Send Out The Doves: 'Noah' Lands On Solid Ground

Send Out The Doves: 'Noah' Lands On Solid Ground

6:42pm Mar 28, 2014
Ila (Emma Watson) and her husband, Shem, are two passengers aboard the ark built by Noah to escape God's flood in Noah, Darren Aronofsky's imagining of the biblical tale.
Ila (Emma Watson) and her husband, Shem, are two passengers aboard the ark built by Noah to escape God's flood in Noah, Darren Aronofsky's imagining of the biblical tale.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The story of Noah's Ark is getting blockbuster treatment in Hollywood's new biblical epic Noah. Darren Aronofsky's film about the Old Testament shipbuilder has been sparking controversy — but there's no denying that the Great Flood, digitized, is a pretty great flood.

"In the beginning there was ... nothing," say the first words you see on-screen, and then there's, well, everything: a swirling cosmos, Adam and Eve, a fall from grace, a fall of angels, teeming industrial cities spreading so much sin and darkness that the creator has second thoughts — which he communicates to 500-year-old family man Noah in a nightmare.

Noah sees a planet submerged and, inspired by that vision, tells his wife and three sons they have work to do. If only it were that simple.

The Old Testament story is short on the sort of detail required to flesh out two-plus hours, but the filmmakers have happily supplied it — everything from why the lions wouldn't just eat the gazelles to what a real ark might look like (no prow, because it's not going anywhere, it just has to float). Also, how much help a family of five would need to build a structure 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits.

You may not remember the movie's six-limbed stone giants from Sunday school — a bunch of literally earthbound angels who can trace their cinematic lineage to those talking trees in The Lord of the Rings — but they're certainly helpful in ark-building, and in ark-protecting when a snarling king from Cain's side of the family of man shows up with an army.

There is a lot of inventing going on here, raising a flood of criticism in literalist circles that did not flow when, say, Danny Kaye played a musical-comedy Noah in Two By Two, or when Bill Cosby did his "What's a cubit?" routine.

Take the Bible seriously, without winks or jokes, and you court arguments with traditionalists about whether you've gotten it right. Darren Aronofsky's tree-hugging, intimately intense move, I'd argue, gets things righter than it's reasonable to expect a big Hollywood blockbuster to. Oh, there are things I wish the director hadn't done — when a little girl asks Russell Crowe's Noah to sing her to sleep, all I could think was, "Didn't she see Les Miserables?" And Anthony Hopkins' Methuselah does more scrounging for berries than is entirely seemly. But when the deluge comes, it lives up to Scripture: "All the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens opened."

At which point, we and the family are sharing an ark with an unraveling Noah, barely post-traumatic in his stress, and seemingly channeling his biblical forebears Abraham and Job, and maybe a couple of the unhinged characters from previous Aronofsky movies. All of which makes the film Noah psychologically credible — his behavior is very much what you might expect of a man who has just condemned millions of screaming souls to watery graves. And it makes the film unpredictably suspenseful, which is dramatically the most welcome thing you could ask of a biblical epic.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. The story of Noah's ark is getting the blockbuster treatment in Hollywood's new biblical epic "Noah." Darren Aronofsky's film about the Old Testament shipbuilder has been sparking controversy. But Bob Mondello says there's no denying that the great flood digitized is a pretty great flood.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: In the beginning, there was nothing, say the first words you see onscreen, and then there's everything: a swirling cosmos, Adam and Eve, a fall from grace, a fall of angels, teeming industrial cities spreading so much sin and darkness that the creator has second thoughts, communicated to a 500-year-old family man in a nightmare.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NOAH")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Noah, what did he say?

RUSSELL CROWE: (As Noah) He's going to destroy the world.

MONDELLO: Noah sees a planet submerged, and inspired by that vision tells his wife and three sons they have work to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NOAH")

CROWE: (As Noah) Our family has been chosen for a great task: to save the innocent.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (As character) The innocent?

CROWE: (As Noah) The animals.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (As character) Why are they innocent?

(As character) Because they still live as they did in the garden.

CROWE: (As Noah) Yes, and we need to save enough of them to start again.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (As character) But what of us?

CROWE: (As Noah) I guess we get to start again, too.

MONDELLO: If only it were that simple. The Bible story is short on the sort of detail required to flesh out two-plus hours of movie-making, but the filmmakers have happily supplied it, everything from why the lions wouldn't just eat the gazelles to what a real ark might look like: no prow because it's not going anywhere, it just has to float. Also how much help a family of five would need to build a structure 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits.

You may not remember stone giants in this story from Sunday school; the movie makes them literally Earth-bound angels, huge like those talking trees in "Lord of the Rings" and helpful as backup when a snarling king from Cain's side of the family shows up with an army.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NOAH")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) I have men at my back, and you stand alone and defy me?

CROWE: (As Noah) I'm not alone.

MONDELLO: There is a lot of inventing going on in "Noah," which has raised a flood of criticism in literalist circles that did not flow when, say, Bill Cosby did his what's-a-cubit routine. Take the Bible seriously, without winks or jokes, and you court arguments with traditionalists. Darren Aronofsky's tree-hugging, intimately intense movie, I'd argue, gets things righter than it's reasonable to expect a big Hollywood blockbuster to.

Oh, there are things I wish the director had not done. When a little girl asks Russell Crowe's Noah to sing her to sleep, all I could think was didn't she see "Les Mis"? But when comes the deluge, it lives up to scripture. All the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens opened.

At which point we and Noah's family are sharing an ark with an unraveling Noah, who seems to be channeling some of the more unhinged characters from previous Aronofsky movies, not unreasonable considering that he's a good man who has just shut the door to the ark, condemning millions of souls to watery graves. But if his psychological flailing is unnerving, it has the effect of making the film unpredictable and suspenseful, dramatically the most welcome thing you could ask of a biblical epic. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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