Herman Melville's American-lit epic Moby Dick has been adapted for the screen a gazillion times (approximately), so kudos to Ron Howard for taking a slightly different approach, even if it never quite matches the resonance of Ahab's epic quest.
Melville's text is still front and centre though: Ben Whishaw plays the fledgling author in a frame story, set in Nantucket, 1850. He's getting the inspiration for his most famous story from Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), the last living survivor of whaling vessel the Essex, destroyed at sea some 30 years earlier.
The bulk of In The Heart Of The Sea's action takes place while the much younger Thomas (played in flashback by future Spider-Man Tom Holland) is a young cabin boy on the Essex, where tensions are flaring between the captain and the first mate.
Howard's Rush star Chris Hemsworth is first mate Owen Chase, a working-class grafter who has the skills and experience to be captain, but the role is instead given to the less-experienced George Pollard Jr (Benjamin Walker), on account of his family connections. Stormy waters are ahead, with the men bickering through rough seas, but they have bigger fish (well, mammals) to fry when a giant white whale decides to send their ship to Davy Jones' Locker.
Perfectly solid from start to finish, ITHOTS lacks the thrills that made Rush such a, yes, rush. It often holds you at arm's length, from the overly glossy cinematography that lends an artificial sheen – it's hard to ever forget you're mostly watching made-up actors on a set – to the not-strictly-essential frame story that occasionally interrupts the action.
The best sequences reside in the mid-section: as the seamen hunt whales for their oil, Howard enlivens the pursuit with some unique camera angles. Performances, meanwhile, are decent across the board, with Holland reaffirming his screen presence after The Impossible. Hemsworth marshals the kind of authority you can imagine rallying behind in testing times, but the key rivalry has none of the depth of Rush's competitive protagonists. As such it's hard to really care about the characters, even as their situation grows ever more dire.
Occasionally you'll catch the scent of a bigger idea (man versus nature, the morals of hunting, the cost of oil), but it quickly evaporates. Given the weighty themes of Moby Dick, In The Heart Of The Sea doesn't have a lot going on behind the outward action. The composite parts are in fine working order; it's the sum that's slightly lacking.