Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Review: Noah

Warning: Spoilers for "Noah" ahead. Seriously, I'll spoil the whole movie. 

I finally got around to watch "Noah". I have found this to be a really, really disturbing experience. "Noah" is the weirdest piece of movie I saw since "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", and it left me deeply unsettled. The imagery, the story and the characters all align into something that doesn't fit any category, and the movie switches with ease between different genres, watching first some post-apocalyptic flic, then reenacting the battle of Helm's Deep before we get "The Shining 2" aboard the Ark. So why is this, and does it work?
This! Is! Noah!

Bible movies haven't been exactly the most popular genre. In 2004, there has been the "Passion of Christ", which received a mixed reaction, to say the least (and is in its disturbing impression comparable to this one, though on a whole other level), but since then, ten years have passed. Now we have "Noah", with the titular character being played by Russel Crowe. Crowe gives the role all that he has, shaving and growing hair, rolling eyes, crying in anguish and cursing the enemies of god. Sorry, "the creator". The g-word isn't used in the movie, for good reasons.
Walking the wasteland

Our Noah is the last patriarch of the line of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. Earth is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, utterly destroyed by the sons of Caine who acquired industrial technology with the help of fallen angels, the "Watchers", who are now stone trolls because god punished them. Noah's father Lamech possesses the magical skin of the snake that seduced Eve, with which he passes his birthright - the whole earth - down the line. Lamech and Noah are elite warriors, but when they're not killing Caine's ilk, they live as vegan hippies in a secluded community, not even picking flowers because they don't need them. Bear with me here? We're only getting started.
The bad guy. Could you tell?

Noah has then a dream of the wickedness of men and everyone dying in the water, which he interprets as a warning from god. Since he doesn't know what to do, he goes to his grandfather Methusalah, which is played by, of course, Anthony Hopkins. He does this thing he does, uttering half sentences and looking wise, but keeping in tone with the movie there's a good pinch of craziness in it. It speaks volumes about Noah that the giggling and nonsenical Methusalah comes around as the sane of the bunch. Before they reach him, they ally with one of the Watchers and rescue a girl from marauding Cainites, but she's left barren in the process, which will become important down the road.
I will lead you to salvation!

Methusalah then gives some drug to Noah (because that's the sensible thing to do), and Noah has another dream in which animals are floating upward through the water and live. He takes this to mean that he needs to build a ship, and with a magical seed from the garden Eden that Methusalah had laying around (don't ask) he grows a forest and immediately cuts it down for timber. But of course, the bad guys learn about this. See, the evil king Tubal-cain (who also killed Lamech) wants to survive, too, and so he assembles an army. Noah in the meantime has recrutied the Watchers that haven't been killed by the Cainites, so an instant attack is averted, and while Noah builds the Ark, Tubal-cain is building a giant army.
Clearly, I need to build a ship. God told me so.

Now everyone has second thoughts. Noah isn't sure whether or not any humans should survive at all and takes it as a sign that he has only sons and the girl they rescued, Ila, is barren. But his sons see the same signs, taking a different conclusion: they need girls, and since there is a host just in the forest in Tubal-cain's camp, they only need to choose one for themselves. The fight is finally resolved when Noah kills his son Ham's chosen one essentially by neglect in the face of the attack. Noah is now sure that he has to kill all humanity. When the waves come crashing, they kill everyone who tries to get on board and later shut their ears to the anguished cries of the drowning ("there is no room for any of them on this ship").
This isn't a short scene, either.

But, unfortunately, Methusalah has, at the urging of Noah's wife Naameh, healed Ila, and she's pregnant. So Noah decides that this is a sign of god and rejoices with his children. Just kidding, of course. He curses the wickedness of women and vows to kill the child within the hour of its birth as to not anger god any further. His son Shem, the father of the child, is preparing for a fight to the death with his father, while Ham, still a little bit upset that his father killed off his only chance to ever get laid, allies with Tubal-cain who sneaked on the Ark and is now killing random animals because it's not like there are only two of every species left. Noah destroys the raft that Shem and Ila have built for themselves with a magic fireball stone (don't ask) and takes it out with Tubal-cain. The issue is finally resolved when Noah can't bring it upon himself to kill the newborn babes. After they find land, he lives as a hermit in a cave and gets drunk, finds back to himself and commands everyone to "be fruitful and multiply", which I'm pretty sure involves a lot of incest just a little bit down the road. On that hopeful note, the movie ends.
Barely escaped the clutches of a madman

I hope you can forgive me for relaying the plot in that epic width because I just wanted to make sure you get how weird this all is. A big part in why this convoluted mess of a plot is working at all is the imagery, which is just incredibly risky and strong. I can't even really describe it. It's definitely something to see and you have to believe me that it is worth it. There's a gigantic Ark, stone trolls fighting an army of orcs (or something) and turning into the thing that Tony Stark has on its tower in "The Avengers", there is a green mountain in the midst of a total wasteland, there are breathtaking shots of the earth and the universe spersed in between, and somehow someone thought that MTV would be the source to turn to in order to illustrate Noah's account of Genesis. There are animals so strange that a unicorn wouldn't really look out of place. Luckily, they are all killed in the flood. It's so incredibly weird that it's a sight all by itself.
Odin is also killed.

But that's nothing compared to that bonkers story and the character of Noah. The strange appeal of the movie for me as a pretty total atheist was that it was going all in on its premise. It wasn't just creating a literal adaption of the bible section, with sunday school feelgood themes in it. This is taking the story and everything in it seriously. We get the logistics of building the Ark and bringing all the animals in, the question how you would feed them all, and the claustrophobic and yet gigantic insides of the ship. We get impressions of a world in which god's presence is acutely felt and in which stone angels are roaming the world. All of that has to leave a mark on people and oh boy, it does.
Watchers bringing the love of god to those wretched souls

See, everyone in this movie believes in god. No, not even believe, they know he exists. The evidence is all around them. The 99% also know that they are doomed, constantly referring to the curse of Caine to work the earth without getting any real produce of it. They are starving and the world is dead, yet they want to live, and they have to work hard and suffer. Ayn Rand would love this bunch. The only refuge for these people is to take the part about "subdue the earth" literally and exploit it mercilessly for their own ends. Their last camp at the building site of the Ark is a hellish hole of rape, violence, starvation and all present death, including deep ditches full of corpses, ethnical violence and soldier brutality. However, most of the people are simply desperate.
When a ruthless dictator is your only hope

Noah, on the other hand, isn't a saint either. He kills humans without mercy (while going out of his way to save random moths) and his stance towards his family is one of brutal patriarchy. Everyone has to obey him, no matter what. He's the pater familias, and his word is the law. Noah is a brutal lunatic, a fanatical believer in his special brand of worship to the almighty creator. Really, he's just a small sect, and everyone who is not him is the enemy. He actively prevents Ham from rescuing anyone else, and once he (correctly) makes out his own stance as pretty sinful, he cranks it up to eleven and decides that, well, everyone has to die. That's not exactly the Noah you want your little children to know, but it is pretty believable what the task and knowledge of impending apocalypse would do to a man. That's what I mean with the movie going all in on its premise. The scary thing is that we never actually know whether Noah is right. God doesn't answer. We don't even know whether or not he actually talked to Noah and commanded him to do anything. The two dreams are the only contact anyone has, and Noah isn't really the most stable person around, so perhaps its just all madness.
I mean, look at him.

One of the most disturbing things in the movie, however, is the treatment of women. Going through on the old patriarchal organisation of society as depicted in the bible, women are weak and wicked, betraying the men trying to be strong. Characters evoke "being a man" all the time. You're a man if you "know what to do and do it", if you're killing, if you're independent, if you're making the hard choices and ignore everyone else's need for the greater good. Women are there for one thing, and one thing only: giving birth. It's breathtaking with what ease Ila says things like "I can't be a women for Shem, because I'm barren. Find him another girl, I will go out and die with the rest." I'm paraphrasing, but she's dead serious about it.

Not a woman yet, because she hasn't bred.
Ham, on the other hand, is on a constant quest to find two women to take on the Ark so he and his little brother can continue the human line. When, finally, Ila gives birth to two girls, they happily anounce that "god sent us what we needed", which amounts to two brood mares. When Noah goes on his murderous rampage, knife in hand, to kill the babes, neither Naameh nor Ila make as much as an effort to stop him. Both cry and plead with him, but they are going of out his way when he isn't swayed, even stating that they are too weak to stop him. Together with Shem, they were at least three able bodies people, god damn it. Had they recruited Ham in, they could have restrained Noah or simply kicked the damn lunatic over the Ak. This, people, is your bible.
As told by a madman.

When Noah tells his children the story of the Genesis aboard the Ark to divert attention from the screaming people outside trying to survive, it is illustrated with imagery that will be pretty polarizing for many Christians. The first day shows the Big Bang and the creation of stars and planets, the second day the creation of earth and moon, on the third day the oceans are coming into their own where cells are cells divide and form primitive fish, who on the fourth and fifth day get onto the land and evolve into more and more complex beasts, including dinosaurs and finally mammals.
Original footage.

In all these elements, the movie is outright subversive. Its total dedication to its own premise forces you to take a stand on the issue. At the same time, it does not make a statement of its own. That's an artistic feat worth celebrating. The movie acts as a mirror, echochamber or even Rorschach-test for the viewer. You interpret it based on your own dispositions. It's different for everyone. I can only recommend you watch it and see for yourself.


  1. "arch" s/b "Ark", I assume?

  2. Great article Stefan, subversively hilarious. Saw the movie and I have to agree with you. Weird psychotic film...