Friday, December 11, 2015

I saw Moby Dick in the Heart of the Sea...

Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” has been filmed numerous times. Though the most famous adaptations are the 1956 John Huston/Ray Bradbury production with Gregory Peck and the 1998 mini-series with Patrick Stewart, there’s also a 2013 mini-series starring William Hurt, and a 2010 modernization with Barry Bostwick. And let's not forget those early John Barrymore trendsetters, “The Sea Beast” and “Moby Dick ‘30”; let alone that "Star Trek: First Contact" borrowed heavily from Melville's allegorical concept, as did the medieval epic, "Age of Dragons". 

Though many perceive “Moby Dick” as a revenge-ridden tale (and, thus far, the vengeance element has surfaced in all adaptations), it also appeals to monster fans. Though it may seem extreme these days (i.e., politically incorrect) to call a whale a monster, Moby Dick, like Kong or Joe Young, is a most extraordinary specimen: beyond mammoth and startlingly white, equipped with cunning cognition. These traits have characterized all versions of the beast, and the latest (though indirect) tribute is no exception, making "In the Heart of the Sea" another chapter in what some consider a genuine "sea monster" franchise. However, the great-white-whale angle is only one disquieting part of the latest scheme.

The adventure (or perhaps more precisely, misadventure) comes via director extraordinaire, Ron Howard, based on the acclaimed historical novel by Nathaniel Philbrick. Philbrick’s account commences in 1820, aboard the doomed ship, Essex, where the crew endures not only a merciless whale attack, thus inspiring Melville to pen "Moby Dick", but fierce weather and the horrid consequences of starvation.

Portraying the ship's fledgling captain, George Pollard, is Benjamin "Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" Walker; and his dynamic (if not disgruntled) first mate, Owen Chase is played by Chris “Thor” Hemsworth. Rounding out the Essex's primary crew is Tom “soon-to-be Spider-man” Holland, as young Thomas Nickerson (the cabin boy); Brendan "Mad-Eye" Gleeson as old Thomas Nickerson (who reluctantly reflects upon his youthful escapade); Cillian “Scarecrow” Murphy as Matthew Joy (Second Mate and childhood friend of Chase); and as the man who documents Nickerson's disconcerting account, Ben "Q" Whishaw as Melville.

The men commence their adventure from Nantucket, Massachusetts without seeming worry, but when a enormous, white-specked sperm whale rams their ship in the Pacific Ocean, they must disperse into separate whaling boats, as their mighty vessel sinks.

In addition to fearing another attack (for the whale does trail them), they must face the consequences of being lost at sea and running out of supplies. The whale, therefore, is a monstrous harbinger for what turns this true-life story into one of horror. Like the Donner Expedition or Andes Flight 571, cannibalism becomes the crew's source of survival. 

There is no polite way to depict the consequences of such, even though the gruesome procedure is at best implied. One could say that, in a allegoric sense, the whalers have been cursed for their oil-profiting pursuits, and it's Moby Dick's precursor that has placed this curse upon them. 

Though Captain Pollard figures significantly into events, Hemsworth's Chase is the story's hub and the crew's doleful cheerleader. Because of Hemsworth's prior roles, instinct tells us to trust him, but even his towering frame can't defeat the damning craze that ensues.

As Charles Leavitt's excellent script develops, the sheer hopelessness of Chase's actions become apparent, seeping through Gleeson, Holland and Murphy's characterizations to a marked extent, each actor exuding convincing anguish and woe. Howard's pacing also enforces the crew's nihilistic descent, giving the film's second half a disquieting, slow-burn ambiance, similar to the director's "Apollo 13". 

Though the tale's cannibalistic component assures a morbid allure, it might also be dismissed as disappointing after the big attack, which is a destructive wonder to behold. The sequence, albeit brief, crackles with a relentless roll found only in the best giant-monster films: calculated to make one's heart pound and leave one depleted in its aftermath.

In fact, so powerful is the whale's presence that (for poetic license) it could have been more frequently reinstated, mounting the air of danger. As it stands, "Heart of the Sea" often leaves the crew's desperation to stand in lieu of the majestic monster.

The crew's dilemma, however, allows one to consider the grave obstacles sailors faced in days gone by. Though there's no doubt the story is embellished, just as "Moby Dick" is, one has no choice but to acknowledge that the basic story did, in fact, occur: something that should give one reason to pause and ruminate.  

Monsters and the horrors they spawn aren't solely relegated to the printed page or movie screen. Their roots often reside in reality, and reality can often be a most unnerving place, as the Essex crew--and now we, the audience--can assuredly attest. 


  1. As an afterthought on “Moby Dick” inspirations, in addition to adapting Melville’s tale for the big screen, Bradbury also twisted the theme into a science-fiction play, where Ahab is a starship captain seeking revenge on the comet that blinded him. (The production was banned for not including female characters as part of the crew!)

    “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” featured a swell homage entitled, “The Ghost of Moby Dick” in ‘64.

    Hanna-Barbera produced the ‘60s animated weekly series, “Moby Dick and Mighty Mightor”, and Rankin Bass included an animated adaptation in the ‘70s series “Famous Classic Tales”.

    Also, there’s no mistaking Moby’s influence on “Jaws” and “Orca: the Killer Whale”: the latter a reversal on the theme.

  2. Saw the film again. As I was re-watching, decided that, in its own right, "Heart of the Sea" also plays upon the "Moby Dick" reversal, at least to some extent. Also, the tension of the dilemma was even more unsettling the second time around, even though I darn well knew what to expect.

    Sorry to hear the film isn't doing well at the box office. There was a time when youngsters, in particular, would have flocked to see such a well marketed adventure. Times sure have changed. I know a few parents who find this sort of thing too intense for their youngsters, and we're talking about lads of about fourteen/fifteen years old! Even the likes of "Terminator" and "Thor" are too much for these kids'nerves, or so I've been informed.

    I shouldn't pass judgment,I suppose, but gosh, I find that all so perplexing. Yep, for whatever cause, times sure have changed.

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