A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that In the Heart of the Sea is based on Nathaniel Philbrick's best-selling nonfiction book about the 19th-century maritime disaster that inspired Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. There's quite a bit of violence in the film: The whale damages the characters' ship so completely that lives are lost (men drown and are burned, crushed, and more), and others spend three months stranded. During that time, the survivors commit cannibalism (discussed but not shown) and suicide/self sacrifice so that the others might eat. Characters also use guns and drink, and a couple are alcoholics (one recovering, one who uses alcohol to numb painful memories).
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What's the story?
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is based on the true story that inspired Herman Melville's epic novel Moby-Dick. In the framing story, Melville (Ben Whishaw) visits an old, drunk Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), hoping to entice him -- with lots of cash -- to share his true, unabridged account of what happened to the doomed Essex whaling ship. Nickerson, who was a 14-year-old cabin boy in 1820, reluctantly agrees to share his story. The crew was led by two opposing figures -- first-time Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), who hailed from an established Nantucket whaling family, and ambitious first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), who was born a "landsman" farmer's son but hoped to captain his own boat. During their voyage, Pollard and Chase, who don't get along, make a greedy and ultimately disastrous decision -- to go far, far out in search of a whaling spot that others had failed to cash in on, only to be attacked and sunk by a monstrous sperm whale. The crew, including the young Nickerson (Tom Holland) is stranded at sea for months with little hope of rescue.
Is it any good?
Although Ron Howard's filmmaking is difficult to find fault with, it's in the storytelling that this adaptation fails to connect emotionally with audiences. In the Heart of the Sea clearly had a big budget; it's polished and includes some nail-bitingly intense sequences at sea. But aside from Pollard and Chase's stereotypical tension as the old-money blue blood vs. the ambitious striver overstepping his bounds, the characters mostly fall a bit flat. Hemsworth is, as as expected, swashbuckling as Chase, and Walker sure looks and sounds like a Nantucket man to the manor born, but as foils who slowly but surely become friendly (if not outright friends) in their quest for survival, their story doesn't pack quite the emotional punch you'd expect.
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. But dramatically, there's no lingering heft to any of the storylines or themes, whether its the eventually abandoned enmity between Chase and Pollard, the sailors' sense of betrayal that their prize should become their predator, or even Nickerson's lifelong guilt at what he -- and the other survivors -- had to do to live another day. Perhaps this is a problem with adaptation, but while there's merit to the movie, it's less than what we've come to expect from Howard.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the appeal of disaster and survival stories. How does In the Heart of the Sea compare to other tales of sea-voyage catastrophes? Does the movie judge the characters for the "abominations" they committed? Do you?
How do the peril and violence in this movie compare to what you've seen in action and/or horror movies? How does the context affect the impact of the scary and tense scenes?
Does the movie make you interested in either Moby-Dick or the story of the Essex? What would you like to know more about, and why? If you've read the classic novel, what was or wasn't in the book that was in the film, and vice versa?
Chase and Pollard represent two different kinds of men -- the low-born striver who's determined for a better life and the fortunate son with a sense of entitlement and superiority. Why is this contrast such a common theme in books and movies? How do the characters' differences play out in the story? How do they resolve their tension?
- In theaters: December 11, 2015
- On DVD or streaming: March 8, 2016
- Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson
- Director: Ron Howard
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Action/Adventure
- Topics: History
- Run time: 121 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material
- Last updated: April 9, 2021
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