What a fascinating mess Noah is. It’s beautiful to look at, epic in scope, has solid and committed acting, and is, in far too many ways, completely ridiculous.
Anyone expecting any real fidelity to the Biblical story of Noah will be disappointed, insulted, or horrified. It’s understandable that a film based on a rather thin amount of text has to be fleshed out in some ways. After all, we need conversations and connective tissue. But what Noah does is ignore half the text it’s based on and add mystical elements not only not in the text, but at odds with it.
The Biblical God is one who made a covenant with Noah. Director Darren Aronofsky’s (with co-writer Ari Handel) has “the Creator” instead, one who speaks in confusing dreams and whose power is shown through crystal-like shining bits of light. It’s also not clear that the tear Noah goes on while on the boat about assuming that everyone is supposed to die—and therefore his upcoming grandchild’s birth will have to mean its death if it is a girl (huh?)—is “inspired” by God or madness.
It would take an article much longer than this to tell what is missing from the original story that is worth filming, and what is added that is not. Others have done a good job of that, including an intense, occasionally brutal article highlighting the pagan elements of the additions (http://americanvision.org/10440/aronofskys-noah-a-panoply-of-jewish-paganism/).
But some of the changes must be noted. The Bible has Noah entering the ark with his wife, his three sons and their wives. The film decides to add an adopted daughter as one wife, and leaves the other men single but longing. In fact, it leaves the other two as a teen and the other a boy, and the need for wives becomes a dramatic issue with Noah’s wife and a major bone of contention with Ham, the one who becomes the outcast. He is presented here as the middle child, and it’s true that most Bible references to Ham place him in the middle. But Genesis 9:24 calls him Noah’s youngest. Did no one read the actual Biblical text closely?
A famous film line of the ‘90s was from Jerry McGuire: “You had me at hello.” Well, the film began to lose me about one minute in with “the Watchers.” These are rocky Transformer-like creatures that might be fallen angels with a strange backstory, but whose appearance in a Biblically based film would be somewhere between ludicrous and borderline sacrilegious if it weren’t simply so bizarre. They are presented with utmost seriousness, but still end up a combination of Treebeard and Optimus Prime.
Then there is the modern-day ecology slant. Now that ecological concern is the new religion, Aronofsky could almost get away with throwing in such a modern perspective. But he doesn’t, and it doesn’t work. The film itself makes it clear from the start that man’s wickedness is the reason for the judgment, but then the emphasis on man’s sin becomes focused on his lack of care of the earth, not other minor concerns like murder, rape and pillaging. In fact, the villain Tubel-Cain (who is a Biblical character having absolutely nothing to do with Noah and the ark), who crazily ends up stowing away on the ark, is the mouthpiece for today’s extreme ecological position that the earth would have been better off without man. In fact, his character demonizes the Biblical injunction to have dominion over the earth by associating dominion with destruction and exploitation.
Then there is Methuselah, the oldest man who ever lived. Yes, he was Noah’s grandfather, but there are no conversations recorded between the two. Here he’s presented as a kind of old wizard, a completely anti-Biblical characterization. Any scene with him is from the screenwriters, not the Bible. And can someone other than Anthony Hopkins please be cast as the wise old man with great dignity and power?
A typical mistake of Bible reading is to assume that because something is written right after after something else, it must have happened right after. It’s doubtful that Aronofsky, an admitted atheist, is up to speed on such things. And it hurts the film. It’s true that the Bible has Noah getting drunk, but any study of this passage indicates that it happened years after landing, when Ham’s son Canaan was born. The film takes this incident and reverse-engineers it by having Noah go bonkers on the ark to prepare the character for such behavior. Anyone reading Genesis once, cursorily, knows that Noah wasn’t set on the destruction of everyone, and didn’t threaten his grandchildren’s lives, or grow half-insane and isolationist.
The film is admittedly stunning to look at, with scenes of great geographical beauty combined with silhouette work reminiscent of William Cameron Menzies’ in Gone with the Wind. One has to find a set that works, and the rough beauty of the terrain adds weight and a degree of credibility to many of the scenes.
The actors also give it their all. Few have the authority on screen of a Russell Crowe, and even while the script has him go in directions that would fell a lesser actor, Crowe commits, every second. Jennifer Connelly joins him for a second time as spouse (A Beautiful Mind), and again plays the patient wife of a mentally disturbed man of many talents. She gives her all as well, though the faux “soft-British” accent comes and goes.
Emma Watson is fine as the made-up adopted daughter. Douglas Booth is fine as well as Shem, but he’s too distractingly pretty and modern-model looking to be believable. Ray Winstone twirls his moustache a bit too much as the anachronistically out-of-place-and-time Tubel-Cain, but his character doesn’t fit here and is too stock-villain to begin with.
The standout here beyond the two leads is Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters) as Ham. Lerman can act and has screen presence to beat the band. He has a huge career ahead of him.
There hasn’t quite been a film like Noah, and there isn’t likely ever to be one again. A true analysis of how it departs from the Biblical story would take a master’s thesis to manage. The look, the setting, the acting—all solid. From a biblical viewpoint, the additions range from logical (family conversations—Noah and kin must have talked, of course) to head-bangingly bonkers.
Aronofsky is a serious (and seriously good) director. He takes seriously what he puts on the screen, even when it defies believability. His earnest commitment to his vision almost makes us accept what we see. But his departures from his source material do such damage to his story that we ultimately have to shake our heads in disbelief. Yes, the acting is good and the images are roughly beautiful. Beyond that, it’s all a little crazy.