The hilarious 1993 mockumentary “And God Spoke” chronicles two exploitation filmmakers producing an epic adaptation of the Bible. But things start poorly when they blow their budget building a massive ark that proves too big to remove from the warehouse.
It’s doubtful their version of Noah’s tale would have been any worse than the first half of Darren Aronofsky’s uncommonly awful “Noah.” It rivals “Battlefield Earth,” “Showgirls” and other touchstones of bad modern cinema. But it’s the kind of bad that only a mad genius like Aronofsky can muster. And throughout this effort, glimpses of brilliance crop up that evoke the talent he displayed in “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.”
“Noah” is essentially two staggeringly different movies. The absurd pre-flood section can best be described as “The Lord of the Rings” meets “Left Behind.” Or maybe Terrence Malick meets Monty Python.
Once the flood hits (spoiler alert!), the movie gets genuinely absorbing as it shifts into a contained character drama. Morality is pondered and tested, and actual emotion shines through.
These second-half successes are shouldered by the Oscar-winning cast. Russell Crowe takes on the titular role, imbuing the biblical figure with plenty of gravitas. As he and his family — wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), three sons and an adopted daughter — traverse the barren volcanic wasteland of ancient times, they encounter bloodthirsty descendants of Cain. These slash-and-burn foragers (who are conveniently dressed in medieval European armor) are constantly threatening his peace-loving clan. Fortunately, Noah may be a vegan prophet, but he can fight like Maximus.
One enemy he can’t overcome are the Watchers. These are fallen angels that have been reborn on earth as hulking, six-limbed creatures made of rock (really). They sound like the Ents from the “Rings” trilogy and move like the Gorignak from “Galaxy Quest.” These CGI monsters don’t fit in the Old Testament.
When a series of trippy dream sequences convinces Noah the world is being rebooted, he announces the idea for an ark.
“The storm cannot be stopped. It can be survived,” he comforts the family.
Meanwhile, a self-proclaimed king, Tubal-Cain (a game Ray Winstone), eyes the unfinished ark with a mix of contempt and covetousness. He whips up his army of soccer hooligans into a frenzy, which leads to the year’s most ridiculous battle scene, with the Watchers going stone-cold beserko on the human forces as skyscraper-sized fountains of water burst up from the ground.
Once the ark is adrift on the waters, its belly filled with sleeping two-by-two creatures, Aronofsky (with co-writer Ari Handel) abandons the special effects lunacy to concentrate on his characters. If only he’d done this sooner.
Connelly is especially strong as the dutiful wife who must challenge a husband controlled by forces beyond her comprehension. She and her “A Beautiful Mind” co-star definitely bring out the best in each other’s performances. Also effective is Emma Watson as the adopted Ila, whose blossoming romance with eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth) serves as a warning for the limited options available to middle son Ham (Logan Lerman).
The biggest concern about “Noah” is its meaning. Is there any? Aronofsky’s canvas is grand and bizarre, but his philosophical notions are petite. Can’t really call it a cautionary tale, though the villains seem to be begging for a heavy-handed lesson in environmental stewardship. Nor is it a treatise on faith. The massive miracles of the Creator (the name God is never used) follow Noah with every step. Religion is pretty black and white in this world. Ultimately, Noah is simply a guy obeying orders.
Best to view “Noah” in industry terms, not evangelical ones. The film comes across more as a vanity project by a cult director whose recent success gave him the leverage to make a gonzo stab at sacrosanct material. Aronofsky has jumped into his own cinematic ark, and he’s drifting across multiplexes, indifferent to whether anyone else is able to climb aboard.AT THE BOX OFFICE: THE YEAR OF OUR LORD
2014 is delivering a flood of spiritually themed movies, perhaps more of a testament to their enduring power at the box office than Hollywood getting born again. This month begat “Son of God” and “God’s Not Dead,” in addition to “Noah.” Coming up:
• “Heaven Is for Real” (April 16 — right before Easter): Greg Kinnear stars in this adaptation of the best-seller about a young boy’s life-after-death experience.
• “Exodus” (Dec. 12 — right before Hanukkah and Christmas): Christian Bale is Charlton Heston — er, Moses — in Ridley Scott’s epic about slavery and freedom.
• “Mary” (no date yet): It’s being billed as the prequel to “The Passion of the Christ,” from the same screenwriter. Odeya Rush, a 16-year-old Israeli, is the young mother, and Ben Kingsley is big bad King Herod.
| Sharon Hoffmann, firstname.lastname@example.org