Noah proves how difficult it is to make us go ‘wow’ at the movies today, even with all of Hollywood’s money at your disposal
Have you heard of Noam Murro? Look him up in IMDb. He’s made a Dennis Quaid bomb called Smart People. He’s made a TV short named HBO Imagine. And he made 300: Rise Of An Empire. Now that you’ve probably heard of. As cash-hungry sequels go, it isn’t bad. In fact, it’s better than a cash-hungry sequel has any right to be. It has some entertainingly ripe lines. One character mourns, “We are turning young men into memories”. Another exults, “Today we will dance on the backs of dead Greeks.” Someone even finds an opportunity to use “glabrous” in a sentence. I had to look it up.
The visuals are equally ripe. We’ve thrust into a mid-sea battle, from the point of view of a Persian vessel bearing down on the Greek navy. It’s a cool shot. The camera follows a soldier as he runs and jumps off a cliff and it keeps following him through his fall and continues to track him as he lands on a ship and goes about butchering enemies. That’s a cool shot too. And every time a blade slices through a body — which is roughly once every 6.7 seconds — blood erupts in slo-mo, viscous patterns of red drifting languorously through air. That’s possibly the coolest shot of all.
When a Noam Murro movie comes with all these attractions, it isn’t too much to expect more from Darren Aronofsky, the eccentric auteur behind Requiem For A Dream and Black Swan. But his Noah is a plodding disappointment. I realise that this is a much more serious undertaking than 300: Rise Of An Empire, whose villain is essentially a glabrous gent in a gold diaper. Here, the ‘villain’ is God himself. It’s impossible to get more serious than that. But surely it’s not too much to expect some cinematic verve — some ripe lines, some ripe visuals, some cool shots. This is a Biblical spectacular that’s neither too Biblical (Aronofsky takes a lot of liberties with the material) nor too spectacular.
The film isn’t without signature moments. A nightmare in which Noah is drowned with other creatures is stunningly realised. And the ark is a beauty — not the biggish boat we’ve seen in a million pictures but a smallish skyscraper made of lumber (somewhat ironic, in an ecologically minded film), with its various ‘floors’ occupied by various animals. But one of the things we expect in myths is a sense of wonder, and there’s not much of that around.
One problem is surely how we see movies today. When The Ten Commandments was released, the parting of the Red Sea must have seemed a miracle, an act of God on a par with whatever Moses was witnessing. But we (unfortunately) know better. We know that everything is a special effect, created inside computers, whose ones and zeros are essentially the basis of all cinematic Creation. In Noah, we see birds soar into the ark, we see snakes slither in, we see animals amble in — and we think ‘special effects’, ‘special effects’, ‘special effects’. How we’ve lost the power to be amazed by routine computer-generated imagery.
And how difficult it has become to create an on-screen world that looks new, unique. The ocean-filled screen harks back to Waterworld, as do the brown-grey clothes on Noah and his family — the images are all from the same post-apocalyptic sci-fi handbook (sci-fi, after all, is basically myth transplanted into the future). And from the disaster-movie handbook, there’s the deluge and the screaming hordes begging to get onto the ark. You really don’t expect to be thinking about the Transformers movies in a story adapted from the Old Testament, but look at the lumbering fallen angels called Watchers, and you may have the answer to how Megatron would move if touched by arthritis.
Dramatically too, Noah is all warmed-up leftovers. When a character looks at the sky and pleads, “I am a man made in your image, why will you not converse with me?” we are transported to the Bergman movies, with their stonily silent God. (There’s another bit of imagery from Bergman, in the water that sprouts miraculously from the ground, the way it did in The Virgin Spring.) And when Noah turns crazily despotic — he believes that he and his wife and children, namely all remaining mankind, must perish in order for creation to be “let alone” – and his family plans a revolt, we’re in Mutiny On The Bounty territory, with Noah as Captain Bligh.
Where, then, is Aronofsky? He’s not visible in the weak passages with the lesser villain, a stowaway on the ark who might as well be carrying a placard saying “Random Third Act Tension Generator”. There’s not much tension, either, when one of Noah’s three sons conspires against his father because Noah did not save the girl he loved (The boy and the girl have one scene together, and they barely register as co-stars, leave alone lovers imbued with such depths of feeling).
It’s only when a daughter-in-law is discovered to be pregnant that Aronofsky gets to sink his teeth into some serious psychological meat. With Noah’s reaction, and his subsequent actions — leading to a climax with a dagger poised over an infant — we finally get the Darren Aronofsky drama we walked in for. But not for long. Studios don’t shell out over a hundred million dollars for movies about a child-murdering madman.
Given that all plots have been played out, all stories told, all situations presented in numerous permutations and combinations, is it at all possible to make an event movie that feels ‘new’? The makers of The Lion In Winter — without doubt, one of the event movies of 1968 — must have surely mulled over this question. After all, this was yet another historical drama, a genre that was the “special effects extravaganza” of its day — the special effects, of course, coming in the form of huge sets and huger stars (in this case, Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn). How to make this different?