Adapted from Pulitzer Prize-nominated historian Nathaniel Philbrick in his acclaimed nonfiction book “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” is about the real incident that partly inspired Herman Mellville’s novel “Moby-Dick”—the 1820 destruction of a whaling vessel by a murderously angry sperm whale.
The ship, which was led by a 29-year-old captain named George Pollard, Jr., was destroyed, leading the crew on an epic journey of fate, fear and cannibalism. After the ship sank, the 20-man crew faced down a horrifying situation when they were forced to drift in three small boats for more than 90 days. Their tale of survival would eventually serve as inspiration for Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”
Adrift alone in the ocean, the men of the Essex wound up fighting more than just the elements. It looked like they were going to die of dehydration, but they washed up on an island almost 3,000 miles off of South America. After exploring the small island, the crew found the human skeletons of those that came before them.
Only five crew members of the original 20 sailors aboard the Essex survived after they departed that island in their three small lifeboats. The five survivors went on to preserve the story of the Essex. Pollard told the legendary tale to a group of fellow whaling captains on the evening of his rescue, and one of the men listening recorded his tale.
The film’s narrative is told from the point of view of an old seaman on the Eseex, Tom Nickerson.
On a Nantucket night in 1850, Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) blusters into the his home Tom Nickerson who has a story but is in emotional lockdown. Making his case with cash, Herman persuades Tom to talk, which he does with booze and much actorly harrumphing. Winding the clock back to 1819, Tom begins the story of the whaling ship, the Essex, and its first mate, Owen Chase. Owen’s dealings with the shipping company introduce some hefty topics — capitalism, nepotism, corruption, democracy — that vibrate throughout the story.
The real-life Owen Chase, who died in 1869, suffered from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder — he began to hide food in the attic of his house and was eventually ruled insane. Another survivor, Thomas Nickerson, the 14-years-old cabin boy of the Essex, denied late in life that the crew turned to cannibalism. But when Chase returned to Nantucket in June 1821 — just a few months after they were rescued — he decided to tell the world his story.
It was that narrative that would inspire Herman Melville to write “Moby Dick.” Though he had heard the tale of the Essex before, in 1840, Melville met a young man from Nantucket named William Henry Chase — the teenage son of Owen Chase — who gave him a copy of his father’s story.
The film is engaging thanks to Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography, the superb supporting cast (which includes Cillian Murphy as a veteran second mate), and the sheer scale of its production. Much of the seafaring action was shot on a full-scale, working replica of the Essex. The whales, created through CGI and puppetry, are quite magnificent. Audiences less interested in the drama than they are the action certainly won’t be disappointed. The whaling ship’s voyage ends in disaster, but, cinematically, the moments with the mammoth sperm whale are fantastically terrifying. The impressive special effects might even make some motion-sick moviegoers close their eyes for a spell.
Chris Hemsworth stars as First Mate Owen Chase, a role for which he underwent a dramatic weight change to perform, serving Captain George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker)
Nathaniel Philbrick draws on many sources for his book. Among them are Nickerson’s posthumously published account, “The Loss of the Ship ‘Essex’ Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats,” and Owen Chase’s 1821 book, “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”. Like Moby-Dick, In the Heart of the Sea is a story that dares to grapple with weighty themes: greed, vengeance, and obsession.