A seaworthy adventure tale

Ron Howard's In The Heart Of The Sea is a story of man's arrogance towards nature

There is no one-legged Captain Ahab but there is Herman Melville himself in In The Heart Of The Sea, a high-seas romp about greedy harpooners and a leviathan from the depth that ends with a thought on naturalism. The monomania that drives men to their demise, as in Moby-Dick, is touched upon here though not pursued to its darkest inevitability, and yet that doesn't stop the Ron Howard's film from being a lively, well-oiled seafaring entertainment.

Framing the narrative through literary history, In The Heart Of The Sea sends Melville (Ben Whishaw, last seen as Q in Spectre and a loner in The Lobster) to Nantucket to interview the last survivor of a cursed expedition in the Pacific wilderness, with the young writer hoping to milk material for his new novel. Over a glowing candle burned through with whale oil, Melville persuades Thomas Nickleton (Brendan Gleeson) to recount the story of when he was a teenage boy on board a whaling ship in 1820 that was later attacked by an enigmatic white whale. Instead of Ahab, we get two men at the ship's wheel: first-mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a swashbuckling seaman, and Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a rich lad who gets to helm the voyage just because his father is a whaling tycoon.

Obviously the two men dislike each other -- it's class tension, as Pollard reminds Owen at every opportunity that the latter is just an orphaned farm boy. But the first half of In The Heart Of The Sea is most thrilling as a story of grimy sailors who head out to open sea in search of whale oil, the most coveted commodity of the time, and Howard skilfully immerses us in their romantic adventurism. Their routine nautical drill is shot and edited in a way that resembles a kinetic action movie (Howard's previous feature film was the F-1 saga Rush); from raising the sails to surviving a squall, men at sea believe in their power to conquer nature through compass and brawn. Then they spot a school of sperm whales, and Owen's seaborne hunt of this prized species is choreographed with salt-sprayed, sun-kissed monumentalism of Poseidon at his most cocky and invincible.

But of course what the film is trying to say is the opposite. Nature, not men, rules, and our escalating arrogance is only a path to doom. As the ship sails West from South America in pursuit of a fabled school of whales, Owen and Pollard encounter the alabaster demon -- what would become Moby-Dick in Melville's story -- a great whale of supernatural size that rams into the vessel and shipwrecks the crew. There is a moment that In The Heart Of The Sea could have become Jaws of the 19th century, with the beast stalking its hunters; instead, Howard and his screenwriters are more interested in turning the whale into a metaphor about the relationship between man and nature, as well as a cautionary tale on our exploitation of natural resources and how our thirst for oil -- whale oil then and petroleum now -- is the most destructive greed of all.

Owen perhaps sums it all up too neatly about how men are so small: "We're specks!" The great hunter is not going down the path of Ahab, as in Moby-Dick, which is probably more natural in the course of things. In The Heart Of The Sea is a romantic adventure full of spectacle and yet finds moments of soulfulness and quiet reflection. It flirts with darkness, and it chooses to end with glimmers of light.

About the author

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Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Former Life Editor