I really wanted to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, because JJ Abrams makes great action films – Mission Impossible III is one of my favourite movies – but it’s all a case of balancing going early to Star Wars and facing a cinema overcrowded with people who don’t normally go to the cinema and who think they are watching TV… against going late in the run and risk reading or hearing ‘spoilers’.
So, instead, last night, I went to see In The Heart of The Sea because I could not really believe that director Ron Howard could make a bad film and to try to figure out why the reviews/box office returns have not been good.
Even my local cinema, which you might have thought would try to encourage people to see it, billed In The Heart of The Sea as “Watchable but doldrum-prone”.
I have tended to avoid reviews in this blog, but…
…having sat through In The Heart of The Sea, this could be Ron Howard’s Romola.
George Eliot was/is arguably the greatest writer in the English language. Reading Middlemarch is almost enough to persuade any aspiring novelist to give up, because you could never write anything better.
She is a great writer.
But having to plough through her novel Romola is like eating sawdust. It recreates life in 15th century Florence so exactly, in such highly, over-researched, dreary detail that all life is sucked out of the characters, the plot, everything.
No-one is interested in detail at the expense of a single, unified central plot.
In The Heart of The Sea is much the same. It is about the true incident that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick and, I imagine, it is a fine recreation of whaling and of 19th century Nantucket but it is all detail to the detriment of actual interest.
My trite, superficial eight-word review would be: It is a fishy tale with no hook.
The classic story structure is to present an unresolved problem or mystery at the beginning. The story then explores the problem and attempts to resolve it. And the end has a resolution to the problem or mystery established at the start.
Basically, In The Heart of The Sea has no central hook at the start and is low on any single ongoing plot because it flounders around. Every word and phrase has to push the plot forward, not just add colour and atmosphere. The movie is filled with atmosphere – visual and verbal – but no strong ongoing hooks, no single central thrust – and the whale does not appear until an hour in.
Presumably the elevator pitch was: The real story of Moby-Dick.
But there are two problems here.
One is that the story is bookended by Herman Melville, years later, being told the original story by a survivor.
Framing devices are always risky things in movies – especially when they are not simple bookends with a top-and-tail addition. When, as here, it is not just a framing/flashback device but constantly interrupts the narrative flow and is partly used to narrate the story, you are in trouble. If you have to have one person sitting at a desk narrating the story or filling in the gaps to another person sitting at the same desk, telling him what happened next, then the basic concept of your script is not strong enough and any rising flow your ‘adventure’ film has is completely buggered.
The second problem is that, in the original book and the original 1956 film, Moby-Dick is the monster, the villain.
But, nowadays, hunting whales is not a heroic act. There is no sympathy for the whalers. The audience’s sympathy goes to the hunted whales. So the human protagonists are inherently unsympathetic. The monster/villain is not a monster/villain. There is no ‘evil’ antagonist and no protagonist to identify with. The villain is not a villain; the hero is not heroic.
It is a bit like being expected to sympathise and empathise and identify with a group of men hunting down, harpooning and cutting up a kitten or a group of small children.
Like George Eliot with Romola, Ron Howard seems to have been mesmerised by the complication and difficulties of production.
No audience sympathy or involvement.
No heroes or villain or clear central hook.
Dead in the water.
Abandon hope all ye who abandon meticulously-plotted story structure.