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Melville’s Moby Dick Gets the Eco-Treatment: Thar She Blows!

Ed Rampell: This extremely exciting seafaring drama is based on the 1820s destruction of the whaling ship the Essex, which inspired whaler-turned-novelist Melville to write his immortal 1851 classic about the great white whale.
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In the Heart of the Sea Film Review

Writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 eco-epic Noah turned the biblical flood into an Old Testament environmental parable for modern times. Now, the real life prototype for Herman Melville’s literary masterpiece Moby Dick has become an ecological allegory in director Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea. This extremely exciting seafaring drama is based on the 1820s destruction of the whaling ship the Essex, which inspired whaler-turned-novelist Melville to write his immortal 1851 classic about the great white whale.

Heart flashes back from an Essex survivor - Brendan Gleeson as the older Tom Nickerson - verbally revealing, for the first time, the terrible tale of what happened years earlier to Melville (Ben Whishaw), back to the nautical yarn he is unfolding. This follows first mate Owen Chase (Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, best known for playing the mighty Thor) as he ships out to sea aboard the Essex. Chase, a veteran whaler, has been passed over for command of the Essex by the ships’ greedy owners, who have made George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) captain solely because of his Nantucket pedigree.

Howard’s Oceanic epic has superb special effects. There is great, rapid editing as the Essex sets out to sea, unfurling its masts and so on, plus eye-catching vistas of 1820s Nantucket that take viewers back in time to another place and era, like a motion picture time machine. But things quickly go wrong: Pollard may be a scion of a prominent whaling family, but the inexperienced skipper proceeds to make a series of colossal mistakes, among them searching for the behemoths of the deep at a very remote part of the Pacific Ocean far west of South America’s coast.

In the middle of nowhere the Essex finally encounters a pod of whales, minding their own business amidst Mother Nature’s bounty. But upon being provoked a bull whale turns the tables on the whalers, attacking not only their whaleboats bearing Case and other harpooners, but - rather breathtakingly - the Essex itself. This vengeful whale - who inspired Melville’s Moby Dick - pursues the survivors as the sailors float adrift across the sprawling Pacific, becoming a sea stalker on a monstrous mission of divine retribution.

Heart is much more than a thrilling seafaring adventure, like Charles Nordoff and James Norman Hall’s oft-filmed Mutiny on the Bounty. The script, co-written by Charles Leavitt (2006’s socially conscious Blood Diamond), is very explicit about the fact that in the first half of the 19th century whaling was the backbone of the U.S. oil industry. To light America’s lamps whaling ships were dispatched from ports such as Nantucket and New Bedford to far-flung waters around the world. Heart implicitly criticizes the notion that man has the right to hop across the globe, willy-nilly murdering other living creatures and literally boiling their blubber down in order to profiteer from their carcasses.

In the Heart of the Sea

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In doing so Heart invites comparisons to today’s energy industry. Almost 200 years after the sinking of the Essex, the contemporary means of obtaining oil, carbon extraction - which, again, is specifically mentioned at the end of the movie - is compared to the fossil fuel industry’s destructiveness, generating climate change that threatens to destroy our planet. Heart’s class conscious depiction of the whaling ship’s owners as money-grubbing, mendacious, evil capitalists is an apt symbol for contemporary captains of the energy industry, such as Exxon’s criminal corporate overlords who willfully concealed their own research on how their extraction methods and fossil fuel combustion spread global warming, etc.

In addition to being a critique of capitalism, Howard’s (1995’s Apollo 13, 2008’s Frost/Nixon, 2013’s Rush) deft direction, with close ups of the whale’s eye, also arguably makes Heart a pro-animal rights film - some members of the audience are likely to empathize with the sea creature, not man (and I mean “man” - there are no women out at sea in the saga). As opposed to the great white shark in Steven Spielberg’s iconic 1975 Jaws, Howard’s whale is an avenging angel, wreaking havoc on the hubristic humans who, in their insatiable pursuit of profit, sail to the ends of the Earth to hunt them down for their oil.

In turnabout fair play Heart’s whale becomes the pursuer, hunting the environmental renegades down, teaching them a lesson they’ll never forget. The cetacean mammal is also depicted as being quite intelligent: Hemsworth’s character may hurl harpoons like Thor throwing his hammer Mjölnir, but the clever whale turns the lances to his revenge-driven advantage, irreparably damaging the Essex (which the owners greedily try to cover up, just as Exxon covered up despoiling the Earth).

In 2015 LA Opera presented an operatic version of Moby Dick, composed by Jake Heggie’s music, with Gene Scheer’s libretto. Melville’s magnum opus continues to enthrall auds - although success eluded Moby Dick when it was published. Melville’s 1851 metaphorical fable was alas, way ahead of it’s time.

In the Heart of the Sea

After Melville’s first novel was published in 1846, Typee, set in the Marquesas (between Tahiti and Hawaii in what is now French Polynesia), became an instant bestseller and the young New Yorker who had called a whaling ship his Harvard skyrocketed to the 19th century equivalent of literati celebrity status. But 19th century readers couldn’t understand Moby Dick and the psychological theme and style of the story caused Melville to lose his readers. To support himself Melville worked as a U.S. Customs inspector in Manhattan. When Herman Melville died in 1891, the Great American Author was all but forgotten. But, presumably at night, as determined as his character Bartleby the Scrivener, the forgotten genius continued to scribe.

[dc]I[dc]’m a huge Melville lover and in 1992, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his 1842 exploits in the Marquesas Islands, I reenacted Melville’s exploits there for The Chicago Tribune. I jumped ship - the splendid passenger-freighter Aranui, which sails from Tahiti to the Marquesas - and lived at Taipivai, in Nuku Hiva, where Melville’s first novel, that runaway bestseller Typee, took place. In the Heart of the Sea has whetted my Melvillean appetite, and with “a damp, drizzly November in my soul”, like Moby Dick’s Ishmael I can’t wait to shove off on another adventure aboard Aranui 5 to the Marquesas in February.

Ed Rampell

In the Heart of the Sea opens Dec. 11.

Ed Rampell