"Are you there, God? It's me, Noah!"
It would have been nice if Darren Aronofsky had found a way to work this line into his new Biblical epic, Noah. The film has just about everything else, including animals marching two by two, beards bushy enough to blot out the sun, giant transformers made out of boulders, divine smiting, and so much glowering Russell Crowe one might be forgiven for dampening one's movie seat.
The decision to make a movie about Noah and his big boat might seem a highly questionable enterprise, but bad ideas never seem to stop anyone lately. The bigger, the badder, the better, and with a running time of approximately 120,000 minutes, Aronofsky's latest joins the ranks of films that never seem to end.
The tale that you remember from your childhood wouldn't make for much a movie, so there is a lot of extrapolation that must be added on with bits of wire and binder twine. But in all this vast expanse and longwinded exposition, there is very little that feels real. Not real in the sense of "Gee, those computer generated animals look awfully lifelike," but more importantly, real as in "Hmm, I feel some genuine emotion happening down there." Or simply, "I have wet my pants."
In the centre of all this stands Russell Crowe, thick of body, and sporting various hairstyles that wouldn't look out of place on Vancouver's Main Street: long and mane-like, shaved and serious, or sticking out like a drunk porcupine. Meaty in every sense of the word, you could chew on him for a while before you even made much of a dent. Russell gives his portrayal of the Biblical patriarch the old college try. Old is the operative word here, since in the original story Noah was over 500 years old before things even got going.
Jennifer Connelly, who plays Noah's wife Naameh, has come a very long way from her first outing with Aronofsky, one Requiem for a Dream, which, if you recall, involved a deeply unfortunate sex scene. No more up the bum for this lady! In Noah, she is the matriarch of the holiest family, stripped of eyeliner and forced to wear artfully woven clothes that look like they came from Eileen Fisher's new collection. She may have a name that sounds like it came from the front end of a sheep, but she is holier-than-thou all the way through the movie. The rest of the cast do their thespian best, but they often seem confused by the proceedings.
The only person who seems to be having fun is crazy old Ray Winstone, channeling antediluvian reality by way of Essex.
'What the hell?'
Unlike religious epics of old, Noah does not take place in some Hollywood back-lot version of ancient Egypt, but is rather a bowdlerized version of the Old Testament mixed with science fiction. God is somewhere lurking behind the clouds, but so are some strange fantasy beasts and a magical Methuselah (played by Anthony Hopkins). The entire thing seems odd and out of joint, like it was put together in the dark. It is hard even to encapsulate the plot without sounding vaguely insane, but we will press on.
The story kicks off with a lesson in genealogy. Adam and Eve begat Cain, Abel and some other schlub named Seth. Cain bonked Abel with a rock, and then went on to begat Ray Winstone. "What the hell?" is the only reasonable thing to say to that. Meanwhile, Seth popped out a few kids of his own, one of whom eventually gives rise to our Noah, the last good guy on earth.
When little Noah is just a sliver of a boy -- who doesn't look a day over 259 -- his father Lemech gives little Noah a history lesson.
Their interlude is cut short by the arrival of ruffians of Cainish descent. Noah's father gets mightily dead, and our little hero scampers off to find a safer place to grow up.
Cut forward a few hundred years and Noah and his fashionably déshabillé family are out gathering nuts and berries. With three sons (Shem, Ham and wee Japheth), Noah has his work cut out for him merely to survive. Under the auspices of the descendants of Cain, things haven't worked out too well. Vast cities, fuelled by some explosive golden stuff in the ground that is never fully explained, have sprung up and died. The place is a mess, a blighted landscape that looks a lot like northern Alberta.
More ruffians show up and are summarily slaughtered by our peace-loving patriarch. Seems God has a plan for Noah and he wastes no time in being utterly obscure about it. After a series of dreams featuring drowned worlds and animated snakes, Noah and his family set off on a quest to find the oldest Meth-man in the world. Along the way they pick up a wounded girl, Ila, whose entire family has been slaughtered, and they take her along for the ride. Here is where the director's cross-eyed vision really gets going.
On the run from yet more Cainites, the family head into the badlands where they encounter The Watchers. The Watchers are fallen angels, cursed by God for being uppity. They look a lot like prehistoric Transformers and rumble about like Nick Nolte, so naturally one of them is also voiced by said Nolte.
Instead of bashing Noah's head in, they help him reach his grandfather Methuselah's mountain. I don't quite know what Sir Anthony Hopkins was aiming for with his portrayal of the oldest man in the world, but he ends up somewhere between Yoda and Riff Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Before you know it, Granddad drugs Noah, gives him a magic seed, and -- presto! -- God makes trees.
Time for a pee break
After this whiz bang trip, things quiet down for a moment. The entire middle chapter of the film is given over to the creation of the ark itself: lots of boiling of tar and hewing of wood. If you have to go pee, do it now. For one thing, not much happens, plus when all that water shows up you may feel certain sympathy in your bladder.
As Noah and family toil and strain, the intricacies of old-timey marriage come to the fore. Ila (played by Emma Watson) has grown up into a beautiful young woman, but she is barren. Even as she and Shem romp like horny puppies in the woods, brother Ham, who also desires himself a girlfriend, lurks and watches.
Just like the Bible said, horniness will be the end of us. Ham has a sausage and he wants to use it. He demands that his parents find him a woman. But storm clouds are gathering, as well as a passel of raggedy rapey-types led by a guy named Tubal-cain (Winstone), a direct descendant of the original murderous Cain and self-declared king of the world. In Genesis 4:22, Tubal-cain is referred to as "forger of all instruments of bronze and iron." The film takes this literally and supplies him with weapons aplenty -- the better to murder folks with. Tubal and his mob set up camp around Noah's boat, and await the coming storm. To pass the time, they amuse themselves with lots of raping and animal eviscerations.
It's little wonder that God has had enough and finally the rain descends. It looks a lot like Vancouver last Wednesday.
It's easy to poke a stick at Noah. The film is so bloated it's like something that's been drifting in the water for days. Certainly it's hysterical and ridiculous. That's just the beginning though. The sheer bombast of the thing speaks more to the ambition of the director, which seems to be in keeping for so many filmmakers these days. Given time and money and big stars, what can they do but assemble vast, tottering layer-cake films -- movies so clotted with cream, fruit, nuts, and assorted fripperies that they seem to forget the point is to tell a story and tell it well. (I am looking directly at you, Wes Anderson.) All the whipped ganache in the universe makes no difference when the damn thing is hollow at its core.
Noah suffers from something of the same fate; it is stuffed to the brim, but missing the one key thing that matters, namely that we care what happens to these folks. Most of the film just feels silly, except for one scene, in which something older, and decidedly more brutal comes to the fore. For only a moment you catch a glimpse, more correctly a whiff, of something. Call it sulfur and brimstone, some primitive reek of the days when the Old Testament was something to be genuinely feared. The hard, cold mineral odour of it is there in the scene, in which Noah must decide whether to murder two new born babies, because it is God's Will.
But where is God exactly? He doesn't get any speaking parts, and the most visible evidence we get of the ongoing confab between Noah and him is some rainbow sprinkles, and of the course the deluge that wipes away all humanity. Unlike the constant celestial chatter that marks the actual biblical text, in this film all is silent. God speaks only in bad CGI (Computer God Imagery) that consists of animated snakes, people hitting other people with rocks and a lot of trees. I wish he would say something -- anything really -- but no such luck. With no word from on high, we're stuck with humans on big old boat, and the only thing they have to do is sit around listening to animals snort and fart in their sleep.
The film, for all its insanity, is no fun. It feels more like an endurance contest than anything else. The high beauty of biblical language is also distinctly absent. Instead we get drivelly lines like "Men broke the world." Not once, but twice. The fact this is apparently true (at least according to the latest comprehensive UN climate change report) is something else entirely.
But the inconvenient truth can't be discounted either: Noah, like all end-of-world fantasias that have preceded it, speaks to some deep and lingering sense that we need punishment. Humanity is like a gaggle of naughty teens who threw a massive house party while our parents were away and now there's a toilet on the lawn and vomit in the vestibule. We have some explaining to do, with our oceans full of acid and plastic.
Punishment is cited over and over again as a necessary and good thing. A dad that spanks your bottom is better than the dad that simply isn't there. In the film, much ado is made about the fact that no one has heard from God in a while. In his absence, men have grown plucky and defiant.
All this changes when the water comes. Suddenly we're in a Brueghel painting, the screams of the damned drowning out the sound of the storm. But a patriarchal deity who kills everything just to start again -- what kind of a God is that? Entire books have been written about what a meanie God is in the Old Testament. That's not news, nor is the allegory that resource extraction is to blame for global calamity. So what is new exactly?
Maybe it's the same old thing, writ again. Aronofsky's version has become even longer, more elaborate and much more expensive, but with worse dialogue.
The sin of pride brings about a fall. Aronofsky set about making an epic, and threw in everything he could think of: homicidal megalomania, rock monsters, horny teens, berry picking and magical in vitro. He's mixed it up and poured it out, but aside from a few scattered moments (Crowe is suitably impressive), nothing endures. It all drains away, leaving one damp and unsatisfied.
There are bits and fragments of the epic drama that has kept the story going since the Epic of Gilgamesh (written in 650 B.C.). But these are only tiny whispers lost in the giant bathtub of a movie.
It is curious that not many critics have stepped up and said this is a terrible film -- nonsensical, overblown and grandiose. I have spared you the worst of it, including the requisite end-of-act fight scene, where Noah and Tubal-ligation-cain wrestle and grunt atop of the sleeping animals. Or, the later bits that involve Noah inventing wine and getting naked-ass drunk in the sand. If you weren't familiar with the original biblical text, you would have no idea what was happening in this scene. The general reception of the film seems to be one of apologia, along of the lines of, "Yes, it's not great, but at least it's trying hard."
The real problem is that Noah is a story badly told. A good story endures because it is beautiful and clear. You can't really do any better than: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
"And God said, Let there be light: and there was light."
How do you possibly top the clarity of these words? You can't. The only place the film has any real power is here, in the original text. It doesn't really matter whether you believe that God wrote it or not -- it's one hell of a story.
Just kidding, God... please don't smite me!
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