Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 27, 2011)
A literary classic gets its umpteenth cinematic adaptation via the 2011 Encore take on Moby Dick. Set in the mid-19th century, Ishmael (Charlie Cox) comes to Nantucket to find work on a whaling ship. After he befriends ace harpooner Queequeg (Raoul Trujillo), he lands a spot on the Pequod, a vessel led by Captain Ahab (William Hurt) and first mate Starbuck (Ethan Hawke).
Though the men believe they’re out to hunt whales, before long they learn that the plural form doesn’t really fit. Instead, Ahab seeks to find and kill a monstrous white whale named Moby Dick. This creature attacked Ahab and caused the loss of the captain’s leg, so Ahab wants revenge.
My first and only reading of the original Herman Melville novel came back in high school. Given that I’m now old, old, old, that was a long time ago, so I can’t claim that I remember much about it. Indeed, my overriding memory is that the book offered long dull passages punctuated by occasional flashes of excitement. I should probably re-read the novel as an adult to determine if that impression remains true, but I’d assume it would, as Moby has earned consistent criticism over the years for its turgid bits.
As I recall, most of those dealt with seemingly unnecessary discussions of the whaling business that didn’t move along the narrative. When the book stayed with its characters and story, it was good, but when it tutored us about the nature of whaling, it went into the toilet.
Happily, the movie dispenses with the tangential material and sticks with the journey taken by Ahab and the others. This doesn’t mean this adaptation pares things down to become all action, all the time, though. Long periods pass in which we simply see life on the sea, so it takes a while until the men on the Pequod actually meet any whales.
Which is appropriate, especially in the context of the original novel. After all, it wasn’t an action spectacular, so a movie version shouldn’t follow those lines either.
Clearly this version does take liberties with the source, especially via character changes. For instance, although the Melville novel barely mentions Ahab’s family, the movie delivers full scenes with his wife Elizabeth (Gillian Anderson).
This is one of a few choices that makes Ahab a kinder, gentler character than normally envisioned. Hurt doesn’t play him as a lovable rogue, but he borders on that. Though Ahab still shows signs of madness and obsession, he doesn’t seem quite as tyrannical as expected.
That may take Hurt away from the character’s origins, but I don’t he makes a bad choice. Hurt manages to give a believable quality to Ahab and allow for complexity to emerge. He seems more of a sad obsessive than the anticipated angry kook. The other actors do fine in their roles, with Hawke’s sympathetic turn as Starbuck among the best.
Probably the biggest weakness here stems from the film’s visual effects. With a budget of about $25 million, Moby wasn’t a bargain basement affair, but it clearly didn’t have the money for the best computer graphics.
This means a Moby Dick who always looks fake – and fake to a distracting degree much of the time. I can’t say the bad visuals totally take me out of the story, but they threaten to do so. The movie's action works best when we don’t see the whale; Moby just looks too artificial to become a believable threat.
Despite that notable weakness, this adaptation of Moby Dick works reasonably well. It’s been made a bit more accessible for modern audiences but it still maintains a good sense of character and adventure.