Moby Dick (1998) – TV Review

moby-dick-tv-1998.jpgBy Frederick C. Szebin

[EDITOR’S NOTE: I am posting this review by Fred Szebin, which originally appeared in Cinefantastique magazine. Because of the way the website works, the person who posts an article shows up as an author. To avoid any confusion, I wanted to state clearly that the authorship belongs solely to Szebin.]
It is usually a difficult task to pinpoint a specific element of inspiration that has influenced everything that came after it, but in the case of Moby Dick, it’s a simple matter. Calling the plot a “monster story” is not quite a stretch, and it has influenced many creature features over the past century: everything from the gallantry of STAR TREK to the giant turtle epic, THE BERMUDA DEPTHS, and even an unauthorized remake, the silly ORCA. In this adaptation of Melville’s epic tale of Ahab’s struggle to the death not only with the whale that took his leg but also with his own obsessions and growing madness, uneven effects do not prevent director Roddam from handling the material with a masterful assuredness that brings Melville’s pages to a full and lusty life.
Stewart is remarkable as Ahab, offering a multi-leveled portrayal of a man over the edge, unable to stop himself even as he looks into the abyss. It’s obvious how much he enjoys his role, which makes him that much more fun to watch. Another revelation is Henry Thomas, handsome and capable 16 years after E.T. As Ishmael, he shows sensitivity and appealing naivete. while Piripi Waretini is wonderful as the over-the-top Queequeg, the pagan harpooner who is an unlikely mentor to the more refined Ishmael. And as the only island of sanity aboard the Pequod, Ted Levine is perfectly cast as Starbuck, the opposing force to Ahab’s empty-hearted lunacy.
A most difficult accomplishment must have been to make Melville’s Shakespearean dialogue sound like natural speech, but the actors all serve their words admirably. This is one monster movie that doesn’t just lay there in wait of its star creature’s appearance. Instead, there is much happening with the characters, and even the most unappealing of these swabbies is certainly never dull. The special effects are quite good, although some remain obvious. Old Moby himself is nicely realized with CGI for full shots and mechanical parts for close-ups. Roddam is wisely careful how he uses these implements, and once added to Christopher Gordon’s swelling score and David Connell’s snappy editing, the whale sequences, particularly when Moby lays waste to the Pequod, are exciting and effective.
It is a particularly thankless job to create an epic for television, a disposable medium whose very slap-dash nature works against anyone trying to create anything of real value. But executive producers Francis Ford Coppola and Fred Fuchs have done it twice: previously with THE ODYSSEY, and now with MOBY DICK, two productions that bear the odds against them and stand on their own as the best that television can offer.
MOBY DICK (TV Mini-series, 4 hours, w/commercials, TV-PG, 1998). Director. Franc Roddam. Screenplay: Anton Diether and Roddam, from the novel by Herman Melville. With: Patrick Stewart, Ted Levine, Henry Thomas, Gregory Peck.