A classic is lost at sea for want of a good whale Preview: Two-bit special effects swamp 'Moby Dick' -- great performances can't save it.

March 14, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Too bad they couldn't cast a real whale.

Determined to become a serious player in the TV movie biz, the USA cable network (in partnership with Hallmark Entertainment) sank some $20 million into a two-part adaptation of "Moby Dick." For their trouble, they got dynamic performances from Patrick Stewart as Ahab and Ted Levine as Starbuck, some fine shipboard atmosphere, and a giant rubber whale tail that looks as realistic and as menacing as a giant rubber whale tail.

The filmmakers certainly had plenty to work with when it came to source material. Despite the continuing dispute over "Moby Dick's" reputation as a literary classic -- for every reader who comes away marveling at Herman Melville's prose, there's another who regards the novel as 1,000 pages of overwrought trash -- there's no disputing that it is a great story.

"Moby Dick" is a cautionary tale of obsession and a rumination on what makes good good and evil evil. Its central figure is Captain Ahab, whose earlier encounter with the great white whale cost him both his leg and his soul; ever since, he's done nothing but plot his revenge against an animal he's convinced is not simply destructive, but evil.

The film begins with one of the most famous opening lines in literature: "Call me Ishmael." A teacher yearning to have his horizons broadened, Ishmael (Henry Thomas) travels to Nantucket to seek passage on a whaling ship. There he meets Queequeg (Piripi Waretini), an exuberant, big-hearted Polynesian who wields a mean harpoon. Together, the two men are hired to serve on the three-masted Pequod.

Once at sea, Ahab reveals the ship's true mission. They're not out simply to hunt whales; rather, they're after one whale, the legendary -- and deadly -- Moby Dick. The beast, Ahab assures his crew, is no animal, but rather the devil himself.

Though Ahab is clearly mad, his crew is all for the adventure, especially after he promises a gold doubloon to the man who actually slays Moby Dick. Only First Mate Starbuck fails to embrace Ahab's obsession; the Pequod is supposed to hunt whales, he points out, not seek revenge. Not only that, there's something blasphemous about ascribing human qualities, such as the capacity for evil, to an animal.

But Ahab ignores Starbuck's arguments, descending even further into madness as the journey continues. With a toupee slapped atop his famously bald head and a scar running the length of his face, Stewart chews all sorts of scenery as Ahab, to fabulous effect. Like John Barrymore and Gregory Peck, both of whom played Ahab on the big screen, Stewart is charismatic enough as an actor to make the unbelievable believable; even at NTC his maddest, there's a fierce intelligence about his Ahab that suggests he may be onto something. And his stentorian tones make it easy to understand why even sane men would follow his lead.

Levine, most famous as Buffalo Bill in "The Silence of the Lambs," brings weight to his role as the Pequod's conflicted conscience. It's a role that easily could have come across as whining or simply weak, but his Starbuck is a man genuinely at odds with himself, torn between devotion to his captain, his men and his God.

The filmmakers even try a bit of stunt-casting, bringing back Peck (who played Ahab in John Huston's 1956 film). As the thunderous Father Mapple, he sends the whalers out to sea with a rousing sermon about whales and their history as instruments of God (remember Jonah?).

But all the good acting in the world can't save a special-effects film that scrimps on the special effects. Although he looks impressive from a distance, up close, Moby Dick looks no more threatening than a bubbler sitting at the bottom of an aquarium.

And in the end, the film simply runs out of steam. After all the build-up, the final confrontation between Ahab and Moby Dick is over in a few seconds, with surprisingly little fanfare (some underwater photography looks like it was shot in a swimming pool).

The result is an entertaining film that's far short of a classic, a worthy effort from USA that fails for want of a few extra dollars in the special-effects budget.

'Moby Dick' What: Two-part miniseries starring Patrick Stewart, Ted Levine and Gregory Peck

Where: USA

When: 8 p.m.-10 p.m. tomorrow and Monday

Pub Date: 3/14/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.