If you’re a filmmaker and you’re going to take on the Bible as your subject matter, you better have huge ego, chutzpah, cojones or something along those lines. Inevitably, your film is going to be compared to the source material and you’re probably going to lose.
In the Bible, the story of Noah and the Great Flood only takes up 114 lines. That’s not a lot yet director Darren Aronofsky managed to make a 137-minute film out of it. To achieve that, he took a lot of liberties with the text, sometimes taking it literally and at other times reinterpreting it altogether. For people like me who are purists, NOAH is a bit of a disappointment.
According to Aronofsky’s version of events, following Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, man (in the gender non-specific sense) is exiled into the Wilderness. (The film was shot in Iceland which is the place to go if you want wilderness.) There, the children of Cain multiply and spread throughout the land, raping and pillaging both it and each other wherever they go. Meanwhile, the children of Seth are less prolific. There is only Noah, his wife and their three sons. They are environmentally sensitive; they take only what they need.
One night, Noah has a vision that “the Creator” will destroy life as they know it. Noah has been selected to build an ark to house pairs of each mammal, bird, insect and reptile and deliver them to the cleansed new world. For Noah and his family, they are only the zookeepers. They are destined to die out on the other side, leaving the world to the animals.
And this is just beginning of Aronofsky’s interpretations. While it’s correct that the Bible mentions Cain’s offspring in great detail and Seth’s much less so, Aronofsky takes the Bible to the letter, postulating that the only remaining descendants of Seth were Noah, his family and his grandfather, Methuselah. In the Bible, Noah’s father, Lamech lived to the ripe old age of 777, while in the film he is killed by one of Cain’s descendants, Tubal-Cain, when Noah was a boy.
Not only did Aronofsky change the story, he also missed out on some great cinematic opportunities. The Bible says that the animals arrived two by two, or seven by seven, depending on the animal. (Check your Bible if you don’t believe me.) Of course, in film these days you don’t have real animals. Everything is done using CGI. So we were treated to some nice digital fauna. But here is where Aronofsky blew it: In the film, Noah and his wife created some concoction that drugged the animals so they slept while they were on board the ark. Aronofsky felt that audiences wouldn’t be able to believe that the animals could all get along well on the ark and wouldn’t try to kill each other. But this is the Bible, man! If we’re going to believe that the animals came on board on their own accord in the first place, then why can’t we believe that they lived together in harmony while on the water? Aronofsky was cherry picking what he wanted the audience to believe. My feeling is that the audience is either going to believe everything or it’s going to believe nothing. I would have preferred to have seen the animals interact with each other and with Noah’s family. It was a missed opportunity for sure. (For US$130 million, you’d think he could have had the animals do something other than sleep.)
Aronofsky also had an interesting take on how the ark looked. While the Bible does mention its size, it doesn’t mention its shape. Aronofsky’s ark looked like a gigantic shipping container. He said that the vessel did not need to be sleek. Its only purpose was to carry the animals from one point to the other. Fair enough but a large rectangular box doesn’t show a lot of imagination.
In the film, Noah experiences survivor’s guilt, which again diverges from the Bible. He believes that man will end with his family once they reach the other side. Only the animals will live on. However, in the Bible, Noah is told by G-d that he and his family will form the basis for a new population.
Alright. I think I’ve slammed the script enough (but I could go on).
I saw the 3D version, which once again proved disappointing. The glasses just cut down on the amount of light that reaches our eyes. As a result, the ark, which was dark enough without the 3D effect, becomes an indistinguishable mass of greyish brown. In one scene between Ham and someone I won’t name because it would spoil it if I did, you can barely make out the animals that are sleeping next to them. For me, there weren’t enough of the kind of effects that can turn the film into a “wow” experience. A couple of flying doves, the rain… not much more.
The acting was average at best but, with a lousy script, what can you do? Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connolly star as Noah and Naamah respectively. (Again, in a diversion from the Bible, Naamah is the sister of Tubal-Cain. In the film, this is omitted altogether.) The two actors previously starred together in A BEAUTIFUL MIND. He was more convincing than she was, although the hair styling was a bit OTT. Anthony Hopkins stars as the oldest man on Earth, Methuselah. He has so much presence that he just has to squint and he’s won our hearts. Emma Watson is competent as Ila, a character that isn’t even mentioned in the Bible. As an orphan, she is adopted by Noah’s family. Later, she becomes Shem’s wife. Ray Winstone plays Tubal-Cain, the film’s requisite bad guy, which he does with suitable relish. Nick Nolte and Aronofsky regular Mark Margolis do the voices for two of the Nephilim, the fallen angels that Aronofsky’s reimagines as Tolkien-esque rock creatures who support Noah in his ark-building mission.
Darren Aronofsky is most definitely not in the league of Steven Spielberg and Cecil B. DeMille. NOAH is a very average movie at best. Go read the book instead.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 38:03.)