Man oh man have I been looking forward to this."Moby Dick" is my favorite novel of all time, and when I heard it was being adapted by my favorite studio, well, let's just say I've been beside myself with anticipation. I mean, as far as American writers go, Melville's pretty much the Godfather, and "Moby Dick" is his coup de grace, and, in my and many others' opinions, the finest work ever produced by an American novelist. So, some pretty big shoes to fill here. Or should I say "mega" shoes? Let's get into it.
The Asylum's version opens in the arctic in 1969 aboard a submarine on which there serves a young seaman by the name of Jonah Ahab (Jay Gillespie, #1 Cheerleader Camp)(love the addition of "Jonah," as in, that dude in the Bible lived in a whale for a while. in the book, it's just Ahab. but Bales, he's cross-referencing his whale lore. awesome!). On the young Ahab's sonar there is sensed something large and biological approaching the sub. He tries to inform the others, even records it's sound, or song, on a Maxell cassette, but his superior dismisses his suspicions as glitches of equipment and inexperience - that is until that something Ahab detected, a gigantic and ruthlessly aggressive white whale, attacks the sub and body slams it down on the ice shelf, killing the majority of the crew in an instant. Young Ahab, as you would expect, gets out alive, but loses a leg.
Cut to our modern era and the coast of California where Cetologist (whale scientist/actress Renee O'Connor, "Xena") Michelle Herman (get it? Ismael and the last name of the author. brilliant!) and her assistant Pip (Derrick Scott) are recording the songs of her specimens in a purple bikini on a boat cutely named "The Coffin," a reference, no doubt, to the buoyant slab of wood that saves Ismael's life in the novel.
I'm going to tone down mentioning all the little references to the novel, promise, I just wanted to make the point that this script, whatever else it is, is firmly loyal to the original story. Back to it, now:
Said specimens are responding just fine until something below the surface spooks them and they take off. That something, it's revealed seconds later, is a U.S. Navy Nuclear Submarine, the Pequod, whose crew has breached to request - in a rather forceful manner - the services of our whale doctor and her associate. This request comes on behalf of the Pequod's unseen captain, Ahab, now forty years older.
Cut to a nice little scene here where a whale-watching tourist boat is crushed by the underbelly of the great white whale of sea-faring lore, Moby Dick. More on this in a bit.
Back in the sub, the doc is being briefed by first-mate Starbuck (easy BSG geeks, the name was ours first) about the incidents leading up to her specific, shall we say, acquisition by the sub. Seems there's been a lot of weird whale attacks lately, but not by any ordinary whale, oh no, but by a five-hundred-fucking-foot white whale, a whale like no other, a prehistoric megawhale freed from the arctic and now wreaking havoc off the coast of Southern California. Doc dismisses this as ridiculous, impossible, besides, it's a myth, a legend, no one's ever actually seen this thing. Enter modern-day Ahab (the great, gray Barry Bostwick, Animal House, "Spin City"). Not only has he seen the foul leviathan, he's still got its song on cassette (enter your own "Moby Dick" '69 bootleg/Zeppelin joke here). To Ahab, Moby Dick is no mere myth, no slight story made up and meant to scare sailors, oh no, this whale to Ahab is all too real, he feels it in his phantom leg, and over the last forty years he has become quite insane with vengeance (while still being able to hold down a skippership position with the Navy). He will stop at nothing short of this glorious creature's permanent extinction, and that's where the doc comes in: he's been following her work for years and knows that if anyone can use the song he has on cassette to track the real whale, it's her. Doc isn't too pleased about abetting this violent mission, but when Ahab convinces her all they want to do is stop the attacks on innocents, she's reluctantly in.
On shore, an old seaman buddy of Ahab's, and one who served all those years ago on the same sub Moby Dick made mincemeat of (he lost an arm) is being questioned by Navy higher-ups about Ahab's state of mind. Seems the Navy got pretty nervous when Ahab, on his own, tricked out his nuclear sub to become even more dangerous and formidable, and then they got even more nervous when he ceased to make regular check-ins. Navy realllllllllly doesn't like that. Futhermore, these attacks that have been happening, the ones we know Moby Dick is responsible for, well, no one else believes in a prehistoric whale freed from arctic stasis, so naturally, they're blaming these things on the rogue sub captain with the pimped out vessel. Ahab's buddy is commissioned the responsibility of finding his old friend and bringing him in.
In the meantime, however, another sub on the lookout for the Pequod conveniently chances upon the latter vessel, although before it can take action, in another ridiculously convenient chance encounter, Moby Dick is there as well, honing in on the pinging of the former sub's radar, and quickly making said sub no more. Now it's getting personal.
On shore again, Ahab's buddy interviews the only survivor of the whale-watching debacle, a Russian chick who dispels the rumor it was a sub that attacked them, instead blaming the tragedy on a massive white whale.
The Pequod is tracking that very whale at that very moment in the wake of its attack on the other sub. What it finds first is a truly chilling scene I won't give away here, I'll let you experience it on your own, but I will say it's the most illustrative scene - for me, at least - in regards to the sort of dark tone screenwriter Paul Bales establishes here; this is no mere creature feature, it is, as is the novel, a tale of violently irrational obsession, the most shadowed sector of the human soul, played out against a grandiose and horrific setting in which nature comes to personify man's basest attributes, or something like that. The whale kicks mad ass, takes out a bunch of impressive shit.
From here things only get more harrowing. Ahab accidentally invokes further hostilities from his own Navy, but then so does the whale. This does, however, produce the single greatest scene in cinema history involving a whale and a helicopter, undisputed. But after this, Ahab's battle is two-fold: get the whale before the Navy gets the Pequod.
I'm going to leave the rest for you to discover on your own, but I will say that thus far, Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus still pending, this is easily my favorite Asylum production of 2010, and I say that honestly thinking this year has been their best so far. Everything is upped here - the script, the FX, the direction, the acting; The Asylum is just plain functioning on a higher level here. I loved the shit out of this movie, I honestly did.
Paul Bales' script honors the original, changing very little in the way of the story but to modernize it. The result is a story that maintains the venerability of the novel and blends that with the excitement, suspense and terror of an Asylum flick. It's a flawless thing, this blend, complete with inventive twists and imaginative reworkings of the source material - I'm thinking here of The Coffin, Ahab's second peg leg and the awesome harpoon gun Ahab uses (that, according to bonus features, Bostwick built himself one weekend out of shit in his garage. Awesome!) - that help this ambitious undertaking become realized.
As for FX, the whale looks great, really great: tremendous, vicious, formidable and frightening. The centuries' worth of harpoons embedded in its back is a particularly nice touch. The other FX also, the helicopters and subs and whatnot, look a lot cleaner, crisper, all around better, than they did even a year ago. This is not the work of Tiny Juggernaut, as I expected, but of visual effect supervisor Mark Kochinski, a veteran of "Star Trek" and "X-Files" and, yes, "Xena," who also worked on Titanic II and whose FX can next be seen in Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus, Mega Python vs. Gatoroid and Battle of Los Angeles. Sounds like we're going to be hearing a lot about him in the next year.
As for the actors, there wasn't a weak link in this chain. All of Melville's characters are here - Ahab, Ismael, Starbuck, Pip, Doughby, Bulkington, Queequeg - and the actors portraying them did so with loyalty to the original but also with the flexibility to make the roles their own. Particular standouts include Derrick Scott, Adam Grimes as Starbuck, Michael Teh (Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus) as Queequeg, and, in too brief an appearance, Mike Gaglio as an officer on younger Ahab's sub. Renee O'Connor is acceptable in her role, but truthfully it isn't big enough or given enough development to really judge. Overall, however, she's vibrant and urgent and it's great to see her in action again.
But the real standout, the irrefutable ace in this deck is Barry Bostwick as Ahab. In a word, the man is simply incredible, the best I have ever seen him, so impassioned, so violently desperate and insanely disciplined. He gets Ahab in a way no one else has, really sees the madman at the root of this guy and lets him run loose. Pound for pound, and I say this with the utmost respect and admiration to the eras of moviemaking that have come before us, Barry Bostwick captures the maniacal intensity of a man behind such a delirious quest at least as well as the late, great Gregory Peck (from the John Huston 1956 adaptation). Let the hate mail commence, but I say stovepipe hats off to the man for a truly wonderful and stirring performance.
Man, I feel bushed after all this. I knew I liked this movie when I sat down to write up these notes, but I don't think I knew exactly how much until just now. I've seen a lot of Asylum movies, quickly approaching all of them, and though I have my favorites - I Am Omega, The Beast of Bray Road, Titantic II - this one in time might take the cake as my absolute favorite. And again, I fully admit I'm biased because a) the book's my favorite, and b) so's the production company, but I truly believe this is a great action-adventure, above par when it comes to story and FX (barring a scene or two at the end when some crew are hiding from the whale behind a rock), and anchored with the utmost capability by a strong, fierce lead performance by Barry Bostwick, in my opinion, again, the best he's ever been.
2010 Moby Dick was directed by Trey Stokes, who makes his feature debut here. Mr. Stokes, I'd like to see a lot, lot more. A lot.