Noah

April 5, 2014
Russell Crowe in 'Noah' (2014)
Russell Crowe in 'Noah' (2014)

In Chapter 6 of Genesis, God gives Noah very specific instructions about how to build an ark. It clocks in at a length of 300 cubits, a breadth of 50 cubits, and a height of 30 cubits. 300 cubits is roughly 138 metres in today’s measurements. By comparison the Titanic measured 269 metres from end to end, while today’s biggest cargo vessels are almost 400 metres in length.

Nevertheless, a pretty good effort when one considers the construction crew consisted of Noah, who was a sprightly 600 years old at the time, and his three sons – Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Even by the standards of the Old Testament, the tale of Noah and his ark is far-fetched. The sketchiness of the Biblical account has emboldened Darren Aronofsky to rework the story, adding details that are simultaneously more realistic and relevant to a contemporary audience, and elements that are sheer Hollywood trash.

Aronofsky is one of America’s most original and dynamic new generation directors, and Noah is his first attempt at big budget studio blockbuster. Made at a reputed cost of US$130 million, the film is roughly $100 million more expensive than any of his previous projects. If the masterful Black Swan (2010) was a kind of chamber opera, Noah resembles Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony.

Noah is the first of a new series of Hollywood Biblical epics, intended to cash in on the lucrative Christian market in the United States. Next up will be Ridley Scott’s Exodus, with Christian Bale as Moses. Yet Aronofsky’s film has already offended Christians who object to the director’s atheism, and his attempt to portray Noah as “the first environmentalist.”

Russell Crowe’s Noah is a pretty terrifying advertisement for vegetarianism. Maybe only Brian Sherman of Voiceless could have brought more intensity to the role of a miltant vegan who will stop at nothing.

Bringing up his family on nuts, roots and berries, Noah is horrified by the meat-eating ways of mainstream society, engulfed in violence and depravity. The line of Cain has brought about a rapacious industrial society that has depleted the earth’s resources and created a wasteland.

Noah and his family, who belong to the line of Seth, live like virtuous hippies in the wilderness. Whenever the evil city types encroach on their territory Noah forgets his peace-loving ways and dispatches them with some ultra-violence. This doesn’t perturb the Old Testament God, who is Himself rather bloodthirsty. He still rates Noah’s family as the only ones worthy of his grace.

The idea for the ark is not delivered in a simple message, but presented to Noah in a dream which has to be interpreted by his aged dad, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who is almost 1,000 years old and going strong. Once he gets the idea, Noah becomes a glazed-eyed zealot. As the film progresses he gets more and more crazed, feeling he needs to kill a baby because God wants only animals to inherit the world after the flood.

This is a bold invention on the part of Aronofsky and his co-writer, Ari Handel, but not quite as bold as the idea of Ray Winstone, with his gravelly Cockney voice, playing Tubal-cain, the evil dictator of the world of men who wants his own place in the ark. In Genesis, Tubal-cain gets one line and is identified as a blacksmith. In this film he is a James Bond super-villain.

Genesis also says “there were Giants in those days”, which is Aronofsky’s cue for introducing a race of stony, multi-armed giants called The Watchers. They are also vaguely based on the “Nephilim”, who get no more space in the Bible than Tubal-cain. The problem for the movie is that they are close relatives of the wretched Transformers and all the other big monsters and big robots that pollute our screens today.

The Watchers help Noah out of a few tight spots and assist in building the ark. The sons are not so helpful because they are much younger and more troublesome than their Biblical equivalents. In Genesis, the three sons are all happily married. In Aronofsky’s account, Shem (Douglas Booth) has the hots for Ile (Emma Watson), an orphan girl that Noah has rescued; Ham (Logan Lerman) is full of raging teen hormones and desperate for a girlfriend, while Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) is still a long way shy of puberty.

This excursion into the realm of teenage angst is an unwelcome distraction. The choice of actors will make many viewers feel they are watching Perks of Being a Wall Flower in medieval costume. The Methuselah character is yet another variation on Gandalf, the all-purpose wizard.

Jennifer Connelly, as Noah’s wife, Naameh (unnamed in the Bible), seems designed to act as the voice of reason to her husband’s increasingly deranged ideas.

The animals, who should have a starring role, are masterpieces of CGI, but strangely marginal to the action. Noah’s family put them to sleep with some mysterious fumes and they snooze through the journey. When the ark finally hits land, Noah goes on a bender. This bit is straight out of the Bible but has proved controversial with Christian and Muslim audiences.

These tangled plot lines are stuffed into a two-and-a-half hour epic which often becomes turgid. Rusty spends the entire film looking, by turns, wise and paternal or homocidal.

I couldn’t resist pulling John Huston’s The Bible …In the Beginning (1966) off the shelf and watching the way he filmed the Noah sequence, which occupies a mere 40 minutes. It is more like a TV sit-com than a Biblical epic, with Huston playing the lead role himself to comic effect. He has wonderful lines such as: “The Lord hath taken the world by both ends and he shaketh it.”

Huston’s God is a harping voice that pursues Noah everywhere. The animals are real and spend the whole trip grunting, roaring, squeaking and making a nuisance of themselves. Huston treats the story as magnificent nonsense and plays it for laughs. Aronofsky, in an age of renewed religious fundamentalism, has tried to imbue the nonsense with psychological realism, highly charged political issues and big monsters. One can admire his ambition but the result is a failure of Biblical proportions.

Noah
USA, rated M
138 mins
Directed by Darren Aronofsky; written by Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel, after a book by God; starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, Ray Winstone

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 5 April, 2014.

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