A recounting of a New England whaling ship's sinking by a giant whale in 1820, an experience that later inspired the great novel Moby-Dick.
Some of the best works of literature have real life counterparts that inspired the story we've come to know so well and yet, sometimes the famous fictional account of a historic incident is more interesting than the story that inspired it. For Herman Melville's famous novel 'Moby Dick,' Melville used his own experience woking on a whaling ship as well as a number of shipwreck accounts as the basis for his novel. One of the wrecks, the Essex, happened as a result of an albino sperm whale ramming into the hull of the ship, causing it to sink. 'In the Heart of the Sea,' directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson tries incredibly hard to tell a convincing and exciting version of the story that inspired one of the greatest literary works ever created, but some uneven performances, a lack of story focus and heavy-handed dramatics work against what should otherwise have been a thrilling tall tale of adventure and survival.
in the 19th century, whaling is a global industry. The streets and homes of the modern world are lit and run on the liquid gold that comes from the melting of whale blubber. As demand increases so does the danger that comes from hunting the supply to the furthest reaches of the planet. With more and more ships going out every season, competition has become fierce and the need for experienced whalers like Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Chase proudly wears two lance pins on his lapel - a shining measure of his accomplishments as a whaler. He's so good at his job that after his last voyage he was promised command of his own ship - but that promise was broken after the expensive retrofit of the whaling vessel Essex. Because the company believes they need a captain of high-society family reputation in order to fund the expedition, they hired Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) leaving Chase as the first mate of the vessel.
As the crew for the Essex is assembled, including experienced whalers like Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) and a young greenhorn by the name of Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland), the men set out on a two-year voyage to hunt down and process whales into oil. Quickly, Chase and Captain Pollard butt heads and fail to see eye to eye at every turn. Chase is a common man who knows the business and how to run a ship effectively while Pollard comes from a family of wealth and means who himself has little to no experience aboard a whaling ship. With every command either refuted or obstinately obeyed, the two men form a slender truce to get them through the voyage as quickly as possible. Only the migrating whale pods remain elusive lengthening the expedition.
While docked in South America for supplies, Pollard and Chase hear from a stranded Spanish crew that the whales have moved a thousand leagues east, away from coastal waters. It is there that the Spanish crew hunted, and their ship was ultimately destroyed by a demon of the deep, a gigantic male albino sperm whale. Shrugging off the Spaniards' warning as fear and failure, Pollard orders the crew back to the ship and the Essex heads a thousand leagues west into uncharted waters. Only the Spaniards weren't telling tall tales or suffered from fear of the sea. When the crew sets out into their rowboats to hunt, a mammoth whale attacks and breaches the hull of the Essex forcing the crew to gather their precious few supplies and seek refuge into their small rowboats over 2000 nautical miles from South America. What was originally a hunt for wealth and the future quickly escalates into a fight for survival as Chase and Pollard fail to see eye to eye how to save the lives of the crewmen - with the great white whale following closely behind.
'In the Heart of the Sea' Is a film that tries desperately to make the audience care about the characters and the suffering their real life counterparts endured, but because of a misguided framing device, the audience never gets to truly know who anyone is. 'In the Heart of the Sea' opens with Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) arriving at Nantucket in the dead of night to a lodging house owned by the grown, weary, and haunted Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Melville has been haunted by the rumors surrounding the sinking of the Essex and is desperate to hear the truth as he is working on a book of the event. The rest of the film plays as a retelling of events through the eyes of the younger Thomas Nickerson. While this sort of framing device could have worked if the film itself had been half an hour longer, instead, it eats up so much of the two-hour runtime that true characters fail to emerge and the story suffers for it.
Going into 'In the Heart of the Sea,' I was well aware of the story of the Essex and what happened to her crew and how the men had to resort to extreme measures to survive 90 days adrift at sea. I had to do a research report about Melville's 'Moby Dick' in high school and I came across some material pertaining to the actual events that took place. It's a fascinating story and it is one that should have made a great movie. Unfortunately, 'In the Heart of the Sea' is not that movie. Not to knock their performances any, but the jumping back and forth to Brenden Gleeson's older Nickerson and Ben Whishaw's Melville proves to be a constant distraction from establishing character depth and story momentum. Just when things are about to get interesting between Chase and Pollard, there is an unnecessary cut back to Melville listening to Nickerson recount his story. This framing device also hampers any buildup of suspense, especially because this is ultimately a movie about survival. By listening to a story from a survivor, we begin to have a clear idea of who is going to survive. And because so much needless time is spent reestablishing who is telling the story, we don't get to know any of the rest of the crew in a way that better ocean voyage movies like 'Master and Commander' managed to do. Because we don't know who anyone is, it's hard to care or feel anything when someone dies either because of the whale's attack or when the men have to resort to extreme measures to survive.
Ron Howard is a man who has proven himself time and time again to be a more than capable director of big idea films and under normal circumstances can bring a film home in fine order. Unfortunately with 'In the Heart of the Sea,' his visual stylings are undercut by a rather weak script by Charles Leavitt. Characters are so thinly drawn that performances by its leading cast of Chris Hemsworth and Benjamin Walker as Owen Chase and Captain George Pollard respectively never emerge beyond basic archetypes. When the movie should be working towards building the suspense and danger of a whale hunt, it diverges into a paint-by-numbers examination of inherited wealth versus natural ability and courage. While the first half of the film works, for the most part, it's a protracted second act that leads to a limp conclusion that ultimately sinks 'In the Heart of the Sea.' For such a well-produced film with a very talented cast and a director who usually has a strong handling of action and drama, I was surprised at how unfulfilling this film was. 'In the Heart of the Sea' is a mass of good ideas that never come together to create a memorable film and instead sinks into the depths of mediocrity.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'In the Heart of the Sea' comes with an UHD 4K Blu-ray Disc as well as standard 50GB Blu-ray Disc. There is an insert for the digital download code. The discs are housed in an eco-friendly hard black plastic case with a cardboard sleeve.
Several weeks after its initial Blu-ray/3D release, Warner Bros. releases the 4K UHD version of 'In the Heart of the Sea', complete with the Blu-ray and a digital download code. There is no 3D option here. This release has the HEVC H.265 encode in HDR10 with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and looks simply amazing in most scenes. One of the downsides (if you can call it a downside) to the realm of UHD is that it might look too good. It sounds strange, right?
Again, most of the scenes in this film look gorgeous in 4K, however, when the blend of the CGI and live actors take place, things can look a bit fake, which is due to the amazing clarity of the image. For a moment, it just takes you out of the whole immersive experience and makes you think, "oh right, this is a movie and that was done on a computer". It's a small gripe, but none-the-less, that is what we see here with 'In the Heart of the Sea'. Still, detail looks quite impressive here.
You'll be able to to make out the imperfections on the wooden ships on each plank as well as well as each bubble in the sea. The way the old timey wardrobe moves in and out of the sunlight that shows each thread is incredible. Every piece of facial hair comes thru crystal clear as well and you'll even be able to make out the slightly different colors as well in these grizzly beards. The color variations when natural sunlight hits the actor's faces and the boats looks amazing and distinguishable, as well as the many levels of shadows that show up. It's really a good job here. Colors are bright and bold, even in the darker scenes where fire is the only light source.
There are deep blacks throughout and skin tones look natural for the most part. When the heavier CGI scenes take place though, things can look a little silly, as when a real actor is in the thick of the CG whale scenes together. With this UHD image, it's obvious that the two aspects don't mix well, and takes you out of the moment, where you can clearly see where the live action filming ends and the computer animation begins. It wasn't as seamless as I had hoped for, but then again with UHD, that's one of the issues, which is that it's sometimes just too good.
This UHD release of 'In the Heart of the Sea' brings over its English: Dolby Atmos track, where I used a 7.1.2 Atmos speaker setup with the normal 7.1 surround and two overhead speakers, plus a subwoofer powering this watery soundscape. The standard Blu-ray version has the Dolby Atmos track as well. In my opinion, if you have the Dolby Atmos setup here, the heavier action sequences are just breath taking and will make you think that there is a giant whale expedition in your viewing room, or at least that your ceiling might be pouring down with water.
Sound effects of the men working on the boat and getting ready to set sail is great, as each noise and sound is well handled and balanced. The chattering on and off screen as the voyage starts has great directionality and really immerses you into the life of these men. There is a lot of depth to this audio track for sure. The big Atmos moments where the overhead speakers come into play are when the big ocean waves come into play, as well as when the big white whale emerges. You'll feel like your place is definitely being hit by thunderous waves and that a big whale is somewhere near you.
In between these big climactic moments are scenes of a rather peaceful or serene seascape, where almost just dialogue and a few ambient noises can be heard. It's rather soft, as if director Ron Howard wanted the audience to take a breather without all of the major elements coming into play. Dialogue is always crystal clear and easy to follow, even with the excellent score by Roque Banos and all of the intense sound effects during the heavier action scenes. The bass kicks into high gear as well and never crosses into rocky territory, leaving this Dolby Atmos track with solid marks.
Ron Howard: Captain's Log: (HD 15:50) A succession of quick looks at Ron Howard's process of working through the different aspects of production from location scouting through the final edit. Some interesting material but it's not very in depth because each segment is regulated to only a couple of minutes.
Chase & Pollard: A Man of Means and a Man of Courage: (HD 7:28) A very brief EPK style, but informative look at the real life Owen Chase and George Pollard.
The Hard Life of a Whaler: (HD 8:44) A quick look at what actual Nantucket whalers went through and how the cast trained to look like experienced whalers.
Whale Tales: Melville's Untold Story: (HD 9:13) A quick and interesting look at the various stories and occurrences that Melville drew upon to write 'Moby Dick.'
Commanding the Heart of the Sea: (HD 10:25) A look at the blending of practical and digital effects work that went into creating the movie.
Lightning Strikes Twice The Real-Life Sequel to Moby Dick: (HD 28:59) A fascinating and amazing little documentary about NOAA marine archeologists finding the site of a sunken ship intermingled with information about the sinking of the Essex. I'll let you discover the punchline about the identity of the ship and who captained it for yourself.
Deleted Scenes: (HD 36:02) A collection of alternate scenes and deleted material (some with incomplete visual effects) that offers some more character moments that would have helped if they'd stayed in the film. They're not much, but they're enough that they add some sense of character dimension.
Extended Scenes: (HD 7:11) Similar to the Deleted Scenes, these brief little bits work to even out the film.
Island Montage: (HD 3:07) A very quick recap of moments from the movie that happened while the crew was stranded on the island.
The Ultra HD Blu-ray of 'In the Heart of the Sea' is quite good. The only difference between this release and the two others is the 4K. Everything else is virtually the same, however with this UHD set, you WON'T get 3D, so if that's a deal breaker, then you won't want this set. The Dolby Atmos track is great, and all of the extras are here as well, in addition to a Digital Download code and standard Blu-ray. The film itself has some rough edges and slower moments, but as a whole, the film works. The new video presentation is a double edged sword for the most part. While most of the film looks breathtakingly gorgeous, has depth and amazing colors and shadows, the heavy CGI sequences tend to make things look a bit fake and silly when crossed with real live actors. Still, I prefer this to the 3D version, making this release recommended!
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.