Years after Moby-Dick was a flop, Herman Melville visited an old ship's captain named George Pollard. Both men had seen better days. In their youth, both had sailed the seas with some success. Melville had written novels about his adventures with island girls, and Pollard had once helmed one of Nantucket's most successful whaling ships, the Essex. The Essex, however, sank after it was rammed by a whale, forcing its eight survivors to feed on the dead — or, in one instance, the newly murdered. Pollard's second ship, the Two Brothers, sank too.
Now bad-luck Pollard — a “Jonah,” in sailor slang — had washed up ashore as a night watchman. In a bitter parallel, the novel inspired by Pollard was so savaged by critics (the London Literary Gazette wished “both him and his whales at the bottom of an unfathomable sea”) that Melville quit writing and became a customs inspector. The Essex had tanked two careers. Yet the failed author was generous toward Pollard. “To me, [he was] the most impressive man, tho' wholly unassuming, even humble — that I ever encountered,” Melville wrote. If Melville had lived another three decades, he'd have seen himself become an impressive man, too, credited posthumously with writing the Great American Epic. And if he were alive today, he'd spend a chunk of his $1,200 lifetime earnings from Moby-Dick on a ticket to Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea, a retelling of the Essex's doomed voyage. There, he would look up at the screen at Benjamin Walker's Pollard and wonder, “What the hell did they do to my pal?”
This isn't a bad thing. Moby-Dick was a story of fever and obsession. Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt, basing their script off of Nathaniel Philbrick's original book, are interested in something more cynically modern: corporate greed. Pollard has been rejiggered to represent nepotism and ego as an inexperienced captain who bought his way into a job and would rather put his sailors at risk than return home looking incompetent. (As fictional insults go, that isn't any worse than Melville transforming him into Ahab.) His foil is first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a romance novel–worthy hunk who looks like Fabio and acts like Superman. The first day at sea, a sail gets tangled and Pollard watches weakly as Chase glides up the mast, leaps over the rigging and swashbuckles the Essex free. Instead of a thank-you, Pollard announces that Chase is the son of a convict. Forget the whale — the real fight is snobs versus jocks.
Pollard and Chase's rivalry sets the tone of the film. But Howard continually reminds us that it's the big business of blubber that steers the ship. Whale oil kept the lamps lit and the machines running, and Howard lines the cityscape of New Bedford, Massachusetts, the capital port of the industry, with huffing smokestacks. “Without us, without you, the whole world plunges into darkness,” declares Pollard's dad, and if the Essex's pressure to power America makes you think of modern-day coal miners and oil drillers, men who brave bad conditions and hostile lands for retrograde fuel, that's deliberate.
As a framing device, In the Heart of the Sea has Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviewing Essex survivor Thomas Nickerson, played by Brendan Gleeson, a welcome talent. Melville and Nickerson's scenes have the aura of a dying man's final confession, with Gleeson looking like such a weary bear that it seems impossible that, in the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the film, just 30 years ago he was teenage Tom Holland. Nickerson's quarters are decorated with toy boats in airless bottles, the trappings of a man still desperate to tame the dangers of the sea.
With good reason. The Essex wasn't just hunting whales. It was hunting sperm whales, carnivores with teeth like bowie knives and the largest brain of any animal, living or extinct. The big white sperm whale they chase is as scarred as Freddy Krueger (the real-life “Mocha Dick” that inspired Melville had outlasted a hundred whaling ships), each cut a lesson that humans aren't friends. Still, the whale is the villain of the film. Howard shoots its serial-killer p.o.v. gazing blurrily up at these fragile men leagues away from land; at one point it surfaces with a fury that had me gigglingly recalling Jaws IV. Yet you can't look at those scars without wondering if, in the whale version of Hollywood, Moby Dick is the ultimate Final Girl. His vengeance is justified — these men murdered his friends. And when the Essex stabs its first whale, guilt flickers across Chase's face as if he knows it, too.
Howard is great at capturing the timbre of the ship, the creaks and snaps and the whir of the hemp lines, and the sonar clicks of the whales strategizing below. All his sound and fury has a befuddling purpose. His emotional climax is about, well, disaster insurance. A possibly apocryphal Nathaniel Hawthorne quotation at the end calls Moby-Dick “America's epic,” which in an age with 10,000 times more lawyers than sailors means Howard's tweaks make a sardonic sense. Still, you sense his crowd-pleaser's need to turn Melville's dark musings into a tidy 21st-century story of heroism, the sort of thing that earns more than $1,200. Never mind that Chase, the movie's golden god, was the real reason the Essex's lifeboats sailed east toward starvation. In actuality, Pollard wanted to go west toward the nearby Marquesas, but Chase, ironically, was afraid of cannibals.
Chase wrote his own retelling of the disaster the year after he returned home, titled Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket; Which Was Attacked and Finally Destroyed by a Large Spermaceti-Whale, in the Pacific Ocean; With an Account of the Unparalleled Sufferings of the Captain and Crew During a Space of Ninety-Three Days at Sea, in Open Boats in the Years 1819 & 1820. It would take 30 years for Melville to reshape it into the slightly more tersely titled The Whale (soon renamed Moby-Dick) and another 70 for anyone to realize why this doomed voyage mattered.
Today, 195 years after the Essex set sail, we're still fascinated by this struggle between men, money and nature. That's because we're still fighting that battle on a hundred fronts: climate change, drilling, industrialized farming, even overfishing. Which means this old, deadly whale had better scare us into making peace with the environment, or neither of us will survive.
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA | Directed by Ron Howard | Written by Charles Leavitt, based on the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick | Warner Bros. | Citywide