Noah is a historical drama, yes, but more than that, it’s a family drama, with all the loves and hates, mercies and jealousies, of great families who live together for a long time under trying circumstances. It’s also a buddy boat film, if you will, between a man trying to be righteous, and his God who is one nasty, mean-spirited higher power. There are love stories–Noah and his faithful wife are one of the best long-time relationships we’ve seen on screen in ages. The young lovers, Noah’s son and his foundling girlfriend, are sweet and delightful. And grandpa Methusaleh (Anthony Hopkins), a berry-craving elder, looks on his descendants with the loving wisdom many of us with we had known in our own families.
There’s lots of magic, too. Let’s face it, getting animals from all over the world to walk into the ark by themselves, without eating one another, or dropping enough tons of poop to sink a battleship, has to be pretty magical. As if that weren’t enough, thanks to Methuselah, Noah’s aloof grandfather, who was over 900 years old when the flood got him, pulls a few tricks out of his sleeves to personally assure that Noah’s bloodline will continue.
More surprising than other poetic licenses in the film are the science fiction (CGI) aspects of the story, namely The Watchers, who are former angels of light turned into behemoth stone monsters–creatures who come in very handy when Noah has to cut down a huge forest and build his monumental ark.
If you are a Bible literalist, the freedoms taken with the Noah story will probably make you have conniptions. What a shame. You’d be missing a good movie. Because truth is, despite all the condemnation of this film you might have heard about (usually from people who haven’t even bothered to see the film before they flap their lips about how evil it is), the movie can even be described as “Biblical.” Yes, you read that right. I think that any tale that starts from anger and ends up in mercy has its story arc in the right place.
Russell Crowe, burly and scowling and oddly attractive in his Stone Age fashions and changing facial hair, is a brilliant Noah. He rages, he fumes, he accepts no objections to his insane demand that his family follow the vision he says God gave him. Noah proves himself to be a very human hero. In the beginning, God spoke clearly to Noah, convincing him to follow his horrible orders to the letter. But as the years go by, God becomes silent, sending Noah into terrible despair. “Why do you not answer me?” Noah screams. No answer.
Must faith alone inspire Noah during God’s silence? And how can we not remember another lonely man’s plea centuries later. “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Which has to be the most pitiful cry in human history.
So Noah indeed is a guy with whom we can identify. But that doesn’t mean we have to like him. There’s not one moment of humor in this entire movie. How can you live for ages with the same wife and kids and not explode in laughter occasionally? Oh, well, another story…
Noah lives in some sort of pre-Neolithic age, where metal, including steel is, thankfully, widely available. Location Iceland–marvelous place for mountains and rocky terrain. They’re vegetarians, but you never see any farms. So that means they must get by with the simple gathering of plants – not an easy way to fill your bellies. And how do they make clothes? Those wonderfully earth-toned garments that cling so flawlessly from their shoulders – heck, these people even have scarves!
Noah and his family live in constant fear of the other human beings who inhabit this planet. People who have built great evil cities (which alas we never get to see – that would have been very interesting) and whose disregard of nature has ravished the earth. They run around marauding all over the place and eating meat (animal and human, so it seems). These people are lead by a repulsive piece of work named Tubal-cain (descendant of Adam and Eve’s murderous son Cain, get it?), played by Ray Winstone, who, on purpose or not often looks so much like Noah, they could be (and are) cousins.
Tubal-cain (different sides of the same coin?) insists on reminding everyone that he and his ilk were also created in the image of the Creator. Is not his evilness also a reflection of The Creator? He, the villainous monster, also screams heavenward, “Why do you not answer me?” Obviously God’s silence is something we humans are just going to have to get used to, which makes some of us very suspicious about all the people around today who insist that God is talking to them.
Noah convinces his long-suffering wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) to follow him without question. Connelly won the Oscar in 2002 for her incredible performance as the hapless wife of the insane genius, played by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Her role in Noah is eerily similar. She has no visions of God, no dreams of the future apocalypse. She merely assumes that Noah is telling the truth. Is she a wifely sap or the life force that runs deep?
Only in one remarkable scene does she argue with her husband’s decisions and assert that it is her vision of righteousness, not his, that must determine their actions after he has allowed his God to have his way for most of the movie. She is indeed, Mother, standing up finally, to the ingrained patriarchy of her husband and his God. Alas, the moment is fleeting, but in reality, it is she, not Noah, who assures that humanity will live on after the flood.
Naameh has three sons, who grow up in the first part of the story. There is Shem (Douglas Booth), an embarrassingly good-looking young man who wears his first-born rights like a mantle of entitlement. As time goes on, he falls in love with Ila (Emma Watson), the foundling Noah rescued when she was a child and raised as his own daughter, but she is barren. Second son, Ham (Logan Lerman) never seems to have a chance at happiness. The third son is really too young to do much.
Never far from curiosity, or the movie’s subplots, is the issue of incest – how did people continue after the flood? In the Bible, at least Noah’s sons had wives. But in the movie, there aren’t any extra women to go around. (Ila is supposedly barren, remember, a fate that causes her and everybody else anguish waiting for the script writers, and Methusaleh, to solve it.)
Methuselah gives Noah a seed and in a few hours, enormous forests sprout up, supplying enough wood for many years of building. Helping to build the ark are the Watchers, those huge rock monsters. You’d think this might be ridiculous, and it is, but it’s also, thanks to the skill of the moviemakers, quite believable.
Then, as the first drops of rain fall, all the birds swarm into their places in the ark—a breathtaking scene. They all go to sleep thanks to the soporific incense made by Naameh. Then come the snakes. Finally come the animals—they walk in two by two—African elephants near American bison and quickly lay down and go to dreamland. (No bugs or butterflies, alas.) These scenes are never long enough to satisfy your curiosity about how it all happened—a serious flaw to me, in a movie about animals. Anyway, there’s not much time to worry about that because the flood comes. Not just rain, mind you, but huge exploding geysers of water emerging from the bowels of the earth.
And what about all those other human beings, the followers of Tubal-cain? And especially the young woman that poor Ham falls in love with but whose leg gets caught in an animal trap and Noah refuses to rescue? They’re out of luck, except Tubal-cain for a while, because he is, after all, the movie villain and needed for some more dastardliness before the end.
When the door to the ark finally closes, you’d think it would be time to relax for a while. Nope, the human drama continues inside the ark and gets even more interesting. The Bible, if nothing else, is a dramatic itemization of all the things—good and bad—that human beings can do to one another.
Finally – well, you know how it ends, sort of… the dove comes back with a sprig of greenery in its beak. The floodwaters reside.
But Noah’s angst continues. Can God’s promise not to send another flood really be trusted? Hasn’t anyone thought about global warming and the rising seas? Noah reminds his children to go forth and multiply and replenish the earth. But hasn’t anyone thought about overpopulation and the millions of children every year who starve to death?
In essence, the best thing about Noah, is not merely the excitement on the screen, but the many questions that keep multiplying when it’s over. Do see Noah, and do see it on the big screen.