Moby Dick


Moby Dick

Based on the book by Herman Melville

Teleplay by Nigel Williams

Produced by Robert Halmi Sr

Directed by Mike Barker

First aired on Encore, May 8, 2011



William Hurt - Ahab

Ethan Hawke - Starbuck

Charlie Cox - Ishmael

Eddie Marsan - Stubb

Raoul Trujillo - Queequeg

Daniyah Ysrayl - Pip

Billy Merasty - Tashtego

Gillian Anderson - Elizabeth

Billy Boyd - Elijah

Donald Sutherland - Father Mapples


Production Studio:

Film: Gate Filmproducktion & Tele Munchen Gruppe

Television Network: Encore

Video: Vivendi Entertainment & RHI Entertainment



Aspect ratio: 1.78:1

Resolution: 1080p

Disc Size:  BD50

Feature Size: ca. 43 GB

Bit Rate: High (30-40 Mbps)

Runtime: 184 minutes

Chapters: 17



English DTS-HD MA 5.1



English SDH


Extras: None



Amaray Blu-ray Case: BRD x 1

Street Date: October 4, 2011

The Movie: 6

There’s a term that getting increasing press lately: “re-imagined.”  The cynic in me thinks that it means: “unimpeachable” or “incomparable” in the sense that it owes no debt to its predecessor.  It’s a warning to critics (and many viewers) that the re-imagined version ought not be compared to earlier versions, deliberately leaving the past and tradition behind.


There are examples of re-imaginings that have a kind of de facto critical blessing: perhaps the best of these is “Doctor Who” which had the good sense to grant its title character the ability to regenerate itself every time the producers wanted to change the actor who played him. Over the years, along with a new actor came new thinking about the Doctor and his various sidekicks, culminating with updated technicals in recent years.



Shakespeare and Wagner’s Ring Cycle are frequently re-imagined these days, placing the action centuries later or thousands of miles away from how the stories were originally conceived.  Re-imagined Broadway musicals are called “Revivals” and usually don’t suffer the wrenching distortions that contemporary theater has done to the Bard.  Fact is that I rather enjoy many of the productions of Shakespeare plays that rethink the action – However, the dramatic core of the play, or what we think of as the dramatic core, still holds.  By a stretch, Shakespeare in Love could be thought of as a re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet.


The producers of the present version of “Moby Dick” refer to their creation as a “re-imagining.” And, as such, they feel insulated from cat calls about the inclusion of a semi-prominent female character (This Ahab has a wife, and a child, no less) and the introduction of Ahab while still on land, just to take two obvious examples that occur well before the Pequod weighs anchor.



If Ahab is thereby humanized and the whale computerized, what’s left of Melville’s story?  Or perhaps the right question is: Does it really matter? Can this version stand on its own without referencing Melville except that it’s about a man hell bent on revenge for the loss of his dignity – a loss he feels, not only in his phantom leg, but powerfully as that loss happened in front of his crew, a crew (though mostly with new names and faces) that he doesn’t flinch at sending to their doom along with himself.


As far I know, no film adaptation has ever seriously undertaken the whaling aspects of Moby Dick in anything like the proportion that Melville does – and they are doubtless right not to have done so, not because these are the duller parts of the book but because they would probably compete with the narrative about Ahab and the Whale in ways that seem insurmountable. Perhaps. Melville’s novel is far greater than the sum of its parts, but a movie, even at three hours, cannot afford the luxury of time and imagination. Even so, this new Moby gives that aspect of the story a fair shale, even alluding to the idea that given enough whale oil, they could return home to their families.



At three hours and change, Robert Halmi Sr’s production should hardly be thought of as a Reader’s Digestation of the book, yet there is an evenness of tone, a compaction of the dynamic tension that, for example, John Huston’s 1956 movie achieved even with the unlikely casting of the usually soft-spoken Gregory Peck as Ahab.  It is instructive to compare the scene in both films where Ahab exhorts the crew to “chase the white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth and round perdition’s flames” {Melville’s words, not screenwriter Nigel Williams’.)  Huston pulls out all the stops here, casting the scene in a fierce storm, as if the matter were a battle between the very forces of nature. Under Barker’s direction, Ahab already having held our attention on land for thirty minutes, the scene is presented as a discussion, a disagreement, mostly between Ahab (William Hurt) and Starbuck (Ethan Hawke) - the latter speaking for the men, or at least for sanity.  The men accept Ahab’s proposal, but the scene lacks dramatic tension.


I must add that this argument between Ahab and Starbuck is thoroughly developed throughout the movie, and emerges as the human heart of the story. This and the counterpoint relationship between Ahab and Ishmael are the best parts of the drama.  In this re-imagining of the story, Ahab and Starbuck are friends, more equals than not, a fact that makes me uncomfortable during their public disagreements, but engages me when they are alone. I found the contradiction unsettling.

Screenwriter Nigel Williams also reconstructs the relationship between Ahab and Ishmael.  Their telling scene occurs after Ishmael’s lone and personal encounter with the white whale.  Ahab asks him what it was like, but persists in answering his own question, setting up a transference of ambition from the one to the other, and singling out Ishmael for special favor, as his final gesture makes clear.



The crew goes along with the captain, but we don’t quite understand why, excepting as that he’s the captain.  Hurt’s every bit the actor as Peck could hope to be but he isn’t given anything to push against – not Starbuck, not the men, not the whale, nor his leg, nor the heavens.  In Huston’s movie the men are stirred, not only by the thought of the doubloon, but by Ahab’s obsessive hysteria, the infection writ large and pathological as to why men go to sea in the first place.  He doesn’t spell it all out, but we have an inkling.  This is what’s missing in the Barker/Williams re-imagining.  And If you remove Heaven and Hell from the equation, then what’s left is a man with a grudge and a crew too stupid not to see that.

In later scenes Hawke’s line readings are the more compelling, not because his reasoning makes sense, but because Hurt is so idiosyncratic, and does not convince us as an 18th century sea dog despite the text.  Hurt’s Ahab is too self-observant, self-consciously, deliberately distanced from his pain and his rage.  Hurt’s acting style is more congenial to Hamlet or Luis Molina than the captain of a small ship, let alone Ahab.  He works by insinuation rather than command. He thinks audibly rather than speaks, worming his way into the minds of others, like Chekov’s “creatures”  in The Wrath of Khan. This is his trademark, and Hurt rarely pushes himself beyond the demands of that style, which makes his scenes urging his men on unbelievable.



Ahab is not unlike Frankenstein, a man so driven that he defies God.  How could such a man have a wife, by the way?  Victor couldn’t.  He leaves Elizabeth (interesting how Ahab’s wife here shares her namesake) to tend to his monster.  Ahab defies nature and God. [per Melville]: “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other.”  The crew follows Ahab, reluctantly and with misgivings for two and half hours until just before the final showdown when Ahab harnesses lightning and melds his spear with his harpooners.  It’s a well done scene in this production, and helps us answer the question of why his crew perishes with him?  It is their punishment for having taken up his challenge to Nature and God.



Barker and Williams’s Moby Dick is a good looking story about the sea and ships and the men who make such a life theirs.  And it makes a stab at understanding the motivation of its characters (save, perhaps, the whale itself). As long as the camera stays above the water line, it’s a good ride.  On the other hand, perhaps that’s just what this whole re-imagining thing is all about. Perhaps we have become so skittish about God and Hate and Morality that we refuse to address it in direct terms.  In any case this Moby Dick doesn’t try to do this, and in its way it probably succeeds in its desire to imagine what today’s viewing public wants.


For my money, however, the best re-imagining of Moby Dick is, by a considerable measure: The Wrath of Khan, the second of the Star Trek movie ventures, with Ricardo Montalban as Ahab and William Shatner as the Whale.



Image: 7/8

The bleached color of it opening scenes on land signals what’s in store. The high bit-rate transfer, makes use of most of the space on a dual layered disc, and is up to the task of realizing the sea and ship, the overlit nighttime whale stripping and threatening weather, despite its being a little noisy in the dark moments.  The persistent grain works in its favor most of the time.  But, through no fault of Vivendi, it still can’t bring the white whale to life.  I suppose this is in large measure deliberate, envisioning the whale as Death itself - stone cold and lifeless.  It’s an interesting idea that works better when he is seen above water rather than below.  Harpooning effects are done well enough, but the whale's various attacks on the boats are hit and miss.  Ahab’s peg comes off very well, though I feel too much is made of it.  Moby Dick looks more convincing the less we see of him - the shots of him lurking underwater are painful as is his wreck of Pequod, but his lyrical moments - if we can call them that - like when he sidles up to Ishmael at night, are exquisite, and his approaches to the boats are also well done and decently integrated into the film.


I might add that Vivendi continues to support the misunderstanding about the relationship of high definition to aspect ratio.  The back cover reads: “Widescreen version presented to preserve the aspect ratio of its original television presentation. Enhanced for widescreen TVs.”  As we all know, high-definition images are “enhanced;” neither are they “anamorphic.”  The cover should read, simply: “The aspect ratio of the original television presentation is preserved.”  The rest is gibberish.


Audio & Music: 7/7

The DTS-HD MA mix does a fabulous job at realizing all the subtle cues of wind, bass and treble boat creaks and ocean spray - these together with a wonderfully balanced music score, especially when the latter is at its most intangible, give the audio mix high marks.  The thunder comes off better when heard as a distant rumble from inside the bowels of the Pequod than on deck.  Dialogue is always clear regardless of the situation.  Through no fault of the transfer, the audio designer completely miscues the thunder in relation to the lightning.  I don’t know why filmmakers insist on their simultaneous instant.  Any schoolchild knows that if that happens, you’re dead.



Extras: 0

None.  I’m astonished!

Recommendation: 6

As long as you’re willing to give Melville a miss, this three-hour made-for television Moby Dick is worth watching, though not entirely convincing even on its own terms.  The photography of the Pequod on the open sea and the business on board are worth our time, and Nigel Williams’ take on the story and the relationship between Ahab, Starbuck, and Ishmael are interesting, even if fleshing out an existence of a family for Ahab adds nothing and detracts substantively.  The lack of extra features would make me hesitate to recommend the Blu-ray if it weren’t for its reasonable price.  Even so, I’d consider a rental before deciding to purchase.




Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

September 16, 2011

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