“Noah,” the new Biblical epic from director Darren Aronofsky, opened last weekend to ginned-up controversy that it was somehow a distortion of the “real” story of the ark-builder, as well as suggestions that Aronofsky was using the film to push an environmentalist message. The director accepted the later charge in a conversation with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, telling her “It was very clear to us that there was an environmental message. To pull that message out of it, we think, would have been more of an editing job than just sort of representing what’s there.”
It is nice to see a Hollywood creator embrace the idea of his work having a message, rather than running away from that idea as quickly as possible. But if “Noah” is supposed to be an environmental film, it is a truly awful messenger for the idea that God gave us a second chance so we could honor creation.
Part of the challenge is Noah (Russell Crowe) himself. My colleague Michael Gerson describes him as ” a brooding, misanthropic vegan,” which is actually understating it. Noah is so grimly committed to the task that God has set him that he ignores the harm that he does to his younger son Ham (Logan Lerman) in neglecting the boy’s longing for the companionship and comfort of a wife. Once aboard the ark, he lays out the order in which his children are to bury their parents and then each other once the flood recedes, because apparently his son Japeth (Leo McHugh Carroll) is supposed to get fired up about dying after years of utter isolation. He even threatens to murder his adopted daughter Ila’s (Emma Watson) child when she gets pregnant.
While Noah and Rust Cohle, the nihilistic cop played by Matthew McConaughey on HBO’s “True Detective,” might differ on the value of religion, they are both so convinced of humanity’s worthlessness that I can imagine them cracking open Lone Star beers together and settling down to await the end of days. If Noah’s grimness is meant to make environmental radicals like Earth First look mainstream, then the movie has succeeded. But on his own, Noah’s preference for animals and plants over people is the aggregation of every extreme environmental strawman.
If that were not enough, “Noah” also manages to strip all the grandeur out of the creation Noah is trying to save. Aronofsky leans toward showing the volume of life rather than its variety: great clouds of birds sweep in, snakes move like an inky pool across the ground, and mammals arrive in a solemn parade. These menageries are shot from above, below, or straight ahead, turning them into monochrome masses, rather than capturing the color and distinct shapes of the animals before they vanish into sedated gloom on the ark.
One exception is a time-lapse sequence paired with Noah’s narration of the Creation. It has some of the same visual panache that has characterized Fox’s “Cosmos.” In showing life change and become more sophisticated at a speed fast enough for us to see it, it suggests a rapprochement between the theory of evolution and Creationism, a smart nod to the very disparate constituencies “Noah” wanted to reach. But that, too, dead-ends in a cheesy sequence of Adam and Eve as glowing figures in the garden. In between some cheap-looking animation, the patently fake-seeming rock monsters called the Watchers, and wasteland boundaries decorated by skulls, I often found myself wishing for the honest pleasures of Ray Harryhausen’s monsters.
Maybe this drab exhaustion is the point. By the time Noah tells his children “This time there will be no men…the Creator has judged us,” I was kind of on board with the punishment. If this is all there is to creation, and if I have to hang out with Noah in it, taking a dip in the flood looks a lot more attractive.