There was never a question that I’d see this, and never a question that I wouldn’t like it. I have read the book that this is adapted from, as well as the original narrative, and of course, Moby Dick. The book this is adapted from is one of those popular history books that apologize for having actual history by trying to be as entertaining and anecdotal as possible. I thought it was almost a total bust, but it got largely good reviews. Much better is the actual narrative of the attack and its aftermath. In fact, the short, 10-page description of the whale attack that opens the narrative is one of the most riveting and economical action scenes in my memory [the original account is linked at the end of this review—read it!]. The book The Heart of the Sea is essentially an expanded retelling of the narrative, minus the immediacy of first-person experience and the wonderful early American vernacular.
As for this movie, of dear, there are no end of problems. One of the biggest problems is that what made it onscreen is 90% fiction and 10% fact. In the narrative, the whale attacks them in the first chapter, then vanishes, never to be seen again. The rest of the book is them adrift in the boats, starving, then resorting to cannibalism. The last third is their trials on charges of cannibalism. So… doesn’t really sound like a great movie, does it? That’s why they’ve trumped the whole “inspiration for Moby Dick” angle, added a vengeance-obsessed whale that follows them and attacks at regular intervals, then a downplaying of that whole nasty cannibalism angle, as well as their trial for it. The problem is, they’ve taken out, added and rearranged so much, it has no purpose as a “true story,” and they haven’t figured out what it is, what themes it’s supposed have, or why it exists at all. So let’s dive in!
We open with Ben Whishaw as Herman Melville going to interview Brendan Gleeson as an adult Thomas Nickerson, a cabin boy on the voyage. Melville wants him to talk about the wreck of the Essex because he needs a “new plot” for his next novel! Nickerson won’t—he WON’T! Nickerson’s wife insists, because they’re poor! Melville is offering “all he has in the world” to Nickerson for the story! Finally he relents! And we start flashing back…
We meet Chris Hemsworth as Owen Chase, experienced seaman who was promised captainship of the Essex. They gave the position, however, to George Pollard, inexperienced greenhorn, because he has family connections. You might think this would lead to some good tension, and might even foreshadow the relationship between Starbuck and Ahab in Moby Dick. But no, kind of goes nowhere. They depart, and we barely have time to introduce some of the other seamen, when—THE STORM!
Come on, you knew there would be a storm, right? I think a storm is spontaneously generated every time a tall ship leaves port in a movie. The captain wants the crew to steer right into it, which will help them gain experience, which we know is foolish, because Chase, whom we trust, says so. Anyway, they’re no sooner done with the storm, and take a break for a brief flash to Melville, when they’re encountering their first whales.
Now, I’m sure you know that there’s a little bit of an issue with how we’re going to present the occupation of whaling, because obviously we have to make sure that everyone comes away knowing primarily that whaling is BAD. It is Bad, Bad, BAD. Also, need for oil? That is BAD. The movie has bent over backwards to make sure we understand the numerous uses for oil, especially for lamps, but we should all understand that needing oil is BAD [cue ‘contemporary resonance’ alarm!]. Anyway, so the movie has to be careful because on the one hand they’re trying to use the hunting of whales for its exciting action scenes, at the same time that whaling is bad, that our main characters are heroes, even though they’re engaged in the business of killing what would come to be an endangered species. So we have images of a previous paradise in which use schools of whales cavort freely, we have our heroes look with awe at a whale calf [not specifically want to kill it, as in real whaling accounts], and kill a whale. Note the whaler’s quiet moment of near-mourning when the whale is finally killed, which is absolute bullshit, according to actual whaling accounts. We get some display of how the boats would be dragged for miles by a harpooned whale [but not dragged out of sight of the ship, as often happened], and in here we discover why, when a rope was attached to the shark in Jaws, we only saw the rope and rarely the shark. They kill the whale with a discreet spray of blood, but not the bloody reality of slowly working a blade into to sever internal organs, and the movie markedly pulls back from the extreme gore necessary to describe what happens when a whale is cut up and processed, although it makes a gesture by having the young Nickerson have to crawl down into the whale’s skull to scrape out the last of its precious fluid.
By now we have noticed several things. First is that this movie is employing a huge amount of green screen, not all of which is convincing. Second is that effort is being made to recreate artistic views of seafaring life, especially by Turner, which means that the movie has no idea what it’s about or what its themes are, or why it exists at all, but they do know that they want to emulate Turner. Finally but most prominently is that the movie is terrified its audience will get bored if it slows down for more than two minutes, forcing us into the popular blockbuster rhythm of ACTION, quiet two minutes, ACTION, quiet two minutes, ACTION… which kills any real rhythm the film could build up, and makes the whole thing seem a bit desperate.
Anyway, a year passes, in which they don’t catch any whales, although of course we can’t slow down long enough to get any real sense that a year has passed. They encounter a Spanish captain whose ship was destroyed by a white whale. Now, this is all total bullshit, as none of this happened in reality [it is in fact pulled from Moby Dick], and the whale that eventually ended up sinking their ship was not reported as white, it was just another whale. So they soon find a playground of numerous whales cavorting, and we see the white whale, who gets upset that they harpoon a mother with a calf [the film shows us that she eventually gets away], and goes over to ram the ship. It’s surprising that the film omits the moment, detailed in the narrative, of watching the whale’s whole long approach with a sense of disbelief [it was a then-unbelievable display of animal intelligence], but anyway, soon the ship is attacked and destroyed, with as many falling masts and flying anchors as we can ram in. And, well, what would a blockbuster be without at least one explosion? The actual account of the sinking describes how the ship was gone completely in about ten minutes, meaning ten minutes of scrambling to take everything they could grab, but here it’s a lot slower and includes a lot more fire.
SPOILERS > > >
So now the survivors are in three boats. Then—THE STORM! Then… eerie portents that the whale is still following them! They drift and bicker for a while, then they’ve just spotted land when—whale attack! The whale comes from directly below and smashes one of the ships in its mouth, but the whole thing is shot so close it’s kind of hard to tell what’s happening. By the way, you’ll also notice the large number of shots on which they attached the camera to something, like a plank, then let it go spinning through the water. One second later, they’re on shore. Two seconds later, they realize they can’t stay on the island, because it is barren [although there is shelter and they can fish, but no matter]. Then, back into the boats! No time to linger here! Keep ‘em moving, keep ‘em moving!
Alright, it’s time to wrap this up [I realize this strange penchant I have for going on at length about movies that will soon vanish and that no one else gives a shit about]. They’ve built a supreme whale-killing tool, a three-pronged harpoon, and soon enough, their possessed serial-killing whale is back. Chase is ready to strike, but he and the whale look each other in the eye, and Chase backs down, thus, the whale lets them live, and leaves them alone. That’s all we needed—a little human/whale respect and understanding. Then the boats get separated, and someone in Chase’s boat dies. They agonize about it for a second, then eat him. In the captain’s boat, they don’t wait; they draw lots and the loser shoots himself and gets eaten. Soon after this they’re all really skinny, and show off the actors’ willingness to lose vast amounts of weight for [the stupidest of] roles, and a second later, get rescued. It seems like if you’re going to lose a bunch of weight, it should at least be for a decent movie, and for more than five minutes of a movie. When they return, there’s a moderate cover-up about the whale attack [no one cares about the cannibalism, another complete fiction of the film], and it’s over, but for some final wrap-up in which Nickerson and Melville are both forever changed by this fateful night.
< < < SPOILERS END
Okay, so where to start? We’ve already detailed that the story is complete fiction. We’ve already detailed that the movie is completely flummoxed by how to present whalers as heroes, while simultaneously helping us to understand that WHALING IS BAD. The result is that the movie feints this way and then that way, never knowing what it wants to be, or is ultimately what it’s about. It can’t be about whaling, because they’re too afraid to show the real hunting and the gore. It’s kind of about a possessed serial killer whale, but it’s already outrageous fiction, it can’t go further in that direction without having to abandon its “true story” status. It can’t be about cannibalism, because that’s icky. It could be about how this story inspired “the myth Moby Dick” [as the trailers repeatedly said, to my confusion], except that no one gives a shit about Moby Dick. So it ends up being a little bit of this and a little bit of that and finally ending.
As for inspiring Melville, I forget the whole part of him paying Nickerson for the story, if it happened. He may have just read about it in the papers, that is, JUST the part about a whale sinking a ship, and that was enough for his story. To present it here as though he’s desperate for an incident to write about kind of trivializes and demeans Moby Dick. If you’ve read it, you know that Moby Dick is 90% rumination on the sea and American industry and man’s obsessions and determinations, and only 10% about the pursuit of the whale. It’s also a bit insulting to take the gesture of the whale being white out of Melville's metaphorical imagination, and make it just something he heard in a story. But it’s just another way in which the movie is trying to find SOME relevance for this story,
Now, thanks to Google sucking up and owning and controlling your access to all books in history, you can read the actual account of the attack and sinking for free, with no effort. It’s only ten pages, but it’s ten riveting pages, and you have to love [as I became completely entranced with for a while] the surprisingly literate, beautifully-vivid prose of actual seaman’s language. Read Chapter II, pages 23-32, you’ll be glad you did! By the way, if you want to read a great true account of whaling, with numerous incredible, actually TRUE stories [drifting helpless toward a reef while pursued by cannibals!] all told in the enchanting voice of the most charming of actual sailors, you MUST read Whale Hunt by Nelson Cole Haley, which one of my friends described as “one of the best books, of any kind, I’ve ever read.” You’ll have to order it, but it is worth it. And once you read it, you can go visit the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, and go on the ACTUAL ship on which it all happened! Both of these are infinitely more worth your time than anything having to do with this film.
No, read Whale Hunt.