There was a time when Bible stories were a mainstay of Hollywood production schedules. Say what you will about the legendary moguls that ran the great motion picture studios, they had an unerring understanding of popular entertainment. If a movie based on specific chapters of the Bible could bring in the crowds, the more the merrier. Sometimes, the shorter the passage, the longer the movie. Biblical lessons were also dovetailed into films in which religion was not the primary theme.
What producers such as Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor, or the brothers Warner and directors such as D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and George Stevens understood was that Bible movies needed to be much more than a celebration of faith. They needed showmanship. They needed stars. They needed a little bit of glamour.
Now we’ve got “Noah,” director Darren Aronofsky’s mostly absurd, moderately thoughtful epic; a moody, rain soaked, depressively dark slog that stresses religion, but attempts to sell its theology using tried-and-true action blockbuster methods. It definitely lacks showmanship and glamour. The Noah we watch in the film is a thinker, perhaps a deeper thinker than we really want. He’s a fellow who questions everything, and he’s a bit angry about it. He has a passion for ideas and shares them. He could be compared to a fiery preacher working in a countryside revival tent.
Meanwhile, as the audience watches and waits in anticipation of the flood that will end the known world, Aronofsky and his co-screenwriter Ari Handel keep it occupied by tossing in giant monsters made of granite, not to mention digital battle scenes. The behemoth talking rocks are angry, not unlike Noah, and their eyes glow. On the other hand, it’s completely understandable if moviegoers’ eyes glaze over. We’re in Transformers meets Elmer Gantry territory, and the Transformers part is ridiculous.
Thanks to an aggressive Russell Crowe as Noah, doing his typical “last angry man” impression, Aronofsky’s film is strongest when Crowe’s character rants and raves. The race to build the ark, less a boat than a massive, timber-strewn, box-like floating hotel and zoo, is used to highlight Noah’s constant up-and-down emotions and mood swings. He keeps asking “the Creator” what it’s all about. Why the test? What’s the point? And ultimately: Why me? This Noah is a tortured soul.
The movie begins with an extended animated prologue that brings Genesis up to date regarding what happened before Noah. It’s a well-intentioned re-telling of the tale of Adam and Eve, including about their sons Cain, Abel, and Seth. Cain’s murder of Abel leads us to the information that Cain begat a lot of cruel, miserable people, whereas Seth’s descendants are goodly, kindhearted folks. Noah is descended from the loving and lovable Seth. As with the rest of the film, the cartoon uses verses directly from the Bible and blends them with contemporary interpretations and modern speech patterns.
In the Old Testament, the story of Noah is that of a family man, concerned for his wife and sons. The movie takes us inside his domestic doings, and it even adds a love interest for one of Noah’s sons because every good biblical epic needs a young adult romance between a hottie and a cutie. Noah’s boys are named Shem, Ham, and Japheth. His wife is Naameh, but as played by the expressionless Jennifer Connelly, she might as well be called Blank Stare-eth.
Between bouts of self-doubt about the meaning of life, Noah, who is 600-years old in the movie but looks fit as a fiddle thanks to honest living, has intense visions about a watery apocalypse. He also sees himself as a farming version of Doctor Doolittle, so he becomes not only a saver of seeds, but also a quickie ecologist, and prepares to board all of the world’s animals onto the ark. This is where people who doubt the tale really snort derisively, especially satirist Bill Maher, because Noah clearly didn’t have access to Australia’s 5600+ species, including kangaroos, koalas, and platypuses, not to mention the numbat, echidna, and quoll. Wallabies, wombats, and bilbies, oh my. And don’t forget the Tasmanian Devil.
The story of Noah and his ark is considered metaphorical, so you accept the disparity of animals and concentrate on the other goings-on. Interspersed with his visions of an impending great flood, Noah has discussions about the meaning of human existence and the displacement of water with his grandfather, the revered Methuselah, who legend has it lived to be 969-years old. Of course, this is where the expression “as old as Methuselah” when describing the cranky old-timer who tells you to get of his lawn comes from. By the way, Noah supposedly lived to be 950, while his father Lamech died at age 777. Methuselah is played by Anthony Hopkins, who, at 76, is a veritable baby in this crowd.
As Noah moves his family to higher ground, they come across an injured girl. Her name is Ila, and she’s played by Emma Watson. She’s like a wounded bird, a little broken-winged creature with a heart full of love. Shem (Douglas Booth) is smitten with her, much to the chagrin of his brother Ham, which causes the latter to become a biblical juvenile delinquent. He’s a petulant rebel, don’t-cha know it?
And let’s not forget the “watchers,” or Nephilim, who are hordes of fallen angels trapped in stone (like bugs in amber), who are gifted with immense carpentry skills. They will help out with the ark-building.
If this isn’t enough to have you laughing unintentionally, the animals are given a sleep-inducing sedative that arrives in the form of a benevolent vapor, like an E-cigarette but without the noxious smoke smell and addictive nicotine. Don’t fret, they’ll all wake up.
Soon the rain comes, and what a fierce storm it is. The darn thing rages and roars and rips through the landscape, quite possibly the first – and only – hurricane to strike what is now Turkey. At the first sign of impending doom, a vicious character named Tubal-cain starts making demands on Noah. He’s the king of Cain’s violent descendants, and he’s a very unpleasant man. Plundering villages is what he does before lunch. Tubal-cain wants to get on the ark, but Noah, having heard that the king and his followers have been slaughtering, not only humans, but also animals, sending many of the critters into extinction, won’t allow him to book passage. Sorry Tubal-cain, you’re not on the list, and Noah’s an environmentalist now.
Even on the boat, Noah is wracked with doubt. He begins to believe that humans should not survive the onslaught. He’s prepared to sacrifice Shem and Ila’s unborn child. He seems willing to do anything to make sense of all that confounds him. The movie ratchets up his bewilderment to the point of exhaustion. Noah stops being a figure of fascination. He becomes an annoying curmudgeon who can’t make up his mind.
As everyone surely knows, the ark and its occupants ride out the storm. But before that, we have to contend with a nefarious stowaway who’s burrowed between the beavers and bobcats.
When awkward things happen on the screen, they can shake an audience out of its reverie. This is called “taking you out of the movie.” Aronofsky’s vision is filled with such moments. The characters dress as if they’re living in medieval times, which distracts. And it’s disconcerting hearing the rock-hard angels sounding like Frank Langella and Nick Nolte, who provide the voices. They are too distinctive and contemporary to be from the time of Noah. Their chatter becomes silly as the film goes on.
Less silly, but still annoying, are the moments that keep reminding moviegoers they are watching a religious film. Forget the digitally-enhanced fight scenes and the talking rocks and the love-struck children, this is the Bible, darn it. This is theology, waterlogged as it is. There are endless recitations from the book of Genesis nonsensically mixed-in with a trippy study of how people cope with being wet,
The biggest problem with ‘Noah’ is this. It’s obvious that Aronofsky doesn’t believe the story he’s presenting. He clearly doesn’t buy into the Noah mythology. Additionally, Crowe, always a glowering actor who shows you on the surface what he’s thinking, seems to be having his own trouble accepting what he’s telling.
Perhaps Noah got to be 950 because he truly was a brutal and outspoken man, one willing to make tough decisions. He listened to advice from some people, but he always heeded his own counsel. Do we really need a 138-minute sermon with unimpressive action sequences to tell us this? Crowe may be similar to Noah because he projects himself as a man who also heeds his own counsel.
Unfortunately, Crowe never creates a fully-realized character. He howls at the wind, but the bellowing rings false. It’s as if Crowe is thinking that he’s played this man before. And he has, Maximus in “Gladiator.” Too much of ‘Noah’ fails the believability factor. It’s somewhat ludicrous and much too familiar.
Michael Calleri writes about movies and entertainment. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.