Sunday, March 30, 2014
Charlton Heston is dead
Propaganda without a program, a story without characters, and a spectacle without enough worth looking at, Darren Aronofsky's Noah fails to be what it could have been and isn't even a good version of what it is.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Ari Handel and Darren Aronofsky
With Russel Crowe (Noah), Jennifer Connelly (Naameh), Ray Winstone (Tubal-cain), Anthony Hopkins (Methuselah), Emma Watson (Ila), Logan Lerman (Shem), Douglas Booth (Ham), Mark Margolis (Optimus Prime), and Nick Nolte (Bumblebee)
Spoiler alert: moderate
First things first, what is it about movies on boats and handheld camerawork? Knock it off. Yes, if nothing else, Darren Aronofsky can almost certainly boast of his Noah being the Biblical film with the most random camera movement, and probably also the most unpleasant, smeary motion blur, from a number of pan shots which are too slow to whip by, but too fast to do anything but make me profoundly seasick. Anyway, speaking of God's damnation...
If you were born into the Judeo-Christian tradition, you know that the sixth through ninth chapters of the Book of Genesis (although you may have to look that up) relate the ancient Hebrew iteration of the first story of the end of the world, the Great Flood; it is specifically about how the prophet Noach, his family, and terrestrial vertebrates survived in an Ark that he built.
More importantly, Gen. 6-9 is neither the first nor last but one of the boldest indications that Western civilization's former reigning deity, known as I Am to His friends, is neither a very nice wielder of divine power, nor was He a very intelligent designer in the first place. (See also: the Fall of Man; the fates of Sodom and Gamorrah; the Plagues of Egypt; a mirror.) My favorite part is when God, rather legalistically, promises never to destroy the Earth again by flood.
But the core of Noah's story is less about the judgment of God than it is the undying evil of humanity and, more to the point, the wish-fulfillment inherent in every apocalyptic tale to laugh with like-minded individuals while the world burns—or, in this case, drowns—and then rebuild, with like-minded individuals of the opposite sex, a new world bent to your own sense of moral rightness. It's a dream as old as society itself.
Aronofsky's Noah contains serious divergences from the Biblical text, but that separation of the righteous from the wicked must have appealed to his sensibilities as well.
This is abundantly clear from Aronofsky's deliberate overlay of his own hyper-modern values, which the savage authors of Genesis (alongside most of my fellow South Carolinians) would be ill-equipped to comprehend. For example, God wants us to respect animals' rights; thus Noah and his family are vegetarians. Apparently when (other) animals eat animals, though, that is okay. (Indeed, it's the film's villain who paraphrases Gen. 9:3, "Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything." I am a vegetarian myself, but I that doesn't mean I make any pretense that the natural world is a separate thing from humanity, let alone that it is possessed of some kind of simple unconscious beauty—but only when it preys up itself.)
God is also very upset about Earth's deplenished natural resources, for Noah's world has been ravaged by the depredations of humanity. The descendants of Cain have supposedly built an "industrial society," according to a title card—but don't worry. It becomes abundantly clear that the writers of that card do not know what the word "industrial" means, and succeed only in promising and then denying us a potentially radically interesting take on the old story.
But evil is evil (right?), and the eternal human response is to wish it destroyed by a sky-father. Thus Aronofsky's Noah is an exercise in pop-nihilism, lamentably without much pop, for which Paramount ponied up a hundred thirty million clams in the hopes that audiences would be mesmerized. That audience would be comprised mainly of Christians, one supposes; but perhaps also Transformers fans.
One of those flights of fancy Aronofsky takes, you see, is a rather clever but ultimately hollow measure to cover a glaring plot hole any cinematic rendition of the tale of the Ark would have: its construction. If you want to visualize the creation by one man and his family of the Ark, even if you permit it to remain the preposterously small container for Earth's biodiversity such as is described in the Bible, you have an automatic plausibility problem. One man, his wife, his two barely-adolescent sons and his pre-pubescent youngest child are unlikely to be able to build a ship, let alone in the time allotted. Thus, let us go just a few verses back and find some convenient helpers for Noah, who need not have any bias toward their own survival, and hence need not be in the least way interesting at all. Yes, someone realized there were Giants in the Bible, and thought they'd be pretty cool.
They're not. Though intriguingly rendered, the presence of Nephilim serves only to extend the film to an unsustainably-long running time (Gen. 6-9 can be read in about five minutes), and to distract from the most fascinating aspects of our revisionist Noah: the moral horror of a divine holocaust, and the human feeling of a man tasked with facilitating it. Wouldn't it be far more interesting if Noah had to abandon mortal wokrmen and their families? Perhaps not, for apparently this obvious scenario failed to interest Aronofsky, whom I have in the past considered a man of taste.
Indeed, though Aronofsky has clumsily engaged with these questions, he chose to pursue them with the most absurdly obtuse vehicles he could create.
On one side is our hero, Noah. He is convinced, and not without reason, that God wants to exterminate humanity completely, and that this is a good thing. Note that Ham and Japheth are unmarried in the movie, and much of the former's character motivation stems from his father's unwillingness to countenance him ever reproducing. I would say "fucking," but that word connotes far too much emotion, for love and sex are purely mechanical means to an end in Noah. Shem, meanwhile, could fuck to his heart's content, because his mate, Ila, is presumed barren; but as a result, they don't. Incidentally, literally not a word of this is in the Bible.
On the other side of the conflict between the chosen and the doomed is Tubal-cain. He is in Genesis somewhere, but not in Chapters 6-9. Still, for Aronofsky's purposes, he's well chosen enough: deniers of Biblical literalism point out that his appellation "forger of all instruments of bronze and iron" dates the Book of Genesis to much later than its tradition would hold. (Outside of such circles, however, his name is best known for its use in a hilarious Freemasonry joke made in a classic episode of the NBC super-sitcom NewsRadio.)
In any event, Tubal-cain is the king of the unnamed land upon whose fringes Noah's family dwells. Less an atheist than an antitheist, and having followed the migratory patterns of fowl, he has arrived at the conclusion that a Flood is truly coming. Tubal-cain, instead of using that "industrial society" of his to build a fleet of arks, instead brings his people (all two hundred or so) upon Noah's ark's doorstep. Unfortunately for us, just like his murderous ancestor, he serves as little more than a metaphor for everything Aronofsky dislikes about human nature, and for the most part his followers are Mad Max-style barbarians, and you can't really blame Noah for not letting them on his brand new boat.
If there is a moral center in Noah, and that's debatable, it's Ham, who calls out both his father for being a psychotic and Tubal-cain for being a degenerate, and tries to stab both during this film's mash-up between the text of Genesis and the climax of Cape Fear. Ultimately, he ends up walking away from their equally abhorrent philosophies. But he remains as fundamentally featureless a character as everyone else.
And that is the real sin inherent in Noah's design. The closest anyone gets to displaying a hint of real humanity in Aronofsky's vision is Methusaleh's interminable whinging about berries, which only a tidal wave can finally silence (God does have mercy); Hopkins still manages the most personable performance in the film. If the story of Noah was written with as much grace and feeling as a Wikipedia article by its ancient chroniclers, Aronofsky and Handel have hardly bettered them. And this is no ineradicable feature of the Biblical epic: for proof of that, one need only look at The Ten Commandments, which spent literal hours building the human foundations of its story. Not to say that Noah would be better with an extra hundred minutes. Having taken what was only a thousand word synopsis and turning it into two and a quarter hours of dull cinema has already shown that Aronofsky could not be less interested in that so-necessary element.
Of course, there are still things to enjoy in Noah. The score is fittingly sweeping and emotional; the cinematic execution of the story of the Creation, beginning in darkness and ending with the story of Cain and Abel, is cosmically phenomenal, and it recalls Ken Russell (when it's not, that is, recalling a Max Fischer play); the best shot in the film is that of the Earth from space, its entire surface consumed by truly Biblical cyclones; the entirely unconvincing CGI on the Nephilim is still charming, suggesting Harryhausen, and perhaps it does this intentionally; and there's an appearance of a giant pangolin, of all things, which would have been cooler were the giant pangolin, as I thought while watching the movie, actually extinct. But outside of these highlights, Aronofsky's Noah is a failure. It will bore and frustrate theist and atheist alike.
For a more edifying and entertaining and even more Biblically faithful version of the story of Noah, I recommend instead the seventh segment of Fantasia 2000, "Pomp and Circumstance—Marches 1, 2, 3, and 4." It stars Donald Duck.