I am a total geek for maritime history. I’m a total geek about a lot of things, but my love of all things Tall Ship related goes under the radar because it hasn’t come up in a book yet (which is about to change). There’s actually a long seafaring tradition on both sides of my family–with Dutch
pirates privateers and East India Company merchant marines on one side and captains in the Texas Navy and WWII Gulf patrol boats on the other.
I, on the other hand, get seasick at the IMAX and am sort of afraid of drowning. So much line my love of ballet and swordfighting, my love remains theoretical rather than practical.
Which is all to say that I was really geeked about The Heart of the Sea movie, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth. It’s based on a book about the real life whaling ship Essex, and its bizarre encounter with a monster whale that attacked the ship and sank it like a son of a bitch (link). As the trailer points out, it’s “the true story that inspired Moby Dick.” Which is a terrible tagline, because I know how 99% of my English class felt about reading Moby Dick. They should have tagged it: “Chris Hemsworth fights a giant whale.”
If only. I mean, that happens, and it’s cool. And leading up to that is about 30-40 minutes of topgallants and capstans and fo’c’sles and gales and a whole mess of money shots of badass sailorific seatasticness.
Then the whale sinks the ship, leaving our crew adrift and marooned with no food or water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which might as well be Mars. Only without Matt Damon to science the shit out of things. So it gets grim.*
And that’s the main flaw of this movie—not that things go to a dark, Donner party place. But that it happens about halfway in, and that’s a lot of movie time to spend with your characters literally adrift.
It’s a “man’s will to survive” story from there, and so the hardest decision they make to survive should be the climax of the movie. In the framing story where the last living crewman of the Essex relates this story, Brendan Gleeson sells this reveal in a fantastic bit of acting, one of those two minutes of a movie where the veteran basically gives a masterclass to rest of the cast. (See also, Peter O’Toole asking Brad Pitt’s Achilles for Hector’s body back in Troy. Also, Michelle Fairley plays Gleeson’s wife, which made my nerd heart so happy.)Where was I? Oh yeah. Basically, once you find out what’s haunting Gleeson’s character, the story should have wrapped up as quickly as possible.
So from a movie-watcher standpoint, the first hour or so was really satisfying to watch. The rest was a bit grueling, but Gleeson gives some payoff there. And I got knitting done.
On the other hand, I thought about the movie for a long time, because there were a lot of great ingredients that should have made a more delicious stew.** How would I restructure this? Some deeper characterization would have been nice, and if the actual sinking were moved to the Act III break instead of the midpoint, that would allow for that plus more white whale action.*** Then recognize where the story really ends, and bring it home from there.
Or, we could just make a movie of Mad Eye Moody and Catelyn Stark play a married couple running a tumbledown boarding house full of eccentric characters who pay their rent in chickens and gillyweed.
So, this a wait for Netflix one, I’m sad to say. There’s some good stuff here, it’s just kind of out of balance. Everything aboard the Essex delighted and excited. When the story turns dark, it’s simply spread over too much screen time.But Gleeson gives some payoff there. And I got knitting done.
In the meantime, rent Master and Commander. That one has beat to quarters in the first three minutes, takes it’s lull in the middle, then gets all broadsides and boarding party again for the end.
*Here’s where I discovered that I have this ability–maybe it’s a talent, maybe it’s just a bad habit–of mentally glossing over the stuff I don’t like about a story, either ignoring it or completely rewriting it in my head. (Like the movie I talked about last week. Something happens to the little dog offscreen, and in my head, I’m like, oh, the dog totally got away, to the point where I convinced myself that actually happened, not just maybe happened if you’re in serious denial. So, sorry about that if anyone was traumatized. But it lead to my discover of the site Doesthedogdie.com. So that’s a plus.)
**This is kind of an unfortunate analogy for this movie.
***This is not a euphemism for anything dirty.