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Friday, December 18, 2015

THREE REVIEWS: DEVILS AND BELTERS AND WHALES, OH, MY!



Surprise! I’m NOT going to talk about STAR WARS today! I’ll leave that to True Fan Laurie on Monday, when I’m sure she will be eager to share her impressions of the new film.

Instead I have a few mini-reviews of some excellent film fare that is other-than-STAR WARS. Perhaps as a side benefit of SW mania, The Syfy Channel is on fire right now with a galaxy full of hot new suns being born every few months or so.

I mentioned the three-night mini-series CHILDHOOD’S END last week. Arthur C. Clarke’s apocalyptic tale fared well under the direction of Nick Hurran and screenwriter Matthew Graham. At least they did the story justice, despite a few minor tweaks, and stuck with the main premise of the book, as I remember it. In other words **SPOILER ALERT** no happy ending for humanity as we know it.The Big Reveal was great, with the aliens' horns, hoofs and tail in splendid display against a gape-mouthed human audience.  Despite a failure to do much with an important secondary character (a religious woman who struggles with the aliens’ presence) and a major slowdown in the second episode, I’d count this as a success.

But, oh, boy, the show that followed it? Wow! THE EXPANSE is gritty near-future SF noir at its best. Earth is unified and prosperous under UN control. Mars is colonized and powerful under military rule. Earth and Mars are on the brink of war. “Belters,” unorganized and scrambling for every credit, mine the asteroid belt for ice and minerals. They’re caught in the middle. Water and air are resources worth killing for and conflict is inevitable. Add a rich, rebellious Earth girl who disappears under strange circumstances, a down-on-his-luck Belter detective hired to find her, what’s left of a Belter ice crew snatched up by a Martian cruiser and OOOH, YUMMY! Even if the effects, acting and writing weren’t so good, I’d be in. But they are! If you missed the show’s premiere, you can binge-watch the first four episodes on Syfy OnDemand.

My final mini-review is not about science fiction at all. It’s not about romance either. But it is about the writing process, in a way. And also Chris Hemsworth.

In 1820, the whaling ship Essex out of Nantucket, Rhode Island, was stove by a whale in the literal middle of the Pacific Ocean and sank, leaving its captain, first mate and several crewmen stranded in three small boats. The phrase “stove by a whale” means not much to us in this day and age. No whale has yet tried to attack any of the little boats that cruise along observing them off the Pacific coast or in Hawaii. But this whale, said to be from 85 to 100 feet long, made a run at a wooden ship of roughly the same length and knocked a hole in the hull, then came around, got up to speed and did it again, smashing the timbers to pieces. The ship’s crew had just enough time to salvage a few essentials—sails, water casks, hard tack—before the Essex went under.

At the time of the attack, the whalers of the Essex were hunting in a pod of whales—females and their calves, males circling the outside. Was this the alpha male protecting the pod? (Not that whales are known to have alphas.) Or, as these God-fearing men thought, was it the wrath of God himself, vengeance for some wrong they had done?


IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, in theaters now, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth as a heroic—and thoughtful—first mate Owen Chase, tells the story of the Essex, with a little dramatic embellishment. But not as much as the original dramatic license taken by one Herman Melville, who adapted the tale in 1851 for his novel Moby Dick, or the White Whale. What makes Melville’s adaptation an epic literary masterpiece, rather than a fascinating story of survival against nature, is how he translated the experience of these particular men into something universal about humanity.

I’ve read part of the book that IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is based on (I’d like to finish it, too!) and it’s intriguing as history. But Melville’s novel is transcendent. The beginning—“Call me Ishmael.” The ending—“Only I am left to tell the tale.” The characters—Ahab (who will forever look like Gregory Peck to me), Starbuck, Queequeg, Pip. The description of the whale—white as the snow, with a notch in his tail and a wrinkle over his brow, crisscrossed with scars and the remnants of harpoons where he’d been struck before by lost whalers, and he corkscrewed as he breached. (All of this is noted in the new film, too, by the way—a nice touch.) And the theme, drummed into generations of high schoolers—man vs. God and the results of that defiance. 

Ron Howard’s device in his film is to have Melville pull the story of the Essex out of the youngest survivor of the disaster, now grown old in Nantucket. He’s heard the story and become obsessed with writing it. But by the end of the old man’s tale, Melville has seen the elements that will make his novel what Nathaniel Hawthorne later called “the American epic.” The irony is that the book sold poorly in Melville’s lifetime, a critical success, but a commercial failure. The white whale sank him, too.

So, enjoy your weekend at the movies, STAR WARS fans! If you can’t get into the show, you can always go next door and see IN THE HEART OF THE SEA or stay home and binge-watch THE EXPANSE. 

The next two Fridays bring us Christmas and New Year’s Day, so I won’t be posting again until January 8, 2016. Enjoy the holidays, everyone!

Cheers, Donna


1 comment:

  1. I'm totally onboard with your thoughts on The Expanse, Donna. The effects are great, much better than Dark Matter or Killjoys, both of which I loved, and the world building is gritty and mesmerizing. I've only seen the first two episodes and I'm totally on the hook. SyFy has given Sci-Fi new hope of late. Three cheers for that!

    And The Heart of the Sea looks like an amazing tale. I hope to go see it soon. This week was, of course, totally dominated by the "Awakening" of Star Wars. More on that to come. :)

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