Noah and his Scandalous Pro-Environmentalism Dreamboat
Noah, the big-budget Biblical spectacle from auteur director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Black Swan) hit theaters this weekend, pulling in a surprising amount of cash and generating no end of controversy. With a stellar cast including Russell Crowe, Emma Watson, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, and Ray Winstone, an array of impressive effects-driven setpieces, and the benefit of a generally familiar story, it’s received generally favorable reviews. I, for one, was impressed with it. Like much of Aronofsky’s work I think the ambition ever so slightly outweighs the execution, but there’s no standout flaw that might make the average film fan regret dropping the cash to go see it. Of course, since it’s a “Bible Movie”, there’s a lot to talk about here outside of what’s shown onscreen. In particular, I find the fact that audience-driven scores on sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes are currently trending far below those of critics to be interesting. I don’t place much stock in aggregate review scores as a general rule, but when there’s nothing inherent in the quality of the film itself to cause such a rift, I think it’s worth talking about. Don’t worry, I’ll get to the film itself eventually.
Right off the bat, I’d just like to point out how incredible it is that this movie even got made in the first place. In today’s incredibly divisive social climate, there’s really no guaranteed audience for something like Noah. I readily admit that I’d have dismissed it from the outset if Darren Aronofsky’s name hadn’t been on it. And for the faith-based audience, now accustomed to a steady diet of safe, bland, made-for-TV fare like Son of God, news of an Old Testament story being brought to the big screen by an atheist director resulted in no small amount of alarmist shield-rattling. It might surprise you to hear, however, that this sort of thing is nothing new. Back in the restrictive environment of the Hays Code, studios used to crank out spectacle-laden Bible based crowd-pleasers on the regular, often as an excuse to pack more sex, violence, and action into a picture than would normally be allowed. Even the strictest of censors were reluctant to demand cuts to the Bible (or even anything ostensibly Biblical in nature), leading to a shocking amount of directorial freedom and creative license on such epics as The Ten Commandments (1956), King of Kings (1961), Samson and Delilah (1949), and Ben-Hur (1959). The Bible was essentially the Marvel Comics of the 1950’s and early 60’s, and everybody was fine with that arrangement. Fast forward half a century to a much less(!) socially progressive environment and an audience that’s bound to be split between “dismissive” and “outraged”, and what was once commonplace is suddenly a huge risk for a major studio like Paramount.
I think everyone is more or less familiar with the general structure of “Noah and the Flood”, but here’s the movie setup in a nutshell. Noah, a direct descendant of the first man Adam, has become increasingly convinced via dreams and hallucinations that God–referred to exclusively here as “The Creator”–has become increasingly displeased with mankind and intends to flood the world and begin anew. It’s not a hard reset, however; the animals are innocent and thus two of each need preserving to repopulate the new world. Noah, although not entirely convinced that even he or his family are meant to be saved, sets about building the ark to handle the animal problem. His main obstacles are Tubal-cain, a descendant of Cain and leader of a horde of men determined to take the ark and thus evade the incoming wrath of The Creator, a small population of Nephilim (here referred to as The Watchers), a group of now rock-bound fallen angels who have watched over man since the beginning of creation, and his son Ham, who’s generally just angry that he’s being asked to live through the repopulation of Earth without a wife. All outward appearances would seem to indicate that this is actually a pretty close (if slightly embellished) retelling of the classic Sunday School favorite, and anywhere but America you’d probably be right in presuming that to be the case.
Where things become problematic is in the very essence of the Noah story: the idea that people made a mess of things and that the rest of the world badly needs preserving. That’s played up hard in the Aronofsky version, as it should be. The lifeblood of fables and mythology, whether you take them literally or not, is the fact that they generally contain a message worth passing down and preserving. That’s why one uniting factor in most of the major religions throughout history is that they’ve all had some manner of flood story; it’s among the most classic of cautionary tales. Bafflingly, this seems to be one of the primary points of contention for much of the faith-based audience, with right-wing bloggers and professional sensationalists bemoaning the portrayal of Noah as an “environmentalist wacko” more concerned about animals than he is people. What should be perceived as common sense for nonbelievers and the direct word of God for Biblical literalists now flies in the face of a new dogma that paints mankind as the ultimate stewards of the Earth, whose God-given right it is to burn giant pandas for fuel if it furthers the concept of Manifest Destiny. It’s a good thing nothing bad ever came of tightly interweaving religion and big business-driven political rhetoric for the past 30-odd years. A number of other complaints lead the backlash as well, everything from the avoidance of the word “God” and the use of dreams as opposed to direct Divine Edict, to the Lord of the Rings-infused portrayal of the Watchers. That last one I can sort of see–everyone knows Nephilim are Flying Type, not Rock Type. In all seriousness though, it’s extremely troubling to see that the central tenet of the Biblical story–people blew it, save the animals and try again–faithfully preserved in this adaptation, now elicits a knee-jerk negative reaction in a significant portion of the audience.
Okay, that’s mostly out of my system. Politics and religion aside, this really is a quality film, both as a message piece and as entertainment. Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Noah flawlessly runs the gamut from loving father to a man crushed under the weight of an overwhelming task, and Jennifer Connelly’s performance carries a level of depth and subtlety that places this among her very best roles. Anthony Hopkins’ half-Yoda/half-Gandalf take on Methuselah is delightful, and I’d eagerly buy any extended cut of the film that gave him more scenes. A few things I was interested to see explained in depth (how do you keep that many animals on a boat for a year?) get a little handwaved, but the more personal focus on Noah and his family is well played and worth skimming over a few details to make room for. The powerhouse cast coupled with the stunning cinematography, excellent effects, and large-scale battle sequences really do make this feel like a callback to the high-end prestige pictures of decades past that I mentioned earlier in this article, and I for one would love to live in a world where this sort of thing can once again happen with regularity. Now that filmmaking tech is up to the task, I would very much like to see a movie about a man living inside a whale, even if it does run the risk of being criticized as anti-whaling propaganda.
Posted on March 31, 2014, in Movies, Opinion, Reviews and tagged Anthony Hopkins, Ark, Bible Movies, Controversy, Darren Aronofsky, Emma Watson, Flood, Jennifer Connelly, Nephilim, Noah, Ray Winstone, Russell Crowe. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.