Thursday, June 5, 2014

Noah: A Review (Review #638)


I Do Believe We're on the Ark of Destruction...

One would think that even in our post-Judeo-Christian world people would know the story of Noah and the Ark.  The tale itself, found in Genesis 6-9, is a more complicated tale that the children's song Who Built the Ark? would lead us to believe.  Even some of what we 'know' is wrong.  Genesis 7:2 states that God commanded Noah to take "seven each of every clean animal, a male and his female; two each of animals that are unclean, a male and his female"*.  Therefore, the idea that Noah took only two of each animal, a male and female, is not strictly correct.

Noah, the film made by Darren Aronofsky, has been filled with all sorts of stories both pro and con.  Would it be respectful of the text?  Would it be sacrilegious? How close or far would it be from the source material, a story held sacred by Jews, Christians, and Moslems? What about "rock monsters"?

After all the controversy, all the scandal, all the rumors, we now have the film itself.  Noah has some beautiful visuals, a good central performance, and comes close to making the tale into one that examines the questions about humanity's ability to be stewards of the world "The Creator" has given us.  It comes so close to what it wants to be, yet constantly flounders under its own weight.  Noah is simply too dark a vision (at some points, literally) and strays unnecessarily from the source material to be something atheists or believers could rally around.

Noah (Russell Crowe), the last descendant of Seth (Adam & Eve's third-born), is deeply troubled by what is going on in the world.  There is meat-eating and drinking, along with wars and killings.  In a vision from 'The Creator', Noah sees the world flooded, and all living things wiped off.  To help interpret these hallucinations, he takes his family: wife Naameh (Jennifer Connolly), and sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) to see his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), far off in his mountain.  This mountain is guarded by The Watchers, angels who had mated with humans and thus punished by being turned into stone beings.  On their way, they rescue an orphan girl, Ila.  Methuselah, obsessed with berries, tells Noah these visions are of a great flood that will wipe out mankind.  Granddad gives Noah a seed from the Garden of Eden, and when Noah plants it a version of Paradise grows at the foot of the mountains, where he begins to build the Ark.

At first, Noah doesn't object to the romance between Shem and Ila (Emma Watson) because she is barren.  He isn't too thrilled by the idea of looking for wives for Ham and Japheth, but goes anyway, where Noah is horrified by all the meat-eating going on. 

I must pause here to mention that at this juncture, I was falling asleep and constantly forcing myself to stay awake, so I might have missed a few things.

Noah then has more visions and becomes convinced that the Creator wants to destroy humanity permanently, so Noah declares that after Shem, Ham, and Japheth, there will be no more.  Shem isn't too displeased, but for some reason Ham is (Japheth having no opinion on the matter).  The animals and the rains do come, and with it more confusion.  Methuselah is able to cure Ila of her barren state, which sends her into a wild sex session with Shem.  Ham attempts to find a woman for himself but when fleeing the men of Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), Noah allows her to die to fulfill his own vision.  In the confusion, the Ark is lifted by the waters, Tubal-Cain sneaks into the Ark, the Watchers are destroyed and ascend to Heaven, and the world drowns.

With the world at an end, Noah's dictator-like declarations of the end of them all doesn't sit well with any of them.  Tubal-Cain attempts to recruit the bitter Ham into luring his father to where he is hiding to kill him.  Noah's standing in the Ark doesn't improve much when he finds out that Ila is indeed pregnant.  If the child is a boy, then no problem: he gets to live.  If it's a girl, then it is a violation of The Creator's wishes and the baby must be killed.

This Noah must have been a jolly old soul.

Well, while Shem and Ila do try to escape Noah burns their only way out.  Tubal-Cain is still plotting, Ham is still brooding, and Naameh is just irritated by everyone.  Once Ila gives birth (to TWIN girls, no less), Noah is fighting for his life against Tubal-Cain.  The Ark crashes upon mountains, Ham saves his father, the animals leave, Noah doesn't end up killing babies, and he goes to a cave and gets drunk.

Ham sees his father naked, and Shem and Japheth walk backwards to cover Noah's nakedness.  While Ham leaves his home, Noah embraces Ila, Shem, and the girls, telling them to be fruitful and multiply.

Aronofsky as a filmmaker has always been a bit hit-and-miss with me.  I HATED The Fountain (a pile of pretentious slop) and loved Black Swan (a fevered dream where reality and fantasy were blending far too dangerously).  Noah I think is Aronofsky at his most Fountain-like self-indulgent, more concerned with the visuals than with the beings within the film itself.   There are moments in Noah that are quite beautiful (Genesis from Creation to the killing of Abel), though I question why Aronofsky decided we needed to see the story told twice (first in the pun intended, then when the family is on the Ark).  The moment when humanity (or more precisely an army of men, since I remember very few women) are attempting to take the Ark as well as when the animals appear are similarly beautifully shot.

However, a beautiful-looking film doth not a great film make.  My main issue with Noah is that it is simply too dull, far too somber and serious for its own good.  Aronofsky apparently believes (if we judge by the script by him and Ari Handel) that mankind's greatest sin pre-Deluge was not that he visited violence on his fellow man, but that he ate hamburgers.

Noah is very pro-vegetarian/vegan, an odd take on man's fallen nature.  The environmental aspects of the film (one of the great evils of mankind being his destruction of 'The Creator's' world (read, strip-mining) is a subject that Noah could have explored deeper (no pun intended).  If only Noah the film didn't take itself too seriously though.  There's this air of despair about it that makes one wonder WHY The Creator picked Noah in the first place among all men.

Why am I speaking with a British accent?
As a side note, I wasn't bothered too much by the Divine Being referred to as "The Creator" rather than God only insofar that it keeps with Judaic tradition of not using God's name.  At least that's the only logic I can find to all this 'Creator' speak. 

The performances were all pretty bad save for Crowe.  His Noah was an angry man, filled with righteous fury and deep concern about what his mission was.  Crowe is interesting to watch, even if by the time the Flood comes one wonders why anyone, especially his family, would tolerate him, let alone follow his increasingly bizarre wishes and thinking.  Everyone else was either chewing up the scenery (Winstone, Hopkins), or was shockingly blank.  With Booth (one of the pretties Romeos to come around), he so far has shown the only thing recommending him for film/television work is his face (which makes his beard and long hair in the film all the more depressing).  Connelly, who certainly is better than her no-note role, I think did what she could, but Naameh was so passive and dull.  Watson has never ranked among my Great Actresses List, so even if she had something to hold on to she I doubt would have delivered something worthwhile.  As for Lerman (someone I constantly shift on), I do again wonder why he spoke with a vaguely British accent?

The worst is Carroll's Japheth, whose entire performance consisted of staring, rather scared-like, at everything.  Did he even have one line of dialogue?  Was he there just because the story required a third son?

I also wonder why Noah seemed so deaf, dumb, and blind to why Ham wouldn't be thrilled about not having a wife post-Flood.  I can see why Ham was perpetually grumpy, almost whiny, but this was a mixture of a bad script and bad acting. 

Furthermore, I don't understand why Aronofsky and Handel decided to alter Scripture to where the story found in Genesis isn't the story Noah tells.  "But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark--you, your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives with you." (Gen. 6:18, emphasis mine).  Scripture makes it clear God intended for there to be life, human life, after the Flood.  Aronofsky decided that the world might be better off without humanity in it.  That is his own viewpoint, and he's free to have it.  However, by altering Scripture to such a degree it only serves to make Noah a vehicle for his own social/environmental vision, which isn't that of either Noah the Biblical character or that of the God who brought about the Flood.   

For myself, one of Noah's greatest failings is in not understanding the text.  Yes, the tale of Noah and the Ark may be symbolic, an allegory about the wrath of God and the cleansing of humanity from its wicked, wicked ways.  However, it was never meant to be a story of despair and hopelessness, nor was it meant to be an action film (the Rock Angels looking like Transformers and being a bizarre attachment to the proceedings).  Noah and the Ark is really a story of hope, of God's stubborn love for his flawed Creation.  If He had wanted to, He could have sent the Flood to wipe all humanity out and saved the animals any way He wished, maybe even recreated them in a new world without the creature made in His Image.

Instead, God decided that humanity was indeed worth saving because at least ONE righteous man and his family kept faith and loyal to God while their brethren were mired in their selfishness and evil works. 

Again, there are good things in Noah (Matthew Libatique's cinematography, Clint Mansell's score) but in the end the entire somber and dull film flounders under its own emptiness and grand ambitions.  It COULD have been what Aronofsky wanted (a meditation of man's destruction of the Earth and survivor's guilt) if only it had bothered to get out of its own way and have us care about those who were swept away metaphorically and literally.  It could have balanced its own thinking with the Biblical story, but it was not interested in telling the latter if it interfered with the former. 

In the end Noah is a beautiful film visually but oh-so-serious and Biblically incoherent. 

By the waters of Aronofsky, I wept...when not nodding off.


*All Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.

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