Noah

Rock MONSTER! Down! Down! Down!
★★★
☆
Released: 
2014
Director: 
Darren Aronofsky
Starring: 
Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone
The Setup: 
The Old Testament gets the CGI treatment.
Discussion: 

Here we are Darren Aronofsky's version of Noah. Aronofsky is not my favorite filmmaker, but he's not afraid to go pretty wacky and often seems driven by personal passion, which I thought would be interestingly applied to this film. Why make a contemporary Biblical epic if you're not driven by some passion about it, and have something to say about it? Thing is, now that I've seen it, it was, you know, ummm, very much what it was, but I can't really say that any overriding passion or great message to it. Let's go through the story with a tone of weary detachment, shall we?

We open with messages that there was Cain, Abel and Seth, and Cain slew Abel and his descendants were jerks who industrialized the world [as much as they could back then] and we see a graphic of their dark stains polluting the world. The descentants of Seth were awesome people, though. Vegetarians, too, btw. Then we have young Noah see his father killed by Tubal-Cain [doesn't it seem like every hero has watched his parents be killed in front of him lately?] and loses his magic glowing snakeskin that is his birthright or whatevs. Soon Noah has grown into Russell Crowe, is married to Jennifer Connolly and has three boys. We also discover that they had armadillo-jackals back then, and also huge rock monsters with glowing eyes, who are fallen angels, and serve the look and function of friendly Transformers. Noah has a watery vision and goes to see his gramps, who slips him some drugged tea and Noah has a more vivid vision, and reaizes he has to build an ark. Along the way they have picked up a young girl who will grow into Emma Watson.

Remember all this from the bible? No? Well, that's because the story of Noah in the Old Testament is pretty bare bones. Not to mention no third-act conflict. So throughout, it's mostly about adding to the story more than changing it, and, you know, who's to say the Nephalim DIDN'T take the form of giant rock monsters with glowing eyes? Sure the Bible doesn't say that Noah knew martial arts and was a badass warrior, but then again, it doesn't say that he WASN'T. Magic seeds? Instantly sprouting forests? The Bible doesn't say there was NOT an instantly-sprouting forest, right? Anyway, a spring of water sends streams all over the world, and apparently when animals drink it, they automatically elect two emissaries to repopulate the world, like a kind of water-soluble twilight bark. No word on how the two surviving members of each species gets elected, and the rest are condemned to die, but since all of nature is in harmony here, I suspect they were pretty cool. Birds arrive first, long before the ark is even done, then snakes and insects a few weeks later, and mammals a few weeks after that. They all just bunk right down to sleep, which was a disappointment, as it precludes all subsequent animal fun, and no shots of Noah's children cavorting with friendly bears or sleeping with fuzzy buffalo. Oh, no lions lying down with lambs or any peacable kingdom hoo-ha of any kind. They all fall asleep and don't wake up til we get there.

But what there is is DRAMA. There's no wife for Ham, middle son, and he wants one before all the pretty girls are wiped out. Good thing they picked up Emma, as that will reduce all the incestuous repopulating later on down the line, right? But she's entranced by blank pretty-boy Shem [oh, and barren, too]. Then Tubal-Cain [which only makes me think ectopic pregnancy] comes back with his legions of evildoers, and he says that the "Creator" [the word "God" is not heard] has abandoned mankind, and he is now the king, and he's gonna survive, goddammit. A lot happens before the flood finally comes, including Ham running off to find a bride and a huge CGI battle that would be more at home in a Lord of the Rings film, with the rock monsters battling the faceless hordes and exploding in light and shooting into heaven when killed [so fallen angels are forgiven and get to go back after helping Noah?]. Unfortunately, this exact same idea and EXACT same special effect was recently used in I, Frankenstein.

SPOILERS > > >
The whole drama of the last third is invented, because in the Old Testament all they do is land and start having a lot of incest [which would make for an interesting, if different, film]. So grandpa, who apprently wields magical powers, makes Emma's womb pregnable, and soon she is with child. Then Noah suddenly and somewhat arbitrarily decides that God meant for mankind to be wiped out, too, so they will save the animals, but all die out without having children. Once he finds out Emma is pregnant, he vows to KILL the child! It's an interesting idea to explore the non-specificity of heavenly commands, although it is fairly clear in the Bible that God intends Noah and his descendants, and humanity, to survive. And God and Noah are in fairly regular communication. But not here. So dad goes crazy, and the ark turns a bit into The Shining on the seas as dad has murder on his mind. It also gives you a extra gentle seasoning of Abraham and Isaac for your Biblical bucks. It also means that the main character you have followed til now esentially goes crazy, making for an unusual film, if nothing else. Turns out Tubal-Cain has also stowed on board, as if the idea of having a movie that didn't come down to a big fistfight is simply incomprehensible.
< < < SPOILERS END

Well, I wasn't bored. But I also wasn't moved. I guess the most obvious interpretation is to see this as an environmental film, and Aronofsky has described Noah as "The first environmentalist," and written about how mankind has ruined our environment, which was pristine and edenic before we came, so it's a look at the potential need to wipe out humanity and save the animals. This is where I think the new third-act twist came from. It just didn't have a lot of resonance for me. What I was really missing from the start is the sense of what is so wrong with humanity in the film... we just stay with Noah and family, but never get a sense of what is so wrong with Tubal-Cain and cohorts [except that they're unwashed and rowdy], and never get to know any of them. The old Biblical things of, you know... sin, vice, idolatry, don't apply here, but it's kind of hard for me to believe anyone was doing all that much damage to the environment before the industrial revolution, and certainly not in the BC era. So it's a little difficult to get on board that humanity has to be wiped out, or engage with the momentousness of that, when we don't have much of an idea what they've done so wrong. This left a real void in the movie, and left me unmoved and uningaged in the entire overall concept. And the source story is not about environmentalism, but about humanity's wickedness, and chance at rebirth, and God's wrath, and... I'm not saying this interpretation CAN'T be about environmentalism, I'm just saying that if it was supposed to be, the execution fell flat.

So it leaves the third-act complication, and the idea that God's instructions can be quite vague on some points [although they weren't, but let's allow it], and he can clam up at key moments when clarification is needed [although he didn't, but you know]. I do like the idea of an instruction from God being not quite understood, and having to go on your best guess about what he meant, and all the doubt and everything, but I think that merits its own movie, or at least a more consistent thread than a sharp, unexpected turn in the third act. Or a source story in which any of that actually happened. It also gives the movie a very strange shape, although you could also say that's what makes it a little interesting.

So for me, very little of it stuck, and I was able to look at a lot of good CGI, but had not much investment in either emotions or ideas. A few visuals are good--I really liked one of humans clinging to a mountaintop screaming to be let on the ark--but few of the others left much of an impression. I went in hoping the whole thing would be deeply felt and have some visual beauty and overarching sense of momentousness [we ARE talking about the end of humanity, after all], but came out just--unmoved. It played and then it ended, with a lot of rote blockbuster moments and special effects in between, but without the heft the story deserves. It is pleasantly strange and unusual, with a very odd shape, but that weirdness ends up being the best thing about it.

Should you watch it: 

If you want, but I don't see where there's any real reason to.