Sunday, November 20, 2016

Whales and cannibals

Here's another late review you never knew you needed.

Watched "In the Heart of the Sea" last night on Stan (the home of the "not quite A level" movie, it seems.)    You may or may not recall - this was the fairly recent box office flop of Ron Howard (and star Chris Hemsworth) based on (one of the) real life inspirations for Moby Dick:  the sinking of the whaling ship Essex after being rammed a couple of times by a whale.

First things first:   yes, it's a chance for me to whine about historical movies again, and whether or not I approve of what liberties they take with facts.

But, as far as how factual it was, I don't have too much to complain about:  it seems it was more or less accurate, with one notable exception.

Spoiler section:   No, the whale didn't pursue the survivors as the movie suggests.   This story element is understandable in a dramatic sense, but also a bit patently silly.   I think it should have been dropped, but true, it is hard to come up with dramatic highlights in a story of lifeboats drifting at sea.  End of Spoiler section.

But, apart from that, I have to say, it seemed a very good attempt at the general depiction of Nantucket whalers' lives at that time.   And the practical side of how whaling was done was, I'm pretty sure, quite authentic.   There are couple of articles linked below which certainly indicate this.

And while aware of the Essex story, I had forgotten about the cannibalism that was a large part of it;  the movie isn't gory in what it shows, but it doesn't shy away from the topic either.   The bit where the bones were strewn on the floor of the boat when the captain was saved was, apparently, accurate.

So, overall, I recommend the movie for this reason alone.

However, at the technical level, there were two very curious problems.

The minor one:   Chris Hemsworth did seem to have trouble with staying in the same accent.  Not that I'm sure what a Nantucket whaler from the 1800's should have sounded like, but his accent did seem to wander.  Did the voice coach give up?  Is Chris too big a star to correct?

The major one:  For a big budget movie with a famous director and star, it did have some really serious issues with the uneven quality of the special effects.   The land based look of the film is very fine - the recreation of Nantucket looks authentic.  But at sea, it is sometimes a very different matter.  As my son said during one of the worst looking sequences (when the ship first runs into bad weather), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End  looked more convincing, even in fantasy like conditions. (I still feel that that movie is seriously underrated, by the way.)

Then there are later sequences where some shots look fine, but they are intercut with other shots which have the glow-y fake look that I've complained about in the Lord of the Rings movies and the Star Wars prequels.  The inter-cutting of variable quality shots in the one sequence makes it look very obvious, if you ask me.  

I would guess that two different effects companies worked on the shots which were then spliced together, and somehow they never got the "look" to match.  If I were Ron Howard, I would be rather upset about this.

Or am I imagining it all?  I doubt it.

Anyway, I don't want to put anyone off watching it for these reasons.   Because, well, the life of the seamen in those days was ridiculously tough, and the history of whaling from Nantucket is very fascinating.

To get a good summary, here's a lengthy article in The Smithsonian by the author of the book (Nathaniel Philbrick) that the film is based on.  It's a great read.

As for an article that talks more generally about how often whales sank ships, you probably can't do better than this one at Quartz.   Here's a key section:
In fact, nearly 200 years after the Essex went down, a huge mystery still hangs over the story: Was the sperm whale that attacked the Essex actually acting out of vengeance—and are these great animals even capable of such calculated violence?

Not just the Essex

It might seem that way given that the Essex was hardly the only whaleship to be rammed by a sperm whale. Others include the Pusie Hall in 1835, the Lydia and the Two Generals in 1836, the Pocahontas in 1850, the Ann Alexander in 1851, and the Kathleen in 1902 (all except the Pusie Hall and the Pocahontas sank). Another, the Union, went down near the Azores in 1807 after running into a whale in the night. These perilous encounters with sperm whales ended abruptly after the mid-1800s, thanks in part to the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859—a substitute for whale oil—as well as to rising wages, as Derek Thompson explained in The Atlantic. Another factor was that after 1850 most new ships were built not with wood but iron, which even an 80-ton whale can’t splinter. Tellingly, the last ship that sank due to a run-in with a sperm whale, the Kathleen, had been built in 1844, and was therefore made of wood.

The mystery of Mocha Dick

However, there might have been other sperm-whale attacks than just these seven—particularly if the legend of Mocha Dick is true. The story, first recorded by newspaper editor Jeremiah Reynolds, tells of a mammoth white whale near Isla Mocha, off the Chilean coast, that was famed for assailing whaleships. (As you probably have guessed, Melville took even more of his inspiration from the Mocha Dick legend than the story of the Essex.) The whale was said to have sunk some 22 whaleships between 1810 and 1830.
And as for cannibalism at sea:  this review in The Economist of Philbrick's book indicates he talks in detail about it:
With almost voyeuristic minuteness he has found out that when a body is deprived of water, the lips shrink as if amputated, the gums blacken, the nose withers to half its length, and the skin so contracts round the eyes as to prevent blinking. He has discovered that the fat on starving bodies turns to a “translucent gelatinous substance” and that the meat such a body could yield would be of doubtful nutritional value without fat to accompany it. He can tell us too about the psychological effects of starvation, and the descent into “feral” behaviour as evidenced by Auschwitz survivors. 
On that gruesome note, I'll end.

No comments: