Now out in Ultra HD Blu-ray, In the Heart of the Sea is a fascinating theatrical account of Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction bestseller about the story of the Nantucket whaling ship, the Essex, upon which Herman Melville based his American classic novel, Moby-Dick.

But where Melville put the obsession of Captain Ahab in bringing down his great white whale at the center of the literary classic, Philbrick’s account details a similarly predatory giant sperm whale that in the winter of 1820 turned the tables on the Essex and its crew, attacking and sinking the ship, seemingly in retaliation for the slaughter of members of its herd.

The devastation sent surviving crew members to a whaling skiff where they drifted for days before washing up on a desolate island. Still starving and desperate, a small band including the captain and first mate left the injured behind and set off for help, enduring gruesome choices to remain alive before they were finally rescued.

In Ultra HD Blu-ray, the movie comes to life with crystal clear 3840×2160 resolution in HEVC compression and with either Dolby Atmos object-based surround sound or lossless 7.1 Dolby TruHD. High dynamic range (HDR) is present on the 4K UHD disc, in this multi-disc package, although the luminance and color benefits are used to more subtle effect than on some other recent box office releases.

Read more of our review of the In the Heart of the Sea Ultra HD Blu-ray after the jump:

Underlying this real-life battle between man and beast was a power struggle of a different sort between the Essex’ first-time captain George Pollard and his more-qualified first mate Owen Chase. Chase, we learn at the start of the movie, was denied his well-earned and promised chance to take the helm of the newly renovated Essex due to his family’s farming (and not whaling) pedigree.

Ron Howard does a brilliant job telling the complex story that took place between captain and first mate, who shared a mutual distrust and loathing before their agonizing ordeal in the doldrums required their differences be set aside. The production itself was shot under challenging conditions both on the open ocean and in an elaborately constructed sound stage. This is well documented in the disc’s extensive and fascinating bonus features section, which also offer a thorough recount of the brief sailing career of Captain Pollard, who incredibly lost a second ship near Hawaii on his next trip to sea.

4K/HDR Picture Quality

Unfortunately, Howard’s account of filming the movie didn’t mention any pre-planning or post production that might have gone into creating the HDR enhancement. This suggests that the movie was shot with new high-performing cameras that captured the necessary full range of f-stops, enabling luminance and coloring details to be added from the raw footage in post production.

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As it stands, the film is beautifully shot and convincingly intermixes real action with heavy CGI effects. The HDR details are clearly visible in the Ultra HD Blu-ray, when compared with the standard Blu-ray edition. The boost in spectral highlights and color grading are not as pronounced as we see in such recent Ultra HD Blu-ray releases as Mad Max Fury Road, The Martian or The Revenant, but HDR isn’t something that is intended to be used full on in every scene; The director is given an extra tool to help convey the story by painting in the extra details for mood and symbolism.

Clearly, this is a new medium and directors are still shooting films with their appearance on professional movie theater screens first and foremost in mind, but it will be interesting to see how directors of Howard’s caliber begin to use this tool in their storytelling as the HDR phenomenon takes hold.


Sound on In the Heart of the Sea is offered both in the new Dolby Atmos object-based surround format and in lossless 7.1 Dolby TrueHD (48kHz, 24-bit). We tested the latter, which showed brilliant extended dynamic range, with detail and clarity. The musical score does a fantastic job of underscoring the emotion of the story on an engagingly immersive surround sound pallet. Dialog was front and center and never lost is a wash of conflicting elements.


The Ultra HD Blu-ray disc package of In the Heart of the Sea comes packed with extra bonus material, the majority of which is found on the regular Blu-ray Disc in the set. The extras on the standard Blu-ray include a number of sections and sub-sections. These include: Chase & Pollard: A Man of Means and A Man of Courage –  a 7 minute HD featurette; Ron Howard – Captain’s Log – a 10 segment HD recap on shooting the film; Whale’s Tales: Melville’s Untold Story – a 9 minute HD featurette; The Hard Life of a Whaler – an 8-minute HD documentary; Lightning Strikes Twice: The Real-Life Sequel to Moby-Dick – a 29-minute HD documentary; Commanding the Heart of the Sea – a 10-minute HD featurette; 20 deleted/extended scenes and Island Montage – 3 minutes.

Most of the featurettes are well done and highly informative backgrounders to the movie and history of the Essex and its crew. They are well worth checking out after watching the movie itself.


In the Heart of the Sea is a captivating story from a time in American history that is virtually long forgotten. The tale both foreshadows the decimation of whaling populations that began in a quest for an earlier form of oil-based energy, and captures the romance and danger of hunting these giants in the days before diesel-fueled factory ships and harpoon cannons. More importantly, it gives heretofore little known background on the research and writing of one of America’s best loved classic novels.

From a home theater enthusiast’s perspective, the Ultra HD Blu-ray version gives another exciting sample of the clarity of images and sound that showed carry the director’s vision and intent to the screens of most properly calibrated HDR displays in consumers’ homes.

The film might be a little disappointing to some new HDR TV owners for not playing up the full capabilities of the luminance, contrast and color grading capabilities the technology can now deliver, but what we see tells this tale in a compelling way nonetheless.

We therefore award In The Heart of the Sea 4 out of 5 hearts.

4 out of 5


By Greg Tarr


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