Friday, February 23, 2018

Moby Dreck: Age of the Dragons (2011)

By Hank Parmer

It should come as no surprise if I note dragons are hot right now. Okay, when it comes to the fire-breathing variety, except for the White Walkers' new pet they're hot all the time. But you know what I mean. Over the last couple of decades, what with advances in computer-generated effects, on TV and the silver screen these mythical beasts have proliferated like Everglades pythons.

But as today's example illustrates, this has not been an unmixed blessing.

Let's say there's a RenFaire-themed alternate reality in which dragons are real. Not only that, but they're prized for their precious vitriol (though not so much for their withering sarcasm) so the creatures are harvested by intrepid bands of landsmen who roam the wilderness in ironclad tour buses. But wait: Wouldn't this be the ideal setting for a new interpretation of a revered American novel, whose dense symbolist prose has bored generations of high school students out of their skulls?

And what if you could hire a distinguished African-American actor to spout chunks of Captain Ahab's dialog, as well as tap a familiar British thespian -- often cast as a menacing but quirky thug who's prone to episodes of astonishing violence -- to play an abbreviated version of the Pequod's unflappable second mate, Stubb?

What could possibly go wrong? Well ... everything.

Even though his name appears nowhere in the credits, at first I strongly suspected my favorite punching bag and bête noire, Mark Atkins had a hand in this mess. It certainly has some of the tell-tale signs, beginning with the blatant lie of its poster: There is a dragon, true, but the protagonist never gets within a hundred miles of a shining broadsword, nor is he ever this up close and personal with one of the beasts. As his filmography shows, Atkins has made a career out of crappy films featuring dragons -- Jack the Giant Killer and P-51 Dragon Fighter, to name only two -- and with A Princess of Mars he proved he was ready to apply that reverse Midas touch to classic literature.

And by this point I could well understand why the guy might have ample reason to use a pseudonym. Yet I have a hard time believing he'd content himself with only one credit under his assumed name, or that he could cast the likes of Danny Glover and Vinnie Jones, or that Atkins would have the self-control to refrain from inserting one of his signature "circling P.O.V." shots somewhere in the film. Even though it scarcely bears contemplation, it seems certain now what we have here is something much more dire: an imitator or -- even worse -- an acolyte.

But on to the movie: The fun begins with a flashback to Ahab's difficult adolescent years. Even at this early age, according to the voice over he's a precociously talented hunter. On this fateful day his beloved kid sister tags along while he checks his snares. He's disappointed to find he's only snagged a couple of rabbits. Someday he's sure he'll bag one of those elusive Whooping Hippogriffs.

Sis skips down to a nearby stream with her pail. A vast, dragon-shaped shadow passes over her unnoticed. While she waits for him to join her, Ahab's sister amuses herself by idly tossing pebbles into the babbling brook. She hears something behind her, freezes and slowly looks back over her shoulder.

Ahab hears the girl's terrified shriek; he races down to the stream, only to find a huge white dragon crouched over her bloody corpse. Ahab, mad with rage, yells his defiance and attacks the beast with his knife. He's knocked down into the water, and the dragon belches a jet of fire. Fade-out on a very artistic shot of the abandoned bucket in a sea of slow-motion flames, while first-person narrator "Ishmael" informs us that no one knows why the dragon didn't finish the job on Ahab, who was terribly burned but somehow survived.

Many years later, Ishmael is hanging out at The Drag On Inn with his good buddy Queequeg. They're shooting the breeze with a wise old gaffer, who immediately pegs Ishmael's friend as a "native" -- perhaps due to his oddball name, or his two discreetly beaded dreadlocks. Because unlike Melville's original character, Queequeg isn't covered in tattoos. In fact, except for the fashionable dreads he's otherwise indistinguishable from any of the other scruffy patrons of this establishment. Maybe they don't have a word for "townie" in this reality.

Ishmael explains he's looking to join a dragoning crew. The gaffer assures him he's come to the right place, then, since this town supplies the dragon vitriol which "lights the lamps of the world".

Okay, then ... I'm guessing they have one heck of a lot of dragons swarming about somewhere. Or the night life in this parallel world sucks.

Ishmael has his heart set on joining up with Capt. Ahab, because he's reputed to be the greatest dragon hunter of them all. He's overheard by Vinnie Jones, as "Stubb", who, along with his two shipmates, "Starbuck" and "Flask", is sitting at the next table. Vinnie meditatively sucks on his pipe (he'll get a lot of padding -- er, mileage out of this prop) then challenges the kid to the dragoner's version of darts: They have to score a hit with their lances on the head of a dragon, the one in the large woodcut hanging on the wall. A target which, by the way, is at least ten inches wide, and only about fifteen or twenty feet distant.

Dragon hunters must be expected to get quite close to their prey before letting fly. These guys had better be wearing asbestos BVDs, is all I can say.

Flask, who's taken an instant dislike to brash, handsome young Ishmael, snickers nastily and makes a snide comment about the size of the hero's lance, which is indeed noticeably shorter. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman enters the inn and unobtrusively works her way toward them through the crowd.

Stubb takes the first throw and hits the dragon's head, although so far to the side he almost misses the mark entirely. Surprise, surprise, Ishmael has a gimmick: Combining a throwing stick -- a.k.a. an "atlatl" -- with his shorter weapon, he nails the dragon precisely between the eyes. Thereby striking a blow for every guy who's concerned about the size of his lance. (How you use it is just as important.)

Without warning, Stubb goes completely berserk: Screaming spittle-flecked obscenities, he forcibly stuffs Ishmael's head into a leather mug! Just kidding. But honestly, whenever Vinnie Jones is in the scene, don't you half-expect something like this?

Flask, however, isn't satisfied. He pulls his dirk out and wants to have a go at Ishmael, but Stubb tells him to put it back in his belt.

The sultry brunette we saw earlier turns out to be Ahab's adopted daughter and head of HR, Rachael. (Oh, ain't we clever.) Despite Flask's objections, she wastes no time in signing up hunky Ishmael. Not as a harpooner, she's quick to point out, but only as a lowly "extractor" -- does this mean he's expected to double as the ship's dentist? -- and he would do well to remember that. That's good enough for Ishmael, so long as he can be near his idol, Ahab. And his hot daughter.

Stubb cautions Ishmael: "There are plenty of hunters, but not many game enough for dragons." (Or gamy enough, judging by this crew.) Pulling a ludicrously solemn face, he adds, "It's a deadly dangerous business."

Ishmael refuses to go unless Queequeg gets to come along. The two really are inseparable. Rachael shrugs, and enrolls his friend. As they exit the inn together with Ahab's daughter, they encounter a couple of louts who're rolling a drunk. The pair are also a trifle peeved about having been rejected for a berth on the Pequod; they decide to take it out on Ahab's daughter. She thrusts the ledger at Ishmael and curtly orders him not to interfere.

Rachael employs her fabulous martial arts skillz to wipe the alley with the two no-goods, as a cloaked-and-cowled stranger watches from the shadows. After retrieving the ledger from awestruck Ishmael, she saunters off without a backward glance. The stranger melts back into the night.

Early next morning, Ishmael and Queequeg are on their way to join the Pequod when they run into the gaffer they met the night before. He's lying in the gutter now, somewhat the worse for wear. Once they stand him on his feet and brush away the dung, these Good Samaritans are rewarded with the ominous news they've signed away their souls in the Devil's book. (It was embossed on the cover, dammit!) Ahab, he warns, will drag them all down to Hell with him in his mad hunt for the white dragon.

"Only one man shall live to tell the tale of Ahab," he prophesies. His name, he now reveals, is "Elijah".

And thus another bit of the original tale is jammed into this nitwit narrative. Strange, though, that the script omits the eeriest part of Elijah's prophecy in the novel, when he predicts Ahab will rise from the dead and beckon them on to their doom. I'm getting a bad feeling about this ...

Bidding farewell to their friend, Ishmael and Queequeg make their way down to the municipal parking lot, where we catch our first sight of the Pequod. As I mentioned before, this movie's version of the famous ship is a land-going vessel, complete with forecastle and poop deck -- which, considering how much crap this movie is prepared to fling at us, should come in mighty handy.

An over-sized crossbow (alright, you military history buffs and fantasy gamers, it's an "arbalest") is mounted in the prow. The hull of this tour-bus-sized land cruiser is sheathed with iron plate -- which is probably a wise precaution when the creature you're hunting has a flamethrower. Although, as it will turn out, it might have been a smart move to provide some protection for the harpooner, too.

So how, you may ask, is this massive hunk of ironmongery propelled across the landscape? Is this low-rent Terry-Gilliamesque prop fueled by vitriol? Who knows? For all we ever learn about its mysterious motive power, it might well be supplied by a battery of hamster wheels. Or maybe they bought this really big rubber band from Acme ...

So this civilization can build engines small enough to take up very little space but powerful enough to move multi-ton vehicles, yet it still remains stuck in this bastardized Late-Medieval-cum-early-19th-Century pre-industrial stage of development. Oh, right, this is a "fantasy". Which to these jokers means, "We have our hands full just trying to figure out where we can insert some more bits from Melville! What is this 'internal logic of our idiotic premise' of which you speak?"

As the new hands admire the Pequod, Stubb takes a break from loading and motions Ishmael to come sit beside him. While Jones continues to puff on that pipe (in Melville's novel the character always had one stuck in his gob) he fills the new kid in on his back story:

He joined the Pequod eight years ago, when Ahab was looking for a new crew -- the previous one having been flambéd to a man in the Captain's second encounter with the white dragon, Moby Dick.

(I'm beginning to suspect the Dick wasn't really trying. Maybe the third time will be the charm.)

Stubb has never caught a glimpse of the beast, though, in all his voyages with Ahab. So at least, he says, he has something to look forward to. I guess he means being reduced to a pile of cinders, like Ahab's previous crew.

Cut to the Pequod, as it trundles through the wintry Utah wilderness in search of dragons. If only they could have cast Leonard Nimoy as Ahab.

"There's got to be a Stuckey's around here, somewhere ..."

Notice that Rachael steers from amidships, where the high forecastle prevents the driver from seeing what's directly in front of this lumbering land cruiser. Besides the poor field of view and the lousy cornering, it's also difficult to see how this ridiculous rust bucket gets much traction with those wooden wheels, which seem to have been borrowed from some Roman peasants' ox-carts. One thing's for sure: It's quite fortunate for these dragoners that there are lots of wide, well-maintained, gently curving roads with shallow grades in this rugged Land of Cockamamie.

The Pequod proceeds at a stately pace, while Ishmael and Queequeg trudge along behind. (That's what they get for acting up on this land cruiser! If they don't knock it off, Rachael swears she'll turn around and go straight back to town.)

Some more chunks of Moby Dick are wedged in as Ishmael gives us quick character sketches of Starbuck, the first mate, and Stubb. You know, even if you leave Rachael out of the equation (due to her somewhat ambiguous status) that still means the Pequod has one officer for each rating. I believe this is what's known as a "top-heavy management structure".

After a while, Rachael pulls over so everyone can stretch their legs and take a potty break. Stubb puts the stop to good use by clearing away the crossbow and sending a test harpoon into a tree trunk. There's a cable -- woven of "dragon innards", Ishmael tells us, so it's super-strong -- attached to the harpoon. Stubb cranks away at a winch until the tree snaps in two.

Excellent! Now they'll have enough firewood to make s'mores!

While Rachel sits on a bench, gazing pensively at their campfire, Ishmael plunks himself down beside her and looks as if he's about to try to start a conversation. Before he can get a word out, Rachael abruptly stands and says she needs to show him something. (Don't you do it: Then she'll want to see yours!)

Too bad -- she only wants to demonstrate the remarkable properties of dragon vitriol. Ahab's daughter explains the pure stuff explodes on contact with the air, so it has to be diluted before they sell it. To underscore the danger, she hurls a glass bottle containing a teaspoonful or two of the faintly luminous blue liquid toward some nearby rocks -- it shatters and detonates in a brilliant fireball.

I suppose it would be unfair to inquire how they managed to transfer the insanely volatile stuff into that flask, without exposing it to oxygen.

That night, the crew gathers in their quarters for dinner. Ahab keeps to his cabin, poring over his AAA (that's the Anachronistic Absurdities Association) triptiks as he plots their course.

Starbuck calls on Stubb to give them a proper dragoning tale. Vinnie seizes on this chance to demonstrate his chops with a lighthearted anecdote about the first time he wasted a dragon:

Back in the days, he begins, when dragons hadn't yet retreated (for some never-to-be-explained reason) to the forest and their lairs, before he signed on with Ahab, Stubb was first mate on another land cruiser, the Mocha. Though the pay may have been meager, their lattes were superb. They could even draw little dragons with the steamed milk!

(Annoying people like myself, to whom useless trivia adheres like lint to a blue serge suit, will recognize this as an another attempt to be clever by referencing the real-life example on which Melville based Ahab's cetacean, a white sperm whale called "Mocha Dick", who had a reputation for not taking kindly to whalers.)

Stubb had been all psyched up to spear his first dragon, but when the moment came he suddenly developed a bad case of buck fever. While he hesitated, the guy standing next to him, Whitman, was hosed down with flame by the beast. The poor sod crumpled to his knees as he was crisped alive -- "I could see his flesh turn all black and pink!" reminisces Vinnie, with what seems to me an inappropriate degree of relish. (But he smelled delicious.)

Yet, even in mid-immolation, Whitman still had the pluck to remind Stubb he really should try doing something with that pointy, stabby thing he was holding in his hand.

Stubb then found his courage and dispatched the dragon, much to his dying friend's admiration.

"Now that," he concludes, "is a real dragoning story!"

(The hilarious thing about this scene is that try as he might, Jones comes off as if he's regaling a campfire circle with the hair-raising tale of the Hook Man.)

They all raise a mug in memory to Whitman -- and his scrumptious samplers!

As Ishmael swings in his hammock that first night, he watches Rachael, in her cozy single berth, as she pulls off her boots and begins to undress. She notices, flashes him an inscrutable look, and yanks the curtain closed. Stubb observes this byplay and smirks. Flask, however, is not pleased.

While the others snooze away, Ishmael scribbles in his journal. He hears Ahab ceaselessly pacing the deck overhead. Our hero belatedly wonders what he's gotten himself into. Would his life be spent in "endless days of killing"?

But really, overlooking the fact that they've haven't actually killed anything yet, what's not to like? They're tooling around the woods in a humongous RV, blowing stuff up at random and exterminating an endangered species. It sounds like the Trump boys' idea of a fun vacation!

"And then," Ishmael's voice over portentously intones, "the day came when Ahab knew it was time to indenture our souls."

Snowflakes swirl down from the leaden overcast. Ahab exits his cabin. He's swathed in a cloak and cowl -- obviously, he was the watcher in the shadows, back when Rachael had her little contretemps with those two rejects. His eyes are hidden behind slit-goggles, and the lower half of his face is wrapped in a dingy white scarf. This is supposedly because his burns, which never truly healed, are pained by sunlight. But it's dim enough today for him to throw his hood back and remove the goggles and scarf, revealing his scarred face and blinded right eye.

The film's not done yet with flashbacks to Ahab's first meeting with Moby Dick. It pauses now for a quickie: The field where he set his snares ... his sister ... a drop of blood falling in slow-mo into the creek, staining the crystal-clear water crimson.

Once that's done, Ahab commands his foster-daughter to "fetch the drink", then joins her belowdecks. With these frequent pit stops, and traveling only during the daylight hours at what seems at best an easy walking pace, they sure don't seem to be in a hurry to get anywhere. Speaking of which, I guess that engine must pretty much tend to itself. And they seem to have remarkably advanced muffler technology.

Tomorrow, Ahab tells them, we'll reach the killing grounds. He promises everyone it will be a profitable voyage, then proceeds to offer a bonus of "double -- no, triple the profit" to the first man who spots the white dragon. Hmm, is he talking gross, or net?

Starbuck unkindly reminds the captain it was Moby Dick who gave him his burns and crippled his leg. Ahab freely admits it, but he's vowed to "chase the white dragon across every mountain [not in this unwieldy contraption, he won't] and through Hell's flames". Rachael signals her misgivings with a perfectly executed Roger Moore Right Eyebrow Lift.

The script works some more snippets from the book into the dialog, as Starbuck and Stubb argue with Ahab: Stubb wants to know how many casks of vitriol will his vengeance put in the hold? Starbuck thinks the captain's vendetta against a dumb brute who struck him out of blind instinct is blasphemous.

"Talk not of blasphemy to me!" raves Ahab. "I'd strike the Sun if it insulted me!"

(I'd like to say a few words here about Danny Glover's performance: I have a lot of respect for this actor, but holy hoppin' jalapeños this is beyond merely cringe-inducing. Whose idea was it to have him play Ahab as something between a three card monte dealer and that guy who corners you at a party? You know, the one who's just aching to give you a minutely detailed run-down of the latest connections Alex Jones discovered between the moon landing hoax, the Illuminati and Hello Kitty.)

Ahab calls for everyone to take a swallow from this Goliath-size pewter mug and pledge themselves to the hunt for Moby Dick. Starbuck and Stubb reluctantly join in. Rachael isn't invited to share in their ritual, though. She must have pledged at the office.

"Do I look as ridiculous as I feel?"

Next day they fall in with their first dragon. Conveniently, all they have to do is park the Pequod and stand around for a few minutes while they wait for it to come to them. Stubb has the crossbow ready: He harpoons the creature. Not in a vital spot, but at least they've got it on the line.

Contrary to their reputation in myth and folklore, this dragon isn't very smart, nor is it particularly aggressive. Rather than burning the line in two and then flaming Rachael, Ishmael and Queequeg -- who're standing together out in the open -- or torching the land cruiser's exposed upper works from above, it thrashes and flaps around, desperately trying to get off the line, while Rachael and Queequeg ineffectually chuck lances at it.

Ishmael waits for a clear shot, or he's pissing himself, take your pick. Stubb gets the cable wrapped around his thighs; he's pinned against the crossbow. Starbuck frantically saws at the dragon-gut line with his knife. Suddenly, the dragon quits circling and makes a low-altitude run straight for the Pequod and Stubb. Ishmael, still dithering about making his throw, is knocked flat by the beast as it skims above the ground.

Stubb, seeing what's coming next, shouts at Starbuck to leave him. We finally get the Vinnie Jones moment we've all been waiting for: He assumes that inimitable "Totally Bonkers Bloke" face, spreads his arms wide and yells at the dragon to come and get him. (If I were Jones, I'm sure I'd be every bit as eager to bail on this one.)

"Napalm, take me away!"

The dragon is glad to oblige. Just like his friend Whitman, the unfortunate Stubb is instantly reduced to charred cracklings. Isn't foreshadowing neat?

Ishmael finally summons up the whatever to loose his lance. Predictably, he sends it straight into the dragon's heart. While Rachael, Ahab and Starbuck stare in horror at Stubb's carbonized corpse, Ishmael and Queequeg get in some more male bonding: The "native" pulls his friend's lance out of the dragon he just slew, runs his thumb along the tip, then smears the blood on Ishmael's and his own forehead.

"Now," he proudly proclaims, "you have hunted everything." (Including a place that serves authentic hobbitwurst.) What a pity. I guess this means Ishmael will have to find a new blood sport.

Here we learn how that precious vitriol is obtained: Flask deftly slices open the dragon's belly and removes its "vitriol gland" -- it looks more like a football-sized prairie oyster -- from the steaming mass of intestines. It's packed away carefully in a wooden box, in a bed of straw.

The crew holds a brief funeral service for Stubb. As a last tribute they sprinkle some of his pipe-dottle in the grave while Ahab watches from the poop. Afterwards, Starbuck tries once more to dissuade the captain from his lunatic quest, but Ahab won't hear of it. He's spent years tracing the dragons' migration patterns, and he's convinced Moby Dick is heading north now, to spawn in the mountains.

The dragon is in even more of a hurry to get there than usual, claims Ahab, because he's getting old, just like me. (Is he hinting Moby Dick has an overactive bladder?) Ahab shows Starbuck his special harpoon, the one with the intricately carved grip, which he's saving for the occasion of his next run-in with the white dragon.

Down in the crews' quarters, Rachael sews up a gash on Ishmael's shoulder while he manfully swigs from a bottle of grog. Flask slags him for not throwing his lance sooner, but Rachael tries to assuage Ishmael's guilt by assuring him Stubb would be proud of the way he nailed that dragon in the heart.

Even if he did take his sweet time about making the shot. But hey, if he survives this voyage, now he'll have a real dragoning story of his very own!

Queequeg puffs on a pipe -- it's a nasty job, but someone has to do it, now that they've lost Stubb -- while Rachael helps fill the time with her back story: Her mother died when she was born. Her dad was first mate on the Pequod, until he and his shipmates were incinerated in Ahab's second encounter with Moby Dick. Ahab adopted her, and she's accompanied him on every hunt since then. What with that and practicing at the dojo between trips, she's never had much time for a social life.

Flask toys with the stones on a Travel Go board, his jealousy growing more intense by the moment. Finally fed up with seeing the two of them getting along so famously, he snarls, sweeps the stones off the board, leaps up and attacks Ishmael with his knife. Queequeg, though, grabs Flask by the wrist, and uses his Charles Atlas power grip to force the hothead to drop his weapon.

(Cinephiles will recognize this as a lame attempt to lift a dramatic moment from John Huston's 1956 film. Without any of the context or talent which made it one of the most intense scenes in that movie, of course, but thanks for trying.)

Flask swears he'll catch Ishmael alone some day and finish the job. Rachael and Queequeg have to restrain their friend. (You're just lucky his chick's here, man!) After they send Ishmael outside to cool off, Queequeg adds a final warning: "Touch him," he promises Flask, "and I'll cut your head off."

While all this is going on, Starbuck takes another fruitless stab at getting Ahab to give up his obsession over the white dragon. Yeah, yeah: "He tasks me." I love the way this script insists on cribbing these undigested hunks of dialog from the book and merely substituting "dragon" for "whale".

Flashback time: Field ... sister ... bloody forearm in the water ... Sis raises her head, opens her eyes wide and stares at the camera.

The Pequod chugs up another gentle grade. They've left the killing grounds, Ishmael voice-overs, and are heading toward the dragon lairs.

(Though it has its humorous moments, Moby Dick is hardly what anyone would call light entertainment. But I have to hand it to this filmmaker: With most of the action in this movie set in the Pequod's dim and dingy crew's quarters or in exterior shots -- using a blue filter, natch -- of a bleak, wintry scrub forest beneath perpetually clouded skies, they've managed to turn this exercise in inanity into a near-perfect depiction of clinical depression.)

Rachael decides to halt the land cruiser and scout things out. She orders Ishmael to accompany her. Her keen eyes soon discover some dragon-spoor, an eighteen-inch footprint which she identifies as left by a "glacial dragon".

Now it's Ishmael's turn to deliver his back story: He's an orphan who ran away to join a caravan -- a mixup which led to a great deal of disappointment when he found they didn't have any clowns or elephants. But that's how he met Queequeg, who taught him everything he knows about hunting. Some more screen time is chewed up with a deep philosophical discussion about obsessive behavior and how what goes around comes around.

Interlude: The white dragon confirms the aptness of the "Dick" part of his moniker when, winging above the clouds, he attacks a mother dragon and her child. Blackout.

Ahab pulls a claw from the mangled remains of a young dragon and shows it to the crew. It's white, which means it must be Moby's. He's the only dragon who kills his own kind, says the captain. Another sign they're on the right track! Starbuck doesn't seem particularly overjoyed. To help lighten the mood, Ahab hikes up his shirt and shows everyone his burn scars.

"Wanna see my operation?"

Now that Moby's losing his claws, Ahab is convinced the creature's limbs are rotting, just like his. (So the screenplay isn't entirely responsible for this stench, okay?) Glover, by the way, seems to have a problem with pronouncing "vitriol", so that it keeps coming out as "veet-rall".

Next they park at the foot of a mountain, where through the telescope Ishmael spies a couple dozen or more "wyvern" dragons wheeling about its sheer cliffs. Ahab orders Rachael, Ishmael and Queequeg to kill them all.

This would seem a dicey proposition -- although the wyverns appear to be a smaller species, there's still that whole fire-breathing thing -- but as it turns out, these dragons are exceptionally heavy sleepers. The trio stealthily murder them all that night, as the beasts are peacefully snoring, deep in their dragonish dreams of fat, slow-moving sheep.

When the brave hunters return to the Pequod, Starbuck reminds Flask he'd better get a move on if he's going to collect all the vitriol before morning. But just then, the white dragon shows himself in the distance. As luck would have it, Ahab is the first to see the beast, so they can forget about that triple-the-profit bonus jive. He commands them to drop everything and resume the chase after Moby Dick.

Queequeg is so torn up over all that pointless killing that he decides the white dragon has given him his death sign. Ishmael confronts the captain about the insanity of letting all that good vitriol go to waste. There's enough in the animals we just butchered to make you rich for the rest of your life, he argues.

You'll have to pardon me for another digression, but I can't help being amazed by this "vitriol": Those wyverns they just slaughtered appeared to be not much larger than a good-sized Florida gator, yet Ishmael estimates they'll get enough of this magical substance out of them to pay for the voyage and make Ahab rich. The critters must have glands the size of medicine balls. And the stuff must be diluted down to almost homeopathic levels before it winds up in the world's lamps. Even so, at the rate they're getting offed, unless dragons are breeding like bedbugs in a cheap motel, humans had better be looking hard for a substitute.

Be that as it may, Ishmael's objection gives Glover another opportunity to declaim some more Melville. (They're making him earn his salary on this one.) Like all his speeches, it boils down to, "I'm gonna get that wascally dwagon, if it's the last thing I do!"

Ishmael vows he'll stop the captain. Ahab taunts him: How's he going to do that when his protector is in a death trance? He orders Starbuck to clap the mutinous dog in irons and chain him to the back of the Pequod.

Rachael starts to lodge a protest, but Ahab cuts her off with a gesture and warns her not to go there. Doesn't she want revenge on the creature who killed her father? Jeez, talk about laying a guilt trip on a girl!

The screenplay once again works its magic with its spin on a scene from the novel: Starbuck appropriates Ishmael's gleaming, stainless steel Bowie knife -- $24.99 at your local Walmart! -- on the sly. He gets close to Ahab, and attempts to stab him. The captain, though, catches his wrist and turns the blade back on its wielder. He guts the first mate like a fish.

"I see ... a chain of ... trendy ... overpriced ... coffee shops ..."

Evidently Ahab's limbs aren't quite so rotten as he was letting on. Starbuck's final words are, "Beware of thyself, old man ..."

Sure, in the original story, Starbuck planned to assassinate Ahab with a pistol. At the last moment he found he couldn't go through with it, so his innate decency ironically doomed himself and the rest of the crew. But this way it's much better, right?

Flask is naturally elated by this turn of events. Ishmael is chained to the Pequod, forced to follow as it grinds along at the brutal pace of a mile-and-a-half an hour. Inside, Rachael tells Flask he'll be taking the second watch.

"There's just you and me, now," he grins.

Queequeg is still in a funk and won't lift a finger. These land cruisers really must pretty much run themselves.

Flask gloats over Ishmael's predicament, but Rachael puts a damper on his celebratory mood by reminding him Ahab will need another harpooner when they confront the white dragon. So he'll have to be let off his chain.

At their next stop, Rachael takes the prisoner a plate of Flask's revolting stew and urges him to eat, to keep his strength up. Ishmael throws Starbuck's death back at her, but she defends Ahab by pointing out that it's his ship, after all -- and the first mate was trying to kill him. She pleads with Ishmael to have a go at making up with the captain, but Ishmael stoutly rejects the notion.

Flashback: An empty bucket floats down a stream ... More enigmatic slow-mo clips of Sis, the last one showing her down on the ground, screaming. Ahab wakes with her terrified pleas for him to save her still ringing in his ears. Shaking off the nightmare, he returns to feverishly sifting through his triptiks and calculations.

Outside, a pair of vitriol thieves -- I think it's those same two guys that Rachael beat up -- who have been trailing the Pequod on horseback decide this is their moment to strike. It's Flask's watch, but as is utterly predictable, the jerk has dozed off. They overlook Ishmael, who's huddled in the shadows.

One of the thieves slips onboard and starts pilfering the vitriol. Forget about that "casks in the hold" business: The vitriol now resides in glass bottles on a rack. The intruder takes one down and passes it around to his partner outside, who stows it in a leather bag. Ninety-eight flasks of vitriol to go!

Ishmael chooses this moment to sneak up behind the thief who's standing outside. He throws a loop of his chain around the footpad's neck -- incidentally startling the guy into dropping the bag containing that glass vessel which holds enough pure vitriol to take out the Pequod and everything in a fifty-yard radius. And that's not even counting all those bottles of the stuff still stowed on the rack, which would no doubt combine to make something like a MOAB if they all went off together. Brilliant.

(It may just be because I'm such a timid soul, but I think I'd prefer to have the stuff a bit better secured. Like, in a locker or something, in case they hit a pothole or the crew gets to roughhousing.)

Ishmael bawls a warning to his crewmates, as the second thief leaps out of the land cruiser to help his partner beat the snot out of our hero. Flask wakes up, but for some odd reason isn't inclined to come to the aid of his rival. Fortunately, Queequeg has had enough of the death-trancing, and joins the fight. (There's that scene from the Huston film again.) He wrestles with one of the hijackers and breaks the guy's neck. Ahab -- hearing the commotion -- appears just in time to put a harpoon through the chest of the other as the villain has Rachael down on the ground with a knife to her throat.

(What happened to all those kung fu moves, anyway?)

Ahab rewards Ishmael by allowing him to come back aboard. Queequeg and the captain indulge in another round of dueling Cliff Notes, then the Pequod is once again trundling through the snow-covered scenery.

When Ahab eventually halts the land cruiser, Rachael rousts out Ishmael and his friend. They'll have to proceed on foot from here, she tells the two, because the Pequod can go no further. First, though, she orders them to go outside and free up the frozen "anchors".

While they're busy at this, Flask is driven wild by the sight of Rachael's bare back as she's changing her blouse. He shoves her down on her bunk and attempts to rape her at knife point. Ishmael pulls him off, and after a brief tussle Flask flees into the woods.

Now that he's back in Ahab's good graces, Ishmael is invited to go along with the captain and Rachael for the climactic confrontation in the white dragon's lair. "I need you," says Ahab, "It's my last chance. I'll never get this close to him again."

When he puts it that way, how could anyone possibly refuse?

Before they depart, Ishmael joins Rachael outside for some romantic dialog, concluding with a passionate kiss. Meanwhile, Flask stumbles around the wilderness for a bit, then meets his fitting end when he's eaten by a dragon.

The three remaining members of the Pequod's crew, led by Captain Ahab, toil up a steep, rocky incline. Ishmael's voice over tells us the captain is leading them to the dragon's lair: the Caves of Death. Oh, great.

(You get there by climbing the Scree Slope of Doom; then left along the Ridgetop of Annihilation, while avoiding the Sinkhole of Oblivion. After negotiating the Boulder Field of Mayhem, you must finally face the most fiendish obstacle of all: the Plateau of Adorable Cuddly Kittens -- honest, it's not as easy as it sounds.)

Queequeg is increasingly nervous because they're treading on sacred ground. Ol' Gloomy Gus is convinced he's fated to be dragon fodder.

From the top of the ridge, the party views the entrance to Moby Dick's lair: a shoddily rendered matte black splotch high up on the face of a cliff. But Ahab says there's another way in -- how does he know that?

Queequeg refuses to go another step, though he promises Ishmael he'll wait for him.

Ahab, Rachael and Ishmael enter the dragon's lair by that service tunnel. It leads to an enormous airy cavern, brightly lit by sunlight streaming down through a huge opening in its roof. Ahab decides this is the perfect place to set up their ambush. He disappears, while Ishmael is of course stuck with the grunt work of pounding a couple of pitons into the rocks. He raises a racket that no doubt can be heard for miles.

Rachael investigates something behind the rocks. Outside, Queequeg sees the approach of the white dragon, and resolutely reaches for his lance.

Ishmael finishes hammering, looks up and realizes Rachael isn't there. Wondering where she's wandered off to now, he finds her squatting beside a freeze-dried corpse. It's her dad -- they have identical medallions, you see -- and the twin of that harpoon Ahab showed Starbuck earlier is stuck through his chest. Ahab, you got some 'splainin' to do ...

When the captain rejoins them, Rachael furiously accuses him of killing her father, then lying to her about it for all these years. But he had to do it, explains Ahab, because he hates cowards and her father was going to run away.

Hold onto your seats, everyone, because it's time for the Big Revelation! Ahab's agonized confession is accompanied by a final flashback: His sister was still alive when he came upon her and Moby Dick. She was reaching out toward him, begging for help. Far from hurling himself on the dragon with hunting knife in hand, he immediately took to his heels.

"But I can't escape her screams," cries Danny, in let's-crank-it-up-to-11 tortured soul mode.

"I hid," he moans. "Like a coward ..."

But Moby Dick found him hunkered down in a crevice, and promptly gave the lad the flame treatment.

"Peekaboo, I see you!"

Rachael signals she's done with the hunt by throwing her lance at Ahab, but it lands between his feet. She's not going to kill him, she says, because -- all together now -- it's a worse punishment to make him live with his guilt. Ishmael is ready to blow this bogus scene as well, but when they turn their backs on the captain and begin to walk away, Ahab threatens to harpoon them.

Luckily Queequeg changed his mind, and followed them into the Caves of Death. At this critical moment, he shouts a warning to Ishmael, and is harpooned by Ahab. Why Queequeg didn't simply spear Ahab first is a mystery known only to a writer who has to kill somebody off but can't figure out how to do it in a way that's consistent with the character.

The captain still has a spare harpoon, but that doesn't deter Ishmael: He's ready to take on Ahab with his knife. Before the idiot can get himself skewered, they're all distracted by the arrival of Moby Dick.

As the white dragon looms over him, Ahab throws his harpoon, screeching "From Hell's heart, I stab at thee!" It's the script's last opportunity for this sort of thing, you know.

However, he only spears Moby Dick through the fleshy part of his neck. In what should come as no surprise to anyone, Ahab gets tangled in a coil of his line. When the dragon takes to the air, Captain Dope-on-a-Rope is dragged along for the ride. His screams are swiftly cut short when he's yanked aloft, whirled around a couple of times and smacked against the side of the cavern.

Now, isn't this so much more satisfying than having Ahab's corpse beckon the crew on to their horrendous end, as foretold in the novel? I tell you, those stuffy 19th Century authors didn't know diddly-squat about real entertainment.

Rachael and Ishmael stand at the side entrance to the Caves of Death. Together they watch Moby Dick winging majestically toward the mountains. (Um, you've got some Ahab dangling there, guy ...) But wait, what about Elijah's prophecy? Oh, right, only one man will live to tell the tale.

It's so sad when a script has to cheat by inflection.

The lovers gaze tenderly at each other, two hearts that beat as one, as they share the same thought:

Worst. Road. Trip. Ever.

1 comment:

Mary Clevenger said...

Never heard of this film, will never watch this film, but...Goddamn I loved this skewering of this film.