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Movie Review

"Here there be monsters," read the old maps, covered with pictures of deep-dwelling leviathans. Pictures of undersea dragons or massive sea serpents. Pictures of gigantic whales, real-life creatures perhaps stranger than even some of the made-up ones.

They breathe from the tops of their heads. They sing sirens' songs. Their babies are bigger than a lifeboat. For centuries, they were beasts of dream and nightmare—graceful and terrible and mysterious.

But by the 19th century, they were merely business.

By then, intrepid hunters had found you could bring down a whale through skill and daring. And it became known that many whales—particularly the mighty sperm whale—bore liquid gold in their bodies. Whale oil, plumbed from the great head of a sperm whale, proved to be the most efficient lighting and heating oil around. The world loved this clean-burning, efficient liquid, and whaling became one of the great industries of the time. Its capital was Nantucket, Mass., wherein men would sign up by the hundreds and even thousands for a whaling ship—to make an honest living if the fishing was good, to make a fortune if it was great.

The Essex is one such ship—a rugged veteran of whaling's richest waters, and recently refitted at great expense. Owen Chase thought he'd be the vessel's captain, but the owners said no. Instead, they give the helm to George Pollard, standard-bearer for one of Nantucket's most prestigious (and richest) whaling families, bestowing the title of first mate upon Chase. Next time, they tell Chase. Bring home 2,000 barrels of oil, and next time you'll be captain.

Chase grumbles but agrees, and soon the Essex sails out of port with a crew steeled for at least a year at sea. Even a landlubber boy like 14-year-old Tom Nickerson, who'd never set foot on a ship before, had fire in his eyes.

Alas, most of the Essex's traditional hunting grounds have been all fished out. Whales, once as plentiful as buffalo on the plains, are disappearing.

Then, when the boat stops in Ecuador for repairs and supplies, Pollard and Chase hear about a new hunting ground—one a long sail from any land, but so full of whales you can walk across them. Pollard and Chase—who are beginning to hate the very sight of each other—think it might be their best hope to bag some big ones, fill the ship's hold and finally sail for home.

But before they leave, a one-armed ship's captain warns them that the hunting there has its dangers. After all, his own ship sailed away from those waters nearly empty-handed after losing six of its men. Those waters, the captain says, are haunted by a great, white whale, perhaps 100 feet long. A whale too big to kill, a whale too fast to outrun.

Here, in those promising hunting grounds, there be monsters.


Positive Elements

In the Heart of the Sea is based on a nonfiction book penned by Nathaniel Philbrick and is, of course, predicated on the true story of the Essex—a whaling ship that was sunk by a whale, events that became the inspiration for Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick. In truth, the whale was only the beginning of the story of this ill-fated crew. But throughout their many travails, the survivors showed courage, spirit and a strong will to live. Some show a willingness to die for their comrades.

While working on these whaling boats was always a test of mettle, Chase seems blessed with a particularly deep wellspring of gumption. He runs a tight ship, but when one of his mates gets into trouble, he's got the skill and willingness to scramble up the sails and solve the problem himself (risking his life to do so). He encourages young Tom, too—even as he insists the boy do every job assigned to him (and some of them are pretty gross). Oh, and the man also clearly loves his wife.

Pollard is more insecure aboard the ship. And when things don't go right, he at first tries to blame Chase. But as time goes on and the trials become ever more severe, the two men come to an understanding. They even grow to respect each other.

The story is told in flashback by a much older Tom Nickerson, spilling his strange tale to Mr. Melville himself. Tom is reluctant to tell it at first, but his wife believes that the secrets he's stored away are eating him up inside. She encourages him to finally tell what truly happened to the Essex, as a form of secular confession. And, indeed, the process of telling seems to be cathartic for Tom—a cleansing of sorts—and a nice illustration of the Christian adage that the "truth will set you free." Speaking of which …

Spiritual Content

While the discussion is not explicitly a religious confession, no one shies away from the quasi-religious meaning of it all. Tom's wife tells Melville that Tom's soul is "in torment and in need of confession." When Tom rejects Melville's offer to pay him for a month's lodging for a night of storytelling—Tom calls it at first "a devil's bargain." Melville retorts that it is just the opposite: "The devil loves unspoken secrets, especially those that fester in a man's soul."

Clearly, religion was an important aspect of almost everyone's daily life in these days, and life aboard the Essex is not so different. Granted, it's a rougher life, but sailors still routinely talk about God's blessings and favor. Before the ship sets sail, a bevy of black-clad worshippers pray over the boat, asking for God's blessing on the voyage and thanking God for the "mighty whale." This proves to be a bit of foreshadowing over just what sort of "gift" the whale is.

Pollard believes it's a most pragmatic gift. He tells Chase that God gave man the earth and everything in it, and it's up to man to "bend nature to our will." Chase comes to see the trials that have beset the crew as more of a divine warning. It's God's creation that they're messing with, after all, and perhaps they should approach it with more humility. "We're specks," he says. "Dust."

Sexual Content

A sailor carves an image of a woman with large, bare breasts on a whalebone—telling an onlooker that it's his wife. Men leer at and cavort with women (perhaps prostitutes) in Nantucket and elsewhere. Chase kisses his wife before he leaves—lifting her up as she wraps her legs around him.

Violent Content

Most of us were raised in an age when most of mankind was trying to save the whales, not kill them. So for many of us, I think, whaling can look a little barbaric. Men throw harpoons into the great beasts as their blood clouds the water. Blood spews from an animal's blowhole, spattering the faces of the sailors. We see one great beast die in the hunt—speared again and again before being butchered. While a good chunk of the whale is carved up aboard the Essex, sharks try to get at the rest, which is left on the side of the boat. Precious whale oil is found in the sperm whale's head, as mentioned, necessitating the cutting of a jagged hole in the top. Tom (the smallest crew member) is then forced through that hole, crawling into the cavernous, gory head with a bucket.

The white whale rams and cracks the Essex's hull. Speared with a harpoon, it pulls the attached rope across the ship's deck, taking down masts and more. It overturns boats and, of course, kills men. Some are killed by falling debris, but one seems to be crushed by the whale itself. Men are swept overboard. And they nearly die in a fire fueled by, of course, whale oil. A man seems to be slowly dying from a bloody head wound. Guns are pointed at people. Tom's hands suffer a bloody rope burn. On a deserted island, Essex sailors discover the remains of castaways.

[Spoiler Warning] After the whale wrecks the Essex, its survivors are left stranded in the middle of the ocean, and many slowly starve to death. The whaleboats they're using—not meant for long voyages—become separated, and each becomes a pit of horror. In one vessel, as people die, the bodies are kept aboard as food. (We don't see them being eaten, but Tom describes in some detail what was involved.) In the other boat, things are even worse: The survivors begin to draw lots as to who will be shot and cannibalized. When Captain Pollard draws the short straw, a crewman (the captain's cousin) suggests they draw straws again. But when the captain refuses, the man, instead of firing the gun at Pollard's head, points it at his own and pulls the trigger.

Crude or Profane Language

About 15 uses of "d--n," nearly half of those used in conjunction with God's name. More sporadic curses include "a--," "b--ch" and "h---."

Drug and Alcohol Content

One of the shipmates seems to be a recovering alcoholic (though in those days, of course, he wouldn't have been labeled as such). He refuses drink throughout the voyage—"not a drop," he says, sometimes to the confusion and even consternation of others. He keeps a bottle of liquor close to him when the Essex sinks, but when he seems close to death on a deserted island and Chase offers to open the bottle for him, Joy refuses. "If it comes to that, I think I can manage," he says.

Others drink wine, and Melville and Tom guzzle lots of whiskey during Tom's long story. Drink, it's suggested, has been an ongoing problem for Tom—trying to wash away his memories with liquor, his wife suggests. And when the story is over and Tom tries to refuse Melville's payment, Mrs. Nickerson snatches the cash up—on account that she's the "one person in this conversation who's sober."

Other Negative Elements

Young Tom, suffering from seasickness, is hauled topside by Chase, who hangs him over the railing in an effort to scare the nausea away. It doesn't work: Tom vomits all over Chase's shoes.


The first stage of In the Heart of the Sea feels like an old-fashioned adventure yarn—a tale of brave men facing the elements and fighting their own fears to achieve something remarkable. The second gives us a slower, sparser story no less remarkable. It's about men who have already faced the elements … and lost. Their only goal now is to merely survive—and that, alone, feels a bit like a miracle. These sailors often, almost subconsciously, ask for God's protection and blessing. And I'm pretty sure that once the survivors arrived on shore safely, they offered a prayer of thanks.

But the movie suggests that God may have wanted to teach them a lesson, too. And while the surface story is pretty straightforward, there glides underneath (like the white whale itself) a spiritually tinged parable. The very talented and quite deliberate film director Ron Howard takes the time to connect threads between the 1820s' hunger for oil and our own. Now, as then, oil is big business. And he seems to suggest that we, too, could be messing with forces we don't really understand—forces that could, perhaps, destroy us. While that message isn't particularly pushy or preachy onscreen, it's there. And the idea that God could be punishing man's presumptive hubris (a theme some have teased out of Melville's Moby Dick, too) is an interesting one (the political implications of which I'll consciously skirt in this review).

Content concerns take a more direct approach. The privations we see—and what is required because of them—can feel harsh and visceral. Language can be a tad rough. And I think many viewers, especially younger ones, will be more disturbed by the killing of one whale here than the death of several men. We're used to men dying in our movies, after all. The slaughter of one of these pretty majestic animals is rarer, and as such it hits harder.

And there's a pretty large lesson to learn from that as well.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

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Other Belief Systems

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Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

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