In the Heart of the Sea is no Moby Dick. But then, it isn’t trying to be, even if it is based on one real incident that inspired, in part, Herman Melville’s classic American novel. Instead, director Ron Howard has made a film that is solid, old-school man-versus-nature adventure melodrama, as much Mutiny on the Bounty as Cast Away, as much Jaws (and well, wasn’t Moby Dick the original Jaws?) as The Perfect Storm. But The Perfect Storm was underlain with hints of a larger hubris that all of humanity, not just individual people, was starting to get smacked down for: our degradation of the global environment. And now Heart is about a dawning of a green awareness, if only in one man.
The monsters in the heart of the sea are the humans, of course (though the men here are not wholly monstrous), and the whales are people too. Oh, some will howl about political correctness, but they’d be wrong in more ways than one. The only way a story about historical whaling could be palatable now is to infuse it with the larger understanding of the world we have today. Yet Heart is more than merely palatable: it’s rollicking, smart, breathtaking, and sobering. Because it knows that a good way to understand how our ideas about the world have changed is to see the beginning of a spark of a new way of thinking.
The beginning of that spark in Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth: Vacation, Avengers: Age of Ultron), first mate of the whaling ship the Essex, is more than likely entirely fictional, but that’s fine. Lots of what we see here has been fictionalized for dramatic impact, and it works beautifully. The framing story is entirely invented, yet very satisfying from a storytelling perspective: In 1850 Nantucket, home of the global whaling industry, Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw: Spectre, Suffragette) goes to visit Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson: Suffragette, Song of the Sea), a survivor of the 1820 disaster than befell the Essex, in order to hear his story, which the author has been obsessed with and is determined to write about. Decades later, Nickerson is still so distressed over his experience that he has never spoken of it — “his soul is in torment,” Nickerson’s wife (Michelle Fairley: Philomena, The Invisible Woman) says — but Melville manages to get him to talk. And so we begin to flash back to 1819, when 14-year-old Nickerson (Tom Holland: Locke, The Impossible) went to sea for the first time as a cabin boy on the Essex under Chase and Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Flags of Our Fathers).
At first all is glorious: Howard (Rush, The Dilemma) makes you feel the power of the mighty ship as the wind snaps in her sails and she races over the ocean. We get why these men believed they were masters of the planet, harnessing its forces for their own purposes. But soon enough, nature’s own power makes itself felt, in the form of a storm that Chase and Pollard disagree over how to navigate: the captain is much more reckless in the face of it than his first officer, which is the beginning of a philosophical divide between the two men over whether humans are in charge of nature, or nature is in charge of herself. (It’s not stated so baldly, of course: they just argue over what’s the best thing for the safety of the ship. But we get it.) Still, neither yet seems to appreciate that humanity may have already overstepped its bounds: already, in the early 19th century, the whaling grounds are overfished and an “energy crisis” is looming. The world is lit by whale oil, and “without us,” Pollard notes, “the world plunges into darkness.” Which is why, in 1820, long months into its voyage and the barrels in its holds intended for whale oil still mostly empty, Pollard and Chase push the Essex into a dangerously remote area of the Pacific rumored to be abundant in whales.
Here, “where the whales had gone to hide,” is where the Essex encounters the “demon” whale — enormous even by whale standards — that attacks them, destroys the Essex, and follows the survivors stranded thousands of miles from land with only their pitiful hunting boats to drift along the currents on. It’s here, just when you start to wonder, “How could these men, who got so close to the whales on a regular basis, not have had any inkling that they were intelligent beings?” that we start to see Chase, at least, begin to suspect that perhaps this is indeed the case. In one very powerful moment, an echo of a similar moment in Cast Away though with a very different emotional tenor, Chase makes eye contact with the “demon” whale. And while Heart is never unsympathetic to the ordeal the survivors of the Essex endure — months lost at sea with little to drink or eat — it is never unsympathetic to the whale, either. The particular gory horrors of the whaling industry haven’t been ignored up till this moment: we get our first taste of that with one dying whale’s last breath, an exhalation of bloody seawater that sprays its human killers. But that moment of eye contact is something fundamentally different for Chase. And for us: the whale becomes, for lack of a better word, humanized.
Apparently the tale of the Essex disaster is something every American once knew, though now we’ve forgotten it; even Moby Dick is a story most know only in its broadest, most metaphorical strokes. But it is retold here in a way that makes it relevant for us again, bringing us face to face with nature in a way that commands that we respect it for what it is in its own right, not for what it can do for us. The adventure here, in all its excitement and terror, is in learning that the world is bigger in ways that were previously unimaginable, and not just because the oceans are so very wide.