When people read Judge Daryl Loomis' reviews, many scream "Thar he blows!"
For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee.
As cable networks become increasingly compelled to get involved in original programming, Encore didn't want to get left off the boat, so here we are with their entry, an ambitious debut, to be sure. Often called one of the great American novels, Herman Melville's brilliant seafaring story, Moby-Dick, has endured scant few adaptations over the years. This one, a three-hour epic told over two nights, premiered on the network just this past summer, and now it appears on Blu-ray. Is it a great whale, or a small fish?
Facts of the Case
Captain Ahab (William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman) prepares his vessel, the Pequod, to sail the Atlantic to hunt for whales. Along with his first mat, Starbuck (Ethan Hawke, Training Day), he collects a ragtag group of shipmen and sets sail. Once at sea, though, it becomes clear that this is no simple mission to bring home barrels of lucrative whale oil. Ahab has but one goal: to hunt and kill Moby Dick, the great white whale which ruined his last voyage and bit off his leg. He will find the damnable beast or die trying, regardless of how much his crew may value their lives
By now, everybody should have a pretty good sense of the details of Moby-Dick, so I won't dwell on them too much, except to discuss the important changes made to the story for this production. Ultimately, Encore's Moby Dick is an imperfect, but admirable attempt to film Melville's thickly philosophic and allegorical novel. Changes had to be made, if only to fit the story into a three-hour running time; the question is whether these changes make sense. Most do, and work very well, while some are really stupid, but the end result is a fairly high quality maritime adventure that is better than most attempts to film it.
While I did wind up enjoying the film, the first fifteen minutes made me fearful of a total disaster. The novel begins with the simple phrase, "Call me Ishmael," which could easily have been uttered in narration by Charlie Cox (Stardust), who plays the character and whose voice is used for just this purpose for the lead-in to the second part. That wasn't good enough for writer Nigel Williams (Sea Wolf), however. He seems to believe that backstories were more important than just getting to business. To begin, he has Ishmael rescue young Pip (Daniel Gordon), the future cabin boy on the Piquod, from a cruel beating. As they escape while the villain shakes his fist, Pip introduces himself to his savior, who answers with a smile, "Call me Ishmael." Ugh. The next scene finds us with Ahab at home as he talks to his wife (Gillian Anderson, The House of Mirth) and son. Now, while this family is mentioned in passing in the novel, he certainly does not put his kid to bed or flirt with his wife. Both of these scenes made me worry just what kind of version of Moby-Dick this was going to be, but those irritations mostly stopped there. They are completely unnecessary to me, but were done to humanize some of the characters and give the story a slightly more modern feel. A completely faithful rendering of the novel would come off as stodgy. Both the writer and director Mike Barker (Best Laid Plans) took some steps to mitigate that, and rightly so. It starts poorly, but once they get ready to sail out, the story picks up nicely.
Once at sea, Moby Dick sticks relatively closely to the novel. The language gets a slight update and some characters are given more to do but, otherwise, this is the maritime adventure I had hoped for. Filmed off the coast of Nova Scotia, the rough Atlantic seas feel dangerous and deliver the essential tension of the story. The boating is nicely with great wide angle views showing the vastness of the ocean and the near-certain death that would come by falling overboard. The whaling scenes themselves are exciting and convey very well the reason why these people would agree to set themselves away from land and their families for months on end: the thrill of the hunt. That concept may be less immediate than it once was, now that The Man frowns upon spearing whales for their oil and shooting elephants for their tasks, but Barker does a great job making you feel like an old time man's man.
To some, though, the most important question is bound to be how the whale looks. Fortunately, most of the shots of the old man under the sea were done in the dark or underwater, so the cheapness of the CG model is generally masked. It looks good, not great, but very acceptable; it's certainly gigantic and mean, so it has plenty going for it. Barker gives the whale much more actual character than Melville ever does, which results in less symbolic weight, but more exciting action. The director takes a lot of nods from Jaws, itself something of an adaptation of the novel, and from the old etchings and lithographs made for illustrated versions of the book. That's not the most original way to present the whale, but it flows pretty well.
The story is rendered reasonably well, and whale is the big sell, but the human performances are the strength of this adaptation. There could easily have been the temptation to make a big, blustery Captain Ahab, such as we find from Gregory Peck in John Huston's 1956 version, but William Hurt is a much more subtle, if no less tyrannical Ahab. He commands less with violence then with the force of his personality, making the other characters' loyalty all the more understandable. Ethan Hawke's Starbuck is strong and confident, but the performance also shows his powerlessness in the face of the blood lust Ahab has driven into his crew. It's generally a very good group, which features Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes) as Stubb, Raoul Trujillo (Apocalypto) as Queequeg, and James Gilbert (Saw VI) as Steelkilt, an extremely minor figure in the book who is one of the characters given more weight in the adaptation.
Moby Dick performs very well on Blu-ray from Vivendi. The detail in the image is superb, without any lack of definition all the way out to the horizon and all the way into the wrinkles in faces and the woodgrain of the boat's construction. It's not the best Blu-ray image I've seen, but for a television production, it looks excellent. The surround mix is quite good, as well, with a strong performance in the entire spectrum. As the waves crash around in the rear channels, the dialog remains nice and clear in the center. It's a solid, full experience on the technical level and a good disc, even though there are no extras.
Moby Dick is not the best version of the story put to screen, but it's a strong, ambitious production that mostly works. The backstories bug me a little bit, but they disappear quickly enough to make me forget about them as the seafaring gets going, so they become pretty meaningless. This is good maritime action-adventure that moves well for its three-hour run time and I can easily recommend.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
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