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Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is considered a masterpiece in American literature, and story that student groan at when they hear it’s name. His ode to the human experience depicts the story of Captain Ahab and his battle with the white whale. Many may not realise that this work of classic fiction is based on an actual maritime disaster. In the Heart of the Sea tells the true-to-life story that occurred in 1820 aboard the ill-fated ship, The Essex.
In the 1800’s, acquiring whale oil was exceptionally lucrative, but it was a high-risk business in New England. The captain of the Essex was George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) who desires to live up to his family name and prove himself within the shipping community. His first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) has just as much to prove to the owners of the ships and has the goal of becoming a ship captain himself. These two men and their drive for success upon the seas of the world leads to the demise of their ship, the loss of life and becomes the story of seafaring legend. A story of shipwreck, survival, and men being pushed to their physical and spiritual limits.
Within the story of In the Heart of the Sea, a young Herman Melville strives to prove himself to the literary world with the ill-fated story of the Essex. History has come to show that this opportunity helped to produce one of the literary greats. Moby Dick is considered a masterful work of fiction because of the artistic license Melville took with the original story. Like Melville in literature, director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) has earned his place amongst the best filmmakers in the industry. This epic story in his hands has the potential to be a legendary experience. With the stunning special effects and strong performances from his lead actors, he is able to fill the gaps that could be caused by the multitude of holes in the story. As an actor’s director, Howard manages to get some of the best performances out of his acting troupe. Chris Hemsworth responded well to Howard’s direction in Rush in 2013 and now In the Heart of the Sea, he stretches his acting chops.
Like Melville had to work with this compelling story, Howard needed to add some artistry to the story, but unfortunately does not go far enough and spends the majority of the narrative with stranded sailors in lifeboats. Similar to 2014’s Unbroken, this element causes the story to float into a monotonous experience that diminishes the value of this visceral tale. Howard works hard to capture the human experience of the sailors by showing their drive for profit that is fuelled by testosterone and their eventual will to survive. Even with many positive elements in the direction and performances, the underlying story anchors this whale of a tale to the seafloor. It has all of the elements of human suffering, action and greed that should propel it to better waters, but the majority of the experience is listless and less than satisfying. There is no wonder why Melville rewrote the original story. In the Heart of the Sea has all of the components for a great journey, but it could have done with some nuance to move it from good to great.
‘Pride goes before destruction’ is a familiar phrase, but it is a central component in Moby Dick and In the Heart of the Sea. No one seems immune from the reality of the proverb, even the seemingly heroic Owen Chase succumbs to this nasty human trait that remains at the root of all of humanities failings. This metaphor for the human condition proves that pride is the problem in the story and that the escape from this vicious counterpart can only be found outside of ourselves.