Boasting a starry exec roster (including Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Halmi and Franc Roddam), the miniseries version of “Moby Dick” slights Herman Melville’s philosophizing in favor of action. The four-hour, highly-promoted project provides a star turn for Patrick Stewart, who pounds home a galvanizing performance — and the whole thing is a shoo-in for ratings.
Scripters Anton Diether and Roddam have Robert Louis Stevenson-ized the project, still keeping it through the eyes of narrator-seaman Ishmael. Part one shifts from developing characters to establishing an ominous shipboard mood. In part two, director Roddam proceeds at a smart clip when Ahab’s fixation kicks up the vidpic’s pace.
In Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the big white mammal that bit off his leg, the not-too-convincing whaling scenes are minimized until the glistening white Moby Dick erupts from the water.
As for the mechanical whale, he has his best scenes at the end, when he whisks Ahab to his inevitable doom. In general, his back is too smooth and unscarred, but the tail looks genuine and the head’s credible.
Toward the beginning of the four hours, Ishmael (admirably played by Henry Thomas) gets the lamp-lit warnings of dockside prophet Elijah (Bruce Spence), but signs aboard Ahab’s whaling ship Pequod any way.
He and his new South Seas pal and protector Queequeg (Maori actor Piripi Waretini, who lends dignity and conviction to the role) listen to a solemn, if truncated, Jonah-and-the-whale sermon from Father Mapple (a duly impressive Gregory Peck, who played Ahab in the 1956 feature, where Orson Welles wrestled the Mapple sermon to the ground).
When peg-legged Ahab appears well into the story, it’s a dramatic achievement. Looking like Rockwell Kent illustrations, Stewart appropriately dominates scenes as Ahab.
The monomaniacal captain meets another whaling ship captain (Bill Hunter), who tells how he, too, lost a limb to Moby Dick but isn’t seeking revenge. That really ratchets up Ahab’s passion over Dick.
Reluctant first mate Starbuck (a dependable Ted Levine) sticks to his Quaker principles and struggles helplessly with Ahab’s mania.
Hugh Keays-Byrne, as second mate Stubb, and Shane Feeney Connor, as third mate Flask, are effective. Norman D. Golden II does an acceptable job as Little Pip, cabin boy lost momentarily at sea (though the underwater shark footage looks rented).
David Connell’s lensing is superb, and Leslie Binn’s first-rate production design and Marion Boyce’s convincing period costumes enrich the production. The whaling boats in action aren’t that convincing, but a sublime moment does occur when, in a storm, St. Elmo’s fire turns the scene magically gold.
Christopher Gordon’s rich, supportive score works well, and Sean Barton’s superior editing provides excellent pacing as the action drives forward.
USA and the Sci-Fi Channel recently aired a related half-hour spec, “Thar She Blow: The Making of Moby Dick,” that is a blatant promo for the mini. Written and produced by Russ Patrick, directed by Chris Langham and filmed by Jamie Doolan, spec trashes the magicians’ code of preserving illusion: it includes a study of Moby Dick’s three sections, an exploration of how computer images are used, and how Pequod footage was shot at an Aussie air base using a horizontal tank to create movie magic.
For the record, title of “Moby Dick,” published in 1851, seems to have been suggested by R.N. Reynolds’ story “Mocha Dick, the White Whale of the Pacific,” a story published in 1839 in Knickerbocker Magazine.