THE WHALE: REVENGE FROM THE DEEP on Animal Planet
Pros: First half isn’t bad; nice sense of what whaling was like; interesting original story
Cons: The film as a whole is woefully uninspired – particularly during a deadly second half
A British-American co-production based on the true story that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick, the 2014 made-for-cable production The Whale: Revenge from the Deep (also known simply as Revenge of the Whale) tells the tale of the Nantucket-based whaling ship Essex, which sank in the Pacific Ocean after being rammed by a sperm whale. Obviously influenced heavily by the classic 1956 filmed version of Melville’s novel, director Alrick Riley, working from a script by Terry Cafolla, initially sets the picture up as a rousing tale of adventure on the high seas, introducing us to a “greenhorn” sailor named Thomas Nickerson who signs up as the cabin boy on board the Essex in 1820. Captained by George Pollard, Jr. who draws the ire of some of his crew due to his inexperience at the helm, the vessel sets sail for the Pacific in search of large whale pods. Upon finding and harvesting several of the creatures, the once-mutinous crew is momentarily pacified, but disaster strikes when one whale charges the ship, sending it to the bottom in a matter of minutes. Now the remaining crew, clinging to life in a trio of small and rickety whaleboats (which are essentially, glorified rowboats), try and survive as their supplies run dangerously low – and their morale starts to disintegrate.
A handful of action sequences exist early on – but they’re sorely needed during the film’s painfully dull second half.
Premiering on the Animal Planet channel in late 2014, The Whale has numerous elements both good and bad. On the plus side, the production as a whole looks marvelous. A viewer really gets a nice sense through the first half of the film of what it was like to be a sailor during the golden age of whaling. Cafolla’s script represents everyday life on board a whaling vessel well enough and the photography effectively captures both the freedom of the open sea and the grimy conditions on the lower decks on the ship. While the film doesn’t show any whales actually being killed, in detailing the grisly process of harvesting the creatures, it very nearly plays like a horror flick for brief periods: flesh is sliced up, guts are thrown around, and blood rains down on crew members, presumably from the blowholes of dying marine mammals. Though this gore might turn off some viewers, the film is actually quite restrained compared to how gruesome it could have been. Acting here is fairly decent if unexceptional: Charles Furness stars as young Nickerson, Jonas Armstrong as the wily first mate Owen Chase, and Adam Rayner as Captain Pollard, who eventually starts to realize he’s in way over his head. Honestly, I was more impressed by the supporting players who, in portraying a rather colorful group of peripheral characters, add significant authenticity to the proceedings.
As might be expected from a TV movie, there’s some racial commentary thrown in for added poignancy.
The most glaring problem for me was the script, which played out in a manner that was all-too-familiar to anyone who’s seen a sailing/pirate movie or three and had way, way too much “padding.” As might be expected, there’s a “journey into manhood” aspect to the story since Nickerson literally grows up on board the Essex, but even more than this, writer Cafolla inserts minimal imagination into the mix: he may as well have gone down a checklist of cliché elements to include here in one shape or form. Considering the film’s title and its marketing, it’s odd that so much of the story revolves not around more action-oriented sequences or even the whales themselves, but instead around the predictable power struggle between first mate Chase and Captain Pollard. The sequence in which the boat is sunk – a moment that could have been a legitimate highlight – is so poorly executed that it comes across as an almost incidental, “blink and you miss it” event.
Bearing in mind the very real dangers associated with whaling (to say nothing of the fascinating factual basis), I might have expected this film to be more exciting – or at the very least, capable of holding a viewer’s attention. Sadly, it’s not the case.
Following the actual sinking, any kind of momentum or energy in the film swiftly vanishes. We’re left with a familiar and painfully dull tale of survival against all odds. Since we’re sure from the start that at least the main character survives (the story presented in the film is, as was the case in Moby Dick, told in hindsight from the perspective of an older incarnation of Nickerson, played by Martin “I’m here for the paycheck” Sheen), at least some of the underlying tension in the piece is nullified. In films like the newer Star Wars entries, even though most viewers would know that Obi-Wan Kenobi survived the predicaments he was getting himself into, the story was strong enough to sustain viewer interest, but in the case of The Whale, finding out how Nickerson survives this ordeal is tedious and largely pointless. Director Riley seems to have no clue how to get some wind back in the sails, and even the touches of style he demonstrated during film’s first half are nowhere to be found down the line. As if this isn’t bad enough, at a certain point, it seems as though the director had reached his contractually-stipulated time requirement and things are finished up quickly in a tidy, none-too-satisfying manner.
…and don’t you forget it!
Ultimately, even if The Whale: Revenge from the Deep has some good elements and moments (for instance, an underwater ballet of sorts between Nickerson and a computer-generated whale is pretty cool, and the music score by Debbie Wiseman and Richard Fiocca nicely establishes mood), there are simply too many missteps made by the director and writer for it to seem like a worthwhile expenditure of time. Instead of a thrilling sea adventure, a viewer is treated to an exhausting and lifeless survival drama. “Ominous” shots of whales gliding through the sea which pop up during the film’s second half appear to have been thrown in as a corny afterthought, hinting at the lack of creativity and inspiration which went into the production and don’t so much seem threatening as remind a viewer of what he probably would have wanted from the film in the first place. This may have worked as a hour-long made-for-TV program, but as a two-hour feature, it’s disappointing. Viewers would be much better off re-watching (or – imagine this – reading) Moby Dick than trying to slog through this: I’d skip it.
If only…if only…
Not available on home video to the best of my knowledge.
3/10 : Shows the gruesome reality of whaling seen in brief snippets and also features implied cannibalism
3/10 : No outright profanity, but plenty of rough language from a colorful bunch of sailors
0/10 : This is perhaps the most chaste band of seadogs ever.
2/10 : The basic story of the Essex is compelling. This film is not.
“There is a darkness blacker than the blackest night. Blacker than greed even. When it bites, it eats you alive. It wasn’t the sea or the elements – it was ourselves.”