In 1820, an American whaling ship called Essex sank in the Pacific Ocean after being attacked by a sperm whale – an incident that went on to inspire Herman Melville's literary masterpiece, Moby Dick, as well as being retold by Nathaniel Philbrick's 2000 non-fiction book, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, which in turn has found its way into the hands of Ron Howard. Unfortunately, despite what the dramatic trailers suggest, this surprisingly sluggish Hollywood adaptation fails to channel or transcend the spirit of its source material.

The year is 1820 and eager whaler, Owen Chase (Hemsworth), is excited to finally get the chance to command the EssexHowever, his dreams are soon crushed when he learns that the position has gone to the more experienced Captain George Pollard Jr. (Walker).

Though disappointed, Chase soon makes peace with the decision and the ship soon sets sail out into the open sea in search of a large supply of whale oil. Failing to get into the rhythm of things, the crew soon finds themselves fighting, not only against each other, but also against the unforgiving storms. After encountering – and slaughtering – a pod of sperm whales, the crew still will need to get their hands on much bigger prey if they are to profit – a mission which soon finds them in the middle of the open sea, facing off against a giant whale which refuses to go away without a fight. 

One of the most disappointing aspects of watching In the Heart of the Sea unfold on screen is how immaterial it all feels and how very little magic or depth is injected into its storyline, which too often leans on the disaster movie elements.

Adapted to the screen by Charles Leavitt, the story – part adventure, part survival – is told mainly through flashbacks via one Thomas Nickerson (Gleeson); the sole survivor who was just a fourteen-year-old cabin boy back then (played by Tom Holland). On the special effects front, Howard and co. don't disappoint, but even so, there's a lack of heart in the plot that derails what should have been an engaging tale of survival.

Given the magnitude of the source material, the performances are surprisingly bland. Hemsworth is a decent choice – good-looking and stoic – however, he, just like the film itself, fails to distinguish himself as the main character. Exciting at times, but seemingly overly ambitious on others, it's not a complete waste of time, but it's hard not to expect more from such rich material in the hands of a filmmaker like Ron Howard.