In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea

(M) Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is considered a masterpiece in American literature. His ode to the human experience depicts the story of Captain Ahab and his battle with the white whale. Many may not realise that this work of classic fiction is based on an actual maritime disaster.

In the Heart of the Sea tells the true-to-life story that occurred in 1820 aboard the ill-fated ship, “The Essex”. In the 1800’s, acquiring whale oil was exceptionally lucrative, but it was a high-risk business in New England.

The captain of the Essex was George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) who desires to live up to his family name and prove himself within the shipping community. His first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) has just as much to prove to the owners of the ships and has the goal of becoming a ship captain himself. These two men and their drive for success upon the seas of the world lead to the demise of their ship, the loss of life and became a story of seafaring legend. It is a story of shipwreck, survival, and men being pushed to their physical and spiritual limits.


Melville skilfully retold the true story of the Essex and in the process produced “Moby Dick” – a masterful work of fiction which took licence with the original story – and in the process became a celebrated author.

Like Melville, director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) has earned his place amongst the best filmmakers in the industry. This epic story in his hands has the potential to be a legendary experience. With the stunning special effects and strong performances from his lead actors, he is able to fill the gaps that could be caused by the multitude of holes in the story. As an ‘actor’s director,’ Howard manages to get some of the best career performances out of his acting troupe. Chris Hemsworth responded well to Howard’s direction in Rush in 2013 and now In the Heart of the Sea, he stretches his acting ability.

In Melville’s case, he had to work with this compelling story to make it a compelling piece of seafaring folklore, Howard needed to add some artistry to the story, but unfortunately does not go far enough. Due to the majority of the narrative being the men stranded in lifeboats, the story goes adrift and never quite recovers. Similar to 2014’s Unbroken, this over extended element diminishes the value of this visceral tale. Howard works hard to capture the human experience of the sailors by showing their drive for profit that is fuelled by testosterone and their eventual will to survive. Even with many positive elements in the direction and performances, the underlying story anchors this tale to the seafloor.

It has all of the elements of human suffering, action and greed that should propel it to better waters, but the majority of the experience is listless and less than satisfying. It is easy to understand why Melville rewrote the original story. In the Heart of the Sea has all the components for a great journey, but it could have done with some nuance to move it from good to great.

Leaving the cinema…

In the Heart of the Sea lives in the giant shadow cast by Moby Dick. It has fascinating historical implications, but pales in comparison to the great work of Herman Melville. Ron Howard took on a monstrous task of making this film and attempting to take match the power of Moby Dick.

What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film?

‘Pride goes before destruction’ is a familiar phrase, but it is a central component in Moby Dick and In the Heart of the Sea. No one seems immune to the reality of the proverb, even the seemingly heroic Owen Chase succumbs to this nasty human trait that remains at the root of all of humanities failings. The human condition proves that pride is the problem in the story and that the escape from this vicious counterpart can only be found outside of ourselves.

  1. Where does the quote pride goes before destruction come from? (Proverbs 16:18)
  2. What does the Bible say about hope? (Jeremiah 29:11, Roman 8:24-25)
  3. Where do I turn when I am in trouble? (John 16:33, Philippians 4:6)


Russell Matthews works for City Bible Forum Sydney and is a film blogger


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