Sunday, April 6, 2014

Film Review: Noah

If you are looking for a thorough, objective analysis of the movie, you might just want to skip this post. Instead of giving the film the deep treatment it probably deserves, I am only offering my very subjective and personal observations. I will say up front that I had no expectations of the story following the Genesis version of the myth. I was actually startled by how much it was informed by that account.

I saw "Noah" by myself while the kids were at school. I had read enough contradictory reviews to be curious, and when I realized it was directed by the same guy who gave us "The Fountain", I knew it would offer thoughts worth pondering. And I was not disappointed.

The story of a global deluge is very familiar to me, and not just from the Fisher-Price set, though our toddlers played with that, too. Growing up, nearly every question about biological or geological history was answered with, "Well, the Flood could have done that." The Flood was the reason for petrified forests, petroleum, peat bogs, fossils, dinosaur bones (the eggs were harder to explain, but probably them, too), and the Ice Age. (Living in Michigan, we couldn't deny the historical presence of glaciers.) The Flood explained the diagonal rock strata along the Pennsylvania turnpike, the formation of mountains and islands, attempted justification of American slavery, and why humankind formed early civilizations in Mesopotamia.

Based on a timeline that hung in the hallway of my childhood home, I thought Noah built his ark around 4000-3000 B.C. (Answers in Genesis pegs Noah's worldwide Flood at 2348 B.C.) The movie seems to deliberately avoid a specific timeline. And at every point the story feels more like mythology from Middle Earth than like historical documentary. At its core, it is a well-told fantasy tale.

There were a few ideas presented in the film that would have seemed stranger to me had I not first heard them floated (pun intended, folks) by the likes of Ken Ham and Carl Wieland. For example, Noah uses an herbal vapor to put the animals to sleep for the duration of the voyage. AIG's website suggests this as a possible solution to the eating and pooping conundrum: "It is, of course, also possible that God put the animals into a sleep for most of the time that they were on the ark."

Also in adherence with Ham's interpretation of Genesis, Noah is a strict vegetarian. And the ark appears plenty spacious for the numerous species on board, almost as if Aronofsky checked AIG's website to suggest specifics: "Without tiering of cages, only 47 percent of the ark floor would have been necessary. What’s more, many could have been housed in groups, which would have further reduced the required space." The fountains of the deep, just one among many fabulous special effects, did not surprise me in the least because Ham's version of the Flood always included such subterranean water sources combining with the 40 days and 40 nights of rainfall. I could also accept the advanced metallurgy, having read in Creation magazine long ago the suggestion that antediluvians could have built rockets and used batteries!

Those were aspects of the story that seemed almost familiar to me. The things that actually surprised me were:

  • Noah wearing pants. I partly went to see that, I admit. But way more than that was...
  • Mrs. Noah, and Noah's daughter-in-law, wearing pants!
  • Methuselah. He was a strange, wizard-like character. His creepy cave reminded me of the owl in the Secret of NIMH movie. I had never been able to imagine him dying in the flood. Now I can.
  • Noah becoming a crazed lunatic and the whole family being trapped with him on the boat for months. Talk about post-traumatic stress. As if they hadn't all been through enough already.
  • The miracle forest. I mean, the landscape was pretty much post-apocalyptic up to that point; nothing remained of that lush world the creator had first thought up. But then Noah plants Methuselah's magic seed, and poof! up sprouts a wood as fantastic as Jack's beanstalk or Jonah's gourd. 
  • The rock giants. I get that they came from the Watchers myth, but I had a hard time taking them too seriously since they looked like a hybrid between one of Peter Jackson's Ents and a Transformer that got too close to hot asphalt. Fascinating guys, and they got to do the real work of building the ark since Shem, Ham, and Japheth were too young to care much.
  • No agriculture. No animal husbandry. No farming of any sort. We never really saw Noah's family eat. They drank hallucinatory tea, apparently. And made a point not to eat meat--raw or otherwise. And it was vaguely suggested that they packed some food, but we didn't see it, or see any way they could even obtain it, other than gathering a few tiny berries. When Ham offered a bit of food to a hungry girl, I watched eagerly to see what it was, but it only looked like a crumbled granola bar and the camera went by it quickly.
  • The patriarchy. Oh, the damnable patriarchy! I should have expected it, of course, but it's been a while since I spent two hours immersed in that system again, and it was portrayed in a truly disturbing way. All the way down to Noah trying to control his sons' sex lives.
  • The cavalier way Noah used fire on the ark. All that dry wood smeared with flammable petroleum products. Did he have a death wish?!
  • Noah's wife threatening to leave him. Honestly, I might have pitched him overboard by that point, but I guess that would have deviated irrevocably from the biblical account.

In my opinion, the big theme this film brought up was the question, "How do we decide who is worth saving?" Depending on the audience, the question might bring up theological issues of salvation and damnation. Or it might be about humanitarian response to disaster or suffering. It might apply to national or international conflicts, political power and interests, or forming policies for addressing homelessness. It might be about whether and how we fight poverty or how we view immigration and human rights. It might apply to medical decisions. Mental health issues. How we deal with crime as a society.

In this movie, the writers raise a lot of questions, but leave it to the viewers to wrestle out the answers. By the time the ark went aground, all of us in the theater were probably ready to get vicariously drunk. I certainly was, and I've never even been drunk. It just seemed the most fitting response to Noah's whole shitty experience.

All the scenes in Noah are vivid, all are artistic, and a few are breathtaking. But the real drama in this version of the Noah's Ark tale takes place inside Noah's head and in his heart.

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