Saturday, August 9, 2014

Noah (Paramount, Regency, Protozoa, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 version of Noah, an elaborate riff on the Biblical story of Noah and the Flood — and one of the most grandly disappointing films I’ve seen in my life. It’s the sort of thing Dwight Macdonald called “the bad good movie,” a film you desperately want to like because its aspirations are so grand and because Aronofsky (who not only directed but co-wrote the screenplay with Ari Handel, and according to has been fascinated by the Noah story since the seventh grade, when he wrote an essay called “The Dove” for a seventh-grade teacher, Vera Fried, who has two cameo roles in the film) was clearly attempting to use the Biblical story to make a statement for our own time and not going either for a reverential treatment or a DeMille-style plumbing of the Bible as an excuse to show spectacular sinning and even more spectacular retribution. The problem — well, there are a lot of problems with Noah, but the main one is it’s boring; instead of making a Biblical film that’s reverentially dull, he made one that’s anti‑reverentially dull. Aronofsky decided that the antagonism between God and the entire human race wasn’t dramatic enough to get an entire movie out of it, so he took characters who were barely mentioned in the Bible — including a race of giants whom Aronofsky renamed “The Watchers” and who looked like stone versions of the Transformers robots; and Tubal-Cain, a descendant of the original Cain who gets all of two sentences in the Bible but whom Aronofsky and Handel inflated into the principal villain and the second male lead. The one good thing about Noah is the visual splendor — though Aronofsky and his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, kept their movie rooted in the modern-day past-is-brown convention (indeed, the modern-day everything-is-brown convention!), within that stricture they created some absolutely stunning shots that are beautiful to look at but don’t take your mind off the fact that almost nothing interesting is happening in them. Noah is played by Russell Crowe, who’s a powerful screen presence and at least superficially right for the part, and Tubal-Cain is Ray Winstone, who was obviously selected because his best-known previous credit is playing Beowulf and therefore audiences expect to see him in swords-and-sandals stories. The conceit is that all the humans in the film except Noah and his family are descendants of Cain, while Noah and his relatives (in both directions — his grandfather Methuselah, played by Anthony Hopkins, is a major presence in the film, used something like Leonard Nimoy as the old Spock in the last two Star Trek movies) are the only surviving descendants of Cain’s other brother Seth — which at least provides a convenient explanation of why God is willing to destroy the rest of humanity but let Noah, his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and their three sons Shem (Douglas Booth, easily the cutest guy in the film), Ham (Logan Lerman in an all-too-modern hairdo) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) live through the Flood.

The film is not helped by the forced parallels Aronofsky and Handel put in to modern-day values; not only are Noah and his family vegetarians (which we’re clearly intended to believe makes them morally superior to the meat-eating Canaanites) but Noah’s whole reading of God’s intentions for the Flood turns him into the world’s first deep ecologist. He becomes so monomaniacally convinced that the purpose of the Flood is for God to eliminate his error in creating humans that he’s excruciatingly unpleasant to watch throughout the second half of the film. First he lets his son Ham’s girlfriend die (Japheth was an adult in the Bible but is still pre-pubescent here) and then he accepts that Shem’s girlfriend Ila (Emma Watson) is barren, so Noah assumes that he and his sons are supposed to be the last male humans and they are only being kept alive so they can get all the animals off the Ark and re-establish the rest of Creation before they all croak and take the human race with them. Noah becomes so obsessed with the idea that his mission from God is to let humanity die that when Ila turns out not to be barren after all — she ultimately gets pregnant with twin daughters (which isn’t going to be much help repopulating the planet with humans — when it’s revealed that she’s bearing twins I assumed they’d at least be fraternal, one boy and one girl, and they’d grow up à la Siegmund and Sieglinde) — he takes a dagger to his newborn grandkids and Aronofsky, in virtually his only truly suspenseful bit of direction in the whole movie, leaves us wondering whether he’s going to go Medea or Norma on us — whether he’s actually going to knock off the babies or he’s going to have an attack of conscience and spare them — before he finally spares them and the movie creaks to its long-overdue (it’s 138 minutes and probably could have been at least half an hour shorter — in fact the whole thing is so slowly paced Aronofsky could probably have made it half an hour shorter without cutting a word of his script simply by pacing it faster!) end. It does help that for once the Ark is depicted as a barge instead of a boat, and it looks at least close to big enough to contain two of every species of animal in the world, but what doesn’t help is how “fake” the animals look. No animals were harmed during the making of Noah because no real animals were used; all the images of things creeping, crawling, slithering or just minding their own business were computer-generated and, as Aronofsky admitted, “slightly tweaked” so they don’t quite look like their real-life prototypes. What’s more, there’s surprisingly little of the spectacle we’d expect from a film about Noah and the Ark: there aren’t spectacular battle scenes with Tubal-Cain and his men; there aren’t great special effects scenes showing the Flood itself and the destruction of the earth (one would have expected Biblical equivalents of the modern-dress apocalypse George Pal so unforgettably realized back in 1953 in When Worlds Collide), nor is there the shot we want of the floodwaters receding and leaving the ark on top of Mount Ararat, with the animals pouring out of it to re-take their places in Creation. (In this version, once we see the Ark again after the flood, it’s broken into two pieces like the Titanic in real life and in James Cameron’s film.)

The releasing studio, Paramount, freaked out when Aronofsky turned in his director’s cut of Noah and prepared at least three alternate versions, including one that ran just 88 minutes and sought to cut out all Aronofsky’s and Handel’s additions to the basic Biblical story. Aronofsky, predictably, was not amused; “No one has ever done that to me,” he told an interviewer. “I imagine if I made comedies and horror films, it would be helpful. In dramas, it’s very, very hard to do. I’ve never been open to it. I don’t believe that.” Apparently Paramount was hoping for an “inspirational” movie that would sell to what’s become known as the “faith” audience — the born-again Christians who’ve made things like The Passion of the Christ and more recent God-centered films hits — until they gave up and released the film in Aronofsky’s cut, to predictably disappointing box-office results. Indeed, the biggest mystery about Noah is who Paramount’s executives thought the audience for it would be — it’s so far off the Biblical story, both in terms of the added (or inflated) characters (those damned rock giants may explain how the Ark got built — at least we weren’t expected to believe Noah and his three kids did it all themselves — but they’re too ugly to be either moving or scary and one wonders what they’re doing there dramaturgically; they’re supposed to be fallen angels who are condemned to rockhood by God for trying to help Adam way back when, but despite the beautiful scene in which they’re “killed” by Tubal-Cain’s men, thereby liberating their inner angels and allowing them to fly back to Heaven, one still wonders why on earth they’re there) and in Aronofsky’s bloated deep-ecological “take” on it, there was no way Bible-believing Christians or Jews were going to flock to this film, while the secular audience has little or no interest in the Bible as a source for a film. Though I haven’t seen Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ since it was new, I recall that as an excellent movie that succeeded where Noah failed in “tweaking” a Biblical story so it had a new meaning for the modern era and reworking a myth for greater dramatic interest and power.