Sunday 10 January 2016

In the Heart of the Sea by Leavitt, Jaffa & Silver

Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, thanks to their stunning work on Rise of the Planet of the Apes, are among my most admired screenwriters. 

When their scripts have been rewritten by other hands, however, the results have not always been so stellar. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was fine, thank heavens. But elsewhere some vital spark was lost, to say the least.

Jurassic World was one such rewrite of a Jaffa & Silver script and, despite it being a huge hit, I thought it was weak and unsatisfactory. 

In the Heart of the Sea is another script of theirs which has been considerably rewritten and it's a complete stinker, so much so that I was startled to see their names come up at the end. The bulk of the writing credit (or possibly blame) goes to Charles Leavitt, who had previously done such excellent work on Blood Diamond.

In the Heart of the Sea tells the true (-ish) story of the ill-fated Nantucket whaling ship Essex, which was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820 (go, whales!). The incident provided the inspiration for Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby Dick — you may have heard of it.

The gimmick for the movie is that the ship's adventure, if you can call it that, is framed by Melville (Ben Whishaw) hearing the story from an old salt (Brendan Gleeson) who was on the Essex when he was a kid.

The film gets in trouble immediately with an introductory voice-over by Melville talking about the "global demand" for whale oil. People in 1820 simply didn't say things like "global demand". I personally would  have used some phrase like "a thirst by all nations."

Worse is to come, though. As the Essex sets sail a priest on the dock gives a sermon where he talks about our species "evolving." No, really. Need I point out that Darwin's Origin of the Species, which introduced such concepts, wasn't published until 1859? And even then, the last place you'd be likely to find them was in the mouth of a Nantucket preacher.

But the really fundamental problem with In the Heart of the Sea is that its creators don't seem to realise that making a movie with whalers as heroes is like making one with child-killers as heroes. The audience's sympathy lies emphatically with the poor, slaughtered cetaceans.

The ships crew are a pretty unsympathetic and feebly sketched lot, anyway. Cillian Murphy's character Matthew Joy is clearly supposed to be having a battle with alcoholism, but this just gets muddled and forgotten about (and that bottle he steals — doesn't it change colour from red to blue? Continuity, please).

The conflict between the first mate Chris Hemsworth and the captain Benjamin Walker is somewhat more successful. But really the only effective thing in the movie is Gleeson's painful (and cathartic) confession of an act of cannibalism. This I attribute to the Jaffa & Silver draft of the script.

In the Heart of the Sea is a dog. A sea dog. Some nice 3D, though.

(Image credits: The movie posters are from Imp Awards, as usual.)

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