'In the Heart of the Sea': Can a historical drama find an audience?

'Sea' is directed by Ron Howard and stars Chris Hemsworth and Cillian Murphy as crewmen of a ship that is destroyed by a whale. The film is based on a true story.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/AP
'In the Heart of the Sea' stars Chris Hemsworth (r.) and Cillian Murphy (r.).

Audiences can take to the high seas with the upcoming movie “In the Heart of the Sea,” which stars Chris Hemsworth and is based on a real-life incident on a whaling ship. 

“Heart,” which is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick, is directed by Ron Howard and tells the story of the Essex, a whaling ship that was destroyed by a whale in the nineteenth century, leaving its crew struggling to survive. 

The incident is said to have inspired Herman Melville to have written the classic “Moby-Dick.”

“Heart” co-stars Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, and Tom Holland.

Maritime disaster dramas have succeeded at the box office before, with 2000’s “The Perfect Storm” and of course 1997’s “Titanic” becoming hits.

These maritime movies are rarer, but from what we know of the film, “Heart” also appears to have the qualities of another sometimes overlapping genre, the inspiring historical drama. 

The end of the year is always crowded with Oscars hopefuls and prestige pictures vying for audiences’ attention. Can “Heart” win over audiences and critics and succeed at the box office? 

“Sea” was actually delayed, with the film originally having been set to come out this past March, a much more lower-profile release date. 

A historical drama about a fight for survival can find an audience. The movie “Unbroken,” which was directed by Angelina Jolie and told the story of World War II soldiers who were first stranded on the ocean and then are taken to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, came out at almost the same time last year and did well with audiences. 

Some succeed on a more modest level. “Bridge of Spies,” which is directed by Steven Spielberg (possibly the king of the inspiring historical drama genre) and stars Tom Hanks, is a true story in the mold of “one person making a difference.” “Bridge” has not been a huge success, but it has had respectable numbers.

Historical movies that echoed this fine-but-not-blockbuster performance include last year's movies "The Monuments Men" and "Fury." 

A movie that seems different from “Sea” but actually has some qualities in common – a star-led cast, an inspiring historical story – is “The Walk,” which came out this past fall. But “Walk” failed to attract viewers. 

Do historical dramas have a more difficult time attaining blockbuster dramas right now? Are they better suited for limited releases and adjusted expectations? (Inspiring true story “Spotlight,” for example, which was released this fall, came out in limited release.) 

Much may of course depend on the movies themselves, and movies in this genre can catch on.

But a massive audience is not guaranteed for these stories. If “Heart” becomes a box office success, viewers may have been drawn in by the promise of big-budget effects or actors like Chris Hemsworth (better known to many as superhero Thor) being involved. 

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