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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

In The Heart of the Sea | Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Tom Holland | Review

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Jacqueline  Monahan

Las Vegas Round The Clock
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Jacqueline Monahan is an educator for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also an entertainment reporter for Lasvegasroundtheclock.com
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In The Heart of the Sea | Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Tom Holland | Review

Thar she blows!  And I don’t mean the whale.

Okay, maybe the latest effort by Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) is not that bad; it just could have been so much better.

Based on the 2000 Nathaniel Philbrick book, “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whale Ship Essex" the film uses the accounts of first-mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and cabin boy Tom Nickerson (Tom Holland, Brendan Gleeson) to bring the tale to the big screen.  The fictionalized 1850 meeting of Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) and the reluctant Nickerson, serves as a plot device to recount the events of the actual whaling voyage that inspired Melville’s magnum opus, Moby Dick.

Chase is the unofficial leader of the crew of the whaling ship Essex, which set out to sea in 1820 under novice Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker).  Chase has experience, but Pollard has a wealthy family and a mandate to bring in 2000 barrels of sperm oil – necessary for lamplight and extremely profitable.  A –whaling they will go.

Tensions ensue when the two men clash over riggings, destinations, and leadership styles.  Nickerson, a 14-year-old cabin boy is in awe of Chase, even when the first-mate demands (after a first kill) that he dive through a hole in a dead whale’s head to retrieve the precious sperm oil.   No wonder Nickerson can remember the tale after 30 years.

The Essex braves turbulent ocean storms to sail a thousand miles toward an area teeming with whales when a large bull intent on destruction rams the ship, leaving what’s left of the crew in three small whaling boats and dire straits.  The second half of the film details the crew’s efforts to stay alive despite the constant threat of starvation and dehydration.  They resort to something they refer to as “an abomination” to stay alive.  No spoilers here, but you can imagine a watery version of Donner Pass, with boats instead of wagons carrying the living and the dead.

And then the whale, all 50 tons of him, returns.

With all of the harpooning, explosions, ship ramming, and desperation, the question remains – how can such an adventure disappoint?

Told in an uninspired linear fashion by Nickerson to a pen-wielding Melville, the maritime saga is interrupted, sometimes at odd intervals, to revisit the two men for snippets of dialogue and somber reaction shots.  Pacing and tension also suffer, affected to the point that when the aggressive whale appears, it is almost an anticlimax.  Even the creature’s giant leaps and spiteful tail slams fail to splash the viewer into any more involvement than disconnected spectator.

Impressive underwater shots of the fire and destruction above by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Rush, 127 Hours) capture nature’s magnificence and malevolence, while violent aqua-ballets between puny humans and the earth’s largest mammals, one of them bent on revenge, command attention for a while.

Otherwise, the film is low on visceral impact and generally underwhelming.   The dying crew, stranded for months at sea, has a reason to be lethargic; the film doesn’t.

Hemsworth gives voice to an odd Nantucket-Aussie hybrid pronunciation that is at times distracting but can handle the wind-in-his-hair bravado; Whishaw inhabits Melville believably enough, and Gleeson is all gravitas, all the time.  These are perfectly good actors, victims of a budget that sailed over to CGI at their expense.

In Howard’s impressive body of work, this is the one that got away.

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