Silver Screen: Noah 1/2*
Director Darren Aronofsky described his pitch for his pseudo-Biblical epic Noah thusly: “When I first went to the studio, I said, ‘Hey, what’s the only boat more famous than the Titanic?’”
A more accurate summation might be, “Hey, want to see a bigger disaster than the Titanic?” That would be Noah, a bloated, rambling, absurdly self-important slog that combines the silliest elements of the Bible and The Lord of the Rings to make a two-hour-and-twenty-minute epic of self-flagellation that does indeed feel like punishment from a cruel and angry god. Were it not quite so relentlessly grim and unpleasant it might be unintentionally hilarious, which would make it the only time in his career the brooding, self-serious director has made an actual joke.
Give Aronofsky credit for this— this, and absolutely nothing else— it takes a Goliath-sized set of balls to do a major rewrite of the Bible. This may mark the first time God has ever gotten studio notes: “Yahweh, baby, love the first draft, there’s a lot of good material here, but the second act needs a punch up and we’ve got to have a B-story for the female lead. Also, The Hobbit is making huge bank right now, so I’m thinking maybe a big battle scene with some rock monsters.”
Oh, yes, there are rock monsters. We’ll get to that.
The inherent trouble with the Noah story, ironically, is that it has no arc. God tells a dude to prep for the coming apocalyptic flood by building a boat and saving all the animals, and he does, the end. There’s not much conflict, at least not until the second half of the story, when a drunken Noah strips down and his son Ham gets cursed for looking at his dad’s crotch. (It’s a real step down, dramatically, as sequels go.)
Aronofsky’s solution is to elaborate on the nameless wicked ones God is seeking to destroy, casting Ray Winstone as the leader of an army of barbarians that split the difference between Game of Thrones’ wildlings and the orcs from The Lord of the Rings. Winstone’s evil leader, Tubal-cain, is cheesed that the G-man doesn’t hang out and show his creations miracles more often, and he wants to hijack Noah’s ride to live in spite of the creator.
Solemn, self-important douchebag Noah (Russell Crowe) is undeterred. He never once questions the validity of his visions, because not only does he have the Lord on his side, he’s also teamed up with a race of rock monsters called the Watchers, former angels who fell to earth and have become encrusted in these new multi-armed bodies of rock. The Watchers not only help build the boat, but they repel the invading hordes during a massively boneheaded action sequence that exists for no other reason than to give the movie epic scope and popcorn thrills.
Trouble is, by this point the movie is barely halfway over. Masochists who remain in their theaters seats, or perhaps just those who dozed off and then awoke at an inopportune time, are subjected to a protracted plot of mutiny when Tubal-cain manages to sneak aboard the boat and convince Ham (Logan Lerman) to kill his father after Noah decides that it’s also God’s wish that he sacrifice the newborn child of his eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth) and adopted daughter (Emma Watson), but not until Mrs. Noah (Jennifer Connelly) delivers a teary-eyed filibuster about why Noah shouldn’t stick a knife into an infant.
The conflation of the Bible stories— grafting the more interesting and emotionally resonant tale of Abraham onto the Noah parable— is baffling, but really no more inexplicable than any of the other decisions the writer/director made in this grandiose dud. The overriding question remains: Why bother to adapt a Bible story but change it so significantly that it ultimately bears little resemblance to the original? The faithful can’t be too keen on the whole “Let’s add in some computer-generated rock monsters!” bit, while bored unbelievers such as myself have absolutely no investment in pious church hokum. The end result is much closer to the Tower of Babel: an inherently misbegotten idea that consumes a massive amount of manpower and resources only to get us no closer to an understanding of heaven or earth. At best Noah is an excuse for Aronofsky to indulge in his admittedly distinctive ability to craft vivid fever-dream imagery, although, as usual, he’s unconfident enough in these images that he feels forced to assault us with a barrage of them rather than let them linger.
The only real winner here is Sandra Bullock. The star of Speed II: Cruise Control can now rest easy knowing she’s not the lead in the worst movie ever set on a cruise ship.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.