Friday, December 18, 2015

Review: In the Heart of the Sea

Big Blubber is watching you.
Arrrr, mateys. Ron Howard just harpooned a movie called In the Heart of the Sea. It be a whale of a ...

Christ, I can't keep this up. I don't have the heart.

Let's just get this over with, OK?


Howard based his beached whale of a movie on Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Longwinded title, decent book, so the reviewers say. Non-fiction. The  factual disaster behind Herman Melville's fiction. Seriously. Real whale. Sank a real ship in 1820. You'd figure that'd make a good, movie, right? Somebody did. Howard actually made the damn thing. But somebody figured wrong.

Wow. What a wasted opportunity. Or series of wasted opportunities.

122 minutes worth.

Let's list them, shall we?

Not a comprehensive list. Just a few big ones ...

Fact vs. fiction
Moby Dick was a mad, longwinded allegory. Allegory of what? Well, some damn thing or other, your guess is as good as mine. The good ship Pequod was destroyed by a giant, white Symbol, OK? That's the Cliff Notes takeaway.
Melville's novel was rambling, elegiac, pseudo-Biblical, faux Shakespearean, occasionally journalistic, never realistic, and dense with dark meaning. As Philbrick noted, all that artificiality had a real world source.
The great American novelist based his book on an actual whale attack on the whaling ship Essex. Yep. As previously noted, a real damn whale sank a real damn boat. X people died. Y people survived, after 90 days at sea and a cannibal diet. A harrowing story. A very different story from Moby Dick.
I assumed Howard would draw a contrast between raw, real history and clotted, symbolic fiction. You've read the fiction. Now here's the truth! I figured if the novel's characters spouted iambic pentameter, the people in the movie would talk like people. (Like the denizens of Deadwood, say.) If the novel was a mind game, the movie would feel like a you-are-there documentary -- the camera constantly fighting to keep up with the action. So I assumed. But that's not what Howard did. 
The dialog is ponderous beyond belief.
Along with the direction, editing and camerawork. 
You see what a big-ass whale this is, thanks to computer-generated fakery. Some images are spectacular. But they feel artificial. 
Every scene screams: "This means something. This is important."
Howard's real life story looks, sounds and smells like bad historical fiction. It's as phony and false as a Classic Comic.
It never feels like reality for a second.

Cut to the Chase
The existential stand-off between the whalers on the ship and the inhuman thing under the water trying to kill them is the heart of the movie. Howard takes his sweet time getting there. Like 40 minutes or so. You find out how the first mate got his job, what his wife thinks, and ... all kinds of other stuff that makes your eyes roll to white. Who cares?

Literally literary
Melville's research is the frame story. Tell me what happened on the Essex, old timer. Yeah. Just that on the nose. Just that bad. It's the oldest, lamest gag in the book -- the filmmaker's equivalent of training wheels. I kept thinking ... What would Terry Gilliam do? What would Quentin Tarantino do? Tell the movie out of sequence. Start with the trial, then go backwards. Make the novelist a pain in the ass. Make you doubt you'll ever know what really happened ...
But that's not Howard's style.
Each scene delivers its point like a FedEx messenger.

Burying the Lead ... at Sea!
The great white whale in Melville's novel was an inhuman Other killing humans for no reason. Assuming that real life whales were sentient ... or at least semi-sentient ... they had very good reasons to smash whaling ships. The movie's hero presumably realizes this at the end. The whale doesn't smash his lifeboat; he doesn't harpoon the whale. This undersea entity has a mind; it ain't no Moby Dick. Big moment, or it should've been. But Howard doesn't build up to the epiphany; he doesn't sell the epiphany; he buries the lead. The scene is beautifully filmed and looks great in the trailer. It falls flat when you actually see it.

I could go on. But let's wrap this up. I know you've got things to do.

Where did Howard go wrong?

The seduction of reality, maybe. "This really happened" isn't enough. The real story isn't always an interesting story. Even if it is ... so what? Truth or fiction, an interesting story is boring if you tell it badly. And that's what you'll do if reality sweet talks you. The true tale grips, interests, involves and mesmerizes you. You're so wrapped up, it never occurs to you that the folks in the seats might not share your enthusiasm. Great story! Yes, it is. But you still have to sell it. If you're pre-sold in your own skull, you won't. And that's where Howard went wrong. The man was seduced, plain and simple. 

That's my take. Sorry Opey. Your movie died at sea.

But I want to read Philbrick's book. Arrr.

Every dead, multi-million dollar flop has a silver lining.

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