Movie Review: Noah (2014)
When I went to see “Noah” it was raining. When I came out the sun was shining. On my way to dinner, there was a rainbow in the sky. Was God giving me the rainbow sign? No more “Noah” ... just relax and get some bún chả.
Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” is an odd little movie. Or an odd big movie. It’s based upon three short chapters, 68 verses total, in the Book of Genesis, but it lasts two and a half hours. Expect extrapolation.
Is the Christian community embracing “Noah”? I think they suspect it. It comes from Hollywood, after all, and you know what those peopleare like. Hollywood needs to find a way to promote religious movies as if they’re the religious movies Hollywood doesn’t want you to see. There’s a trick in that. Mel Gibson figured it out.
It helps that Gibson made his “Passion” culturally conservative. His Jesus was an action-hero Jesus. After being whipped, he rose again (only to be whipped again). After crucifixion, he rolled back the rock to a martial drumbeat. “Passion of the Christ” is basically the first third of a revenge movie where the final two-thirds plays out in the minds of religious conservatives everywhere. People like me and Bill Maher suffer for all of eternity in their imaginations.
Why Christians should embrace this movie
“Noah” fails in its cultural conservatism. Sure, the Watchers, angels who help Cain in the land east of Eden, and who are thus punished by the Creator by being turned into giant rock creatures, experience, just before the Flood, a kind of rapture, where they shed their earthly form and ascend into the skies. And, sure, the sons and daughters of Cain live in a figurative hell and are punished in the Flood. They cling to mountaintops and cry for help. And help comes not. And the world is cleansed of them.
But the ultimate message is environmental and vegetarian (read: soft and leftist). The sons of Cain slaughter the animals and leave clear-cut devastation in their wake. The sons of Seth are more benevolent. They are caretakers of the world. Unfortunately, the sons of Cain have taken over the world, while the sons of Seth have been reduced to one: Noah.
Even so, Christians should embrace this movie, if only because it makes religious doofuses like myself get our Bible again.
Adam and Eve bore three sons? Cain, Abel ... and Seth? Yes. Genesis 4:25: “And Adam knew his wife again; and she bare a son, and called his name Seth.”
And Noah, and thus all of us, are descendants of Seth and not Cain? Yes. Genesis 5:1-32. Basically it goes like this:
- Adam, who lived to be 930 years old, begat Seth, who lived to be 912.
- Seth begat Enos, who lived to be 905.
- Enos begat Cainan (910)
- Cainan began Mahalaleel (895)
- Mahalaleel begat Jared (962)
- Jared begat Enoch (365)
- Enoch begat Methuselah (969)
- Methuselah begat Lamech (777)
- And Lamech begat Noah
So it took nine generations for God to get sick of us.
But the Watchers stuff is bullshit, right? I mean, giant rock creatures?
Well, yes and no. Genesis 6:4 does say “There were giants in the earth in those days.” No mention of rock, but there were giants. That’s Biblical, baby.
Dramatic tension, pre-Flood
You know the story: wickedness, ark, animals, flood, 40 days and 40 nights, dove, olive leaf, new beginning.
The children of Cain have taken over the world while the children of Seth have almost died off. It’s just father and son, Lamech and young Noah (Marton Csokas and Dakota Goyo). Then it’s just young Noah when Lamech is slain by a young Tubal-cain (Finn Wittrock), who will grow up to be bad news: Ray Winstone. Thankfully Noah grows up to be badder news: Russell Crowe. He will marry Naameh (Crowe’s “A Beautiful Mind” costar Jennifer Connelly), and begat three sons: Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). They also pick up a stray girl nearly killed by marauders, Ila, who will thankfully grow up to be Emma Watson, the mother of us all. (Which begs the question: If Emma Watson is the mother of us all, shouldn’t we be better looking?)
Then: dreams and visions of apocalypse by water. Noah travels to the green mountain where his grandfather, Methuselah, lives (Anthony Hopkins, of course), and realizes what he’s supposed to do. Methuselah gives him a seed of Eden, which he plants, and which grows, in the arid desert around them, a vast forest with which to make an ark with the help of the Watchers. And that’s what he does. For several years.
The movie handles the animal thing well. Everyone always wondered about that. How does Noah gather all the animals? How do they live on the ark? Why don’t they eat each other? What about all the piss and shit? That’s gotta be a stinky place after 40 days and 40 nights.
Here, the animals come to him unbidden (Genesis 6: 20), go into the ark, which is a massive, rectangular creation, and immediately fall to sleep. They hibernate. So no food, no fights, no defecation. Easy peasy.
The bigger question is this: What’s the dramatic tension in the movie? Pre-flood, it’s threefold:
- Will Ham, a moody little shit, find a wife to take on the ark?
- Will Ila, who is barren, frigid or both, open up to Shem?
- Will Noah finish the ark before Tubal-cain, self-proclaimed king of this region, takes it over with his army of men?
In recent years, Russell Crowe has become a kind of punching bag for some critics, but I always enjoy seeing him on the screen, and “Noah” would be a much lesser movie without him: without the force of his face and the quiet in his voice. I’ve written about this before. Not many actors can convey strength with a whisper. He does. “Why don't you dance with a man for a change?” he whispers in “L.A. Confidential.” “Doctor Wigand,” he whispers in “The Insider.” In “Noah” it’s: “I’m not alone.” At 1:10 in the trailer:
Tubal-cain: I have men at my back. And you stand alone and defy me?
Noah: I’m not alone.
I always assumed he meant God but he’s actually talking about the giant rock creatures, who reveal themselves at this strategic point and allow the work on the ark to continue. When the rains come, the descendants of Cain rush the ark, which is again defended by the rock creatures, who are then raptured. But one descendant of Cain (besides Ila) gets on board. Guess who? Right. Tubal-cain is injured, but he makes a friend in Ham, who is bitter that his father didn’t save, against impossible odds, a pretty girl he’d just found. So he wants his revenge.
And that’s part of the dramatic tension in the second half of the movie: Will the mark of Cain revisit us even as the earth is being cleansed of the sons of Cain?
Dramatic tension, post-Flood
The fundamental question on the ark is an interesting one: Is man worth saving? Or is the world better without us?
Noah, on the ark, seeks an answer from God and either doesn’t get it or it comes back in the negative. We are a plague. Better we should die off.
Ah, but a wrinkle. Thanks to Methuselah back at the foot of the mountain, Ila was cured of both barrenness and frigidity, and is now pregnant. What to do? Noah declares his answer: a boy can live, a girl will be killed. So like China in the 1980s.
It turns out to be twins. Girls.
So at this point:
- Noah wants to kill the babies.
- Tubal-cain, a stowaway, wants to kill Noah.
- Ham, still pissed off, wants Tubal-cain to kill Noah. Maybe. He’s a bit wishy-washy on the subject.
- Shem wants to kill Noah before Noah kills the babies.
It’s a bit much. Did we really need Tubal-cain here? Couldn’t it have simply been a conflict within the one family who had found grace in the eyes of the Lord?
Obviously Tubal-cain is killed by Noah and/or Ham. (I’ve already forgotten.) And Ila runs with her babies to the top of the ark, where she is followed by Noah, who has the knife in his hands. But it’s not his knife that is lowered, it’s his head; to kiss and bless the babies, even as he thinks he does ill in the eyes of the Lord.
That’s the final dramatic tension in the denouement. When the waters recede, Noah drinks homemade wine, and hides himself from his family in a cave, and is naked (Genesis 9:20-21, more or less). He has defied God’s will. He must punish himself. But lo, Ila spaketh unto him, saying God hath given him a choice, and within he found goodness and love and mercy. And so it shall be for the children of Shem, and Japheth, and even Ham, the wanderer. Unto them the choice shall be given. And unto them the choice shall be made.
Nature, grace, et al.
Let’s face it: It’s a tough gig doing the Bible, let alone Noah’s ark. In the long history of film, Crowe is only the 33rd actor to play Noah, and most of the others were supporting parts (John Huston in “The Bible: In the Beginning...” in 1966) or in animated shorts (Disney’s 19-minute-long “Noah’s Ark” from 1959). Even 1928’s “Noah’s Ark” is really about World War I.
Obviously CGI animals are easier to deal with than the real kind, so it should be easier now, but the story of Noah is more problematic than that. Aronofsky’s version, for example, ends with Noah blessing his family as God blessed them in Genesis 9:1: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” But the second verse of God’s covenant with man is, in the movie, the philosophy of its villain, Tubal-cain: “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you.”
Both Noah and Tubal-cain see man in opposition to nature: either below it (as a plague) or above it (with dominion), but neither point of view is particularly interesting to me. Or correct. Dominion gives a license for greed, which man hardly needs. And Nature itself is hardly benevolent. It’s cruel. It’s X eats Y eats Z—like a giant restaurant, as Woody Allen once said.
During all this, I kept flashing to a more profound movie, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” where the mother, in voiceover, presents a greater dichotomy than “Noah” does:
The nuns taught us there were two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.
Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.
Nature only wants to please itself. Gets others to please it, too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.
In the end, “Noah,” a big, grand film with a nice lead performance by Crowe, is just too busy with subplots. It doesn’t quite resonate.
But it did force me to get out my Bible again.