don’t exist; they were the demons of a life punished. The debris field in “Gravity” doesn’t care by the end if it’s on schedule or not. It’s coming for Sandra Bullock one more time, physics be damned, because in movie language it is not a debris field; it is the universe breaking a human being unfeelingly.
The whale is the universe, the existential nature of loss and desperation closing in on you. Look it in the eye. It has broken your life. Do you rage against it and lash out? Or do you let the moment pass, and one day become yourself again?
“In the Heart of the Sea” is not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination. But it does have a damn good reason for being. It has no single, simple idea to be held in the hand, but rather one to be gazed at in the night sky, in the flight of a bird, in the quiet whispering of trees, and yes – even sometimes in the raging of the world unfeeling against you.
Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.
1. Does “In the Heart of the Sea” have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Michelle Fairley plays Mrs. Nickerson and Charlotte Riley plays Peggy Chase.
2. Do they talk to each other?
No. Nickerson exists in the frame story and Chase within the story being told. They are both wives to more plot-consequential characters.
3. About something other than a man?
With the exception of “The Missing” and Cate Blanchett’s utter domination of her role in what is super-secretly my favorite Ron Howard film, Howard is an awful director when it comes to giving women any kind of leading role in his films (serving as Tom Hank’s bright-eyed, half-his-age, ingenue-of-the-moment in Dan Brown adaptations does not count).
“In the Heart of the Sea” is a film about men, blah blah blah, and yes, it happens on a whaling vessel in 1820, where you wouldn’t find women working…but considerable portions of the film happen before or after the ship and its crew are involved. There were opportunities here. Howard just isn’t a director who’s typically interested in telling stories about women outside of their relation to leading men.