Chris Hemsworth in In the Heart of the Sea
Warner Bros. Pictures
By Eliana Dockterman
December 4, 2015

On its surface, In the Heart of the Sea is a big-screen rendering of the tragedy of the whaling ship Essex, the true shipwreck story that inspired Moby-Dick. But, as with the great American novel, the movie’s themes of hubristic men attempting to take on unforgiving natural forces resonate today.

Indeed, Nathaniel Philbrick who wrote the history In the Heart of the Sea upon which the movie is based, argues that the story of the Essex is a cautionary tale about how we ought to deal with our natural resources.

The film, starring Chris Hemsworth and directed by Ron Howard, chronicles a group of men who thought they could conquer nature and who find they were sorely mistaken. Nineteenth century whalers pursued the large mammals for their blubber, which was converted into oil for light. But at the same time, Nantucketers were depleting the stock of fish close to their shores, which meant whales would no longer have reason to approach the island. Those circumstances forced whaling expeditions farther and farther out to sea in search of the fuel that had once been relatively easy find. It was in dangerous pursuit of whales in the deep sea that the ship Essex was destroyed.

“They had a perishable resource, the blubber that we used for oil to light candles. And they were denial about that,” says Philbrick. “And they assumed the whale was their prey, and the whale turned them into its prey. Just as Moby Dick did to the ship Pequod in the novel and Mother Nature [does] to us today. We’re beginning to realize we’re not completely in control. We can’t just take what we want and not face any consequences.”

The main takeaway from the story, he says, is that man ought to remain humble in the face of nature.

“Every generation thinks they’ve licked the problems of the past. One thing I’ve learned from writing all these history books is that that’s such a delusion. We take such delight in criticizing people of the past for their insensitivities or whatever it is. But 100 years from now we’re not going to look all that smart to those in the future,” he says. “Humility is about the only thing a person can get out of all this.”

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