Based on Nathaniel Philbrick's 2000 non-fiction novel In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, this epic nautical adventure tells the story that inspired Herman Melville's Moby Dick.
The story follows the crew of the Essex, which in 1820 sets sail from Nantucket for the South Pacific. During the voyage they encounter a gigantic sperm whale that attacks the Essex, and then haunts its crew as they try to survive 90 shipwrecked days at sea.
It's told from the viewpoint of Thomas Nickerson, a 14-year-old cabin boy (played by Tom Holland), who as an older man (played by Brendan Gleeson) relates the story to Melville.
It's a pretty simple yarn but Howard manages to take an hour to set the scene. On board the Essex are First Officer Chase (Hemsworth) and Captain George Pollard Jr (Walker).
Theirs is a strained relationship; Chase is the more experienced, but Pollard is the son of a Nantucket whale oil family. After a year at sea together and little oil to show for their efforts, their desire to return home and be rid of each other leads them to follow reports of whale sightings in the distant Offshore Grounds.
When the whale arrives it's a thrilling action sequence, made more powerful for its brevity and complete destruction, as the creature's ferocious revenge leaves the crew adrift in dinghies. This mighty whale makes a few more appearances through the second hour of this restrained film, but for the most part, the remainder focuses on the grim means by which the remaining crew stays alive.
Howard's class is all over this film. It's handsomely crafted, giving the aura of a much deeper, smarter film than what's really on offer.
From the moment we step on to the Essex, Howard cuts to close-ups of the working parts of the ship - its rigging, sails and anchor - to give us a real feel of the ship in movement. When it comes to scenes hunting the whales, he hovers just above and below the water surface to make us part of the experience.
The visual effects are impressive, but conservative so they don't look out of place within the period setting or make events unbelievable.
Rather, Howard presents a yarn of earnest and, eventually, emaciated characters while striving for something mythical.
That's helped by Hemsworth, looking like the stuff of legend when he's swinging an axe or throwing a harpoon. He holds the attention and delivers a chisel-jawed hero, but struggles to shrug off his comic book hero persona.
Those sensitive to the portrayal of whale hunting might be thankful that it's limited to the slaughter of just one whale.
In this man vs nature battle, Howard goes out of his way to make sure both man and beast remain sympathetic characters - but when the film hits the doldrums you find yourself rooting for the whale.
In the Heart of the Sea is a sombre, old-fashioned film with much to admire technically. What seems to be missing in this overly earnest, downcast survival tale is what's most important; spirit and heart.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland
Director: Ron Howard
Running Time: 121 mins
Verdict: A beautifully made, but emotionless whale tale.