The Demonic Force in 'The Whale: Revenge From the Deep'
As in its previous literary and screen incarnations, the whale here is a demonic force, producing fear in the whalers (and the audience) even when it is not visible.
In 1820, the whaling ship Essex sank in the South Pacific. Apparently attacked by their prey, only a few of the crew survived after months at sea. The story has been retold many times in print (it inspired Melville’s Moby Dick) and on screen, with Ron Howard’s take due out next year. And now Animal Planet joins in with The Whale: Revenge from the Deep.
A scripted historical drama, The Whale is something of an adventure for the network, whose programming is dominated by reality shows like My Cat from Hell and Pitbulls & Parolees. More importantly, in turning to history rather than the contemporary setting of its embattled flagship series Whale Wars, the network might also be able to forget, for a moment anyway, the controversies surrounding the activities of the Sea Shepherd organization and founder Paul Watson.
That's not to say The Whale is only concerned with the past. Promotional material plugs the film’s eco-critical agenda, with Animal Planet adopting whales and donating to the National Wildlife Federation. As narrator Tom Nickerson, recounting events in solemn tones 50 years later, Martin Sheen brings his off-screen credentials as a committed conservationist and activist. In an interview with BBC One, he describes Paul Watson as his “friend and hero” and says the film offers a “voice out of the past” to remind us how human greed depleted whale populations.
The film seems less certain of its sympathies and targets. It makes claims for historical authenticity, citing actual survivors’ memoirs as sources and telling us, "All of it is true.” To that end, sometimes the film appears a straightforward history lesson: we tour the ship with young Tom (Charles Furness), as he observes the social hierarchies of shipboard life and learns the “lay,” each crew member's differential share of the whales they catch. The film also provides realistic reconstruction, including a gory scene when Peterson (David Gyasi) takes a needle and thread to his own wound.
But the film is also presentist in applying modern moral sensitivities to its recreation of the past. At the beginning, the narrator tells us that he and his shipmates turned the sea red with blood: “Nature did not stand a chance.” However, the story takes place before the mid-century heyday of the industry after it had moved from Nantucket to New Bedford. And while some whalemen worried about the extinction of whales, most were concerned with the preservation of their industry rather than their prey.
The film's critique of the whaling industry depends mostly on a striking early scene showing the killing and cutting up of the Essex’s first whale. Blood rains onto the men’s faces. The whale is butchered in slow motion until the whole screen is swimming in bloody flesh to the sounds of distorted laughter. Later this surrealistic scene is intercut with one in which Carson (Jonas Armstrong), the first mate, slices through the skin of his dead comrade as a prelude to eating him. From this perspective, the men are contaminated by what they have done to whales, and somehow this leads them into the moral “darkness” of cannibalism.
But this narrative is not developed in any detail nor matched by any insights into whales or empathy with animals. Recent work in Human-Animal Studies challenges the long established scientific suspicion of anthropomorphism. Frans de Waal addresses the problem of “anthropodenial", that is, the willful refusal to recognize human-like traits in animals or the animal-like characteristics of human (Discover Magazine, 1997). This deconstruction of the boundaries between species enables an ethical stance on our shared status. The Whale casts this process as degenerative. When the narrator says, “We were turning into something else,” he indicts Darwin's survival of the fittest. Men become like animals, but only if animality is seen as depravity and brutality.
Equally, the human emotions attributed to the whale are limited to “revenge.” While the men did indeed think that the whale scuppered them deliberately, the film makes no attempt to contextualize this superstition. Research on cetaceans emphasizes their capacity for cognition and communication. Sperm whales live in multicultural societies and scientists, including Hal Whitehead, suggest their interactions indicate that they have a sense of morality (The Guardian, 29 January 2011). The sperm whale is placid and pacific by nature. It is likely that the whale’s tail swishing was an act of communication or an attempt to protect its young.
Of course, this research was not available in 1820, but the film reshapes history when it’s convenient. It omits, for example, reports that the men inadvertently burned an island, leading to the extinction of a turtle and mockingbird species (Smithsonian Magazine, 1 March 2013). It also leaves out that the first corpses consumed were black, probably because structural discrimination led to their poor health.
Instead of raising such questions, the authoritative voiceover confirms that the whale pursues the survivors, that it is “waiting to see if we had learned our lesson”. As the men disintegrate mentally and physically, the whale is “getting its way”. Such a horror movie aesthetic extends to the many shots of a whale’s eye view of the bottom of the boats. Here we are asked to recognize human vulnerability in the face of a malevolent foe. As in its previous literary and screen incarnations, the whale here is a demonic force, producing fear in the whalers (and the audience) even when it is not visible.
The whale's ostensible pursuit of revenge, then, shapes the tale. Each commercial break is framed by a Jaws-type image to signify the ongoing threat to the mariners. But elsewhere, the whale is a vast grey ghostly figure, an enigma that reminds us of what we don’t know about the species. Occasionally we hear whale sounds that are part of a sonic environment beyond our comprehension. When Tom at last abandons ship and is floating through the water, the whale passes closely above him, an experience that he recalls later when he thinks he is dying. If The Whale emphasizes human fears and the separation of species, this quiet, magical moment speaks to intimacy and connection. Perhaps it is not enough to save the film from its androcentrism and clichés, but it might help to inspire someone's respect for whales.