Darren Aronofsky’s biblical epic Noah should really have opened in Washington and Colorado, where it’s legal to smoke the only stuff that could make the movie bearable. In fact, theaters in those states would be well-advised to hand out cannabis brownies at the door, as movie houses in the 70s distributed “vomit bags” for splatterfest horror flicks. We really can’t imagine how else the human brain could register pleasure from taking in this long, grim, visually muddy and spiritually perverse instance of CGI gone wild—whose proper title ought to be The Rocky Horror Bible Show. First, a sober summary of the plot, not quite in the muddled order that the filmmaker presents it.
The world gets created (the lovely Genesis account is rehashed as rewritten by Cher). Lots of cute little creepy-crawly animals thunder across the screen. Animals are Good. They are innocent—though how and why is not explained. That principle is the film’s only moral center. Then the Creator makes Adam and Eve as glowing faceless Light People. They lope around the Garden as gracelessly as radioactive crash-test dummies until a smiling, cute green snake leads them to the Apple that beats like a heart. They eat it, and suddenly their two sons are full-grown and in a fight. (Spoiler alert: Cain wins.) Cain stalks off to found “an industrial civilization” with tens of thousands of citizens, with the help of the Watchers—a race of eight-armed stone giants that look like Rockem Sockem Robots, who come to life when hundreds of little Tinkerbells fall to the earth from space. Those are the Fallen Angels, the movie admits. Except that the reason they “fell” (literally and morally) was that they came down to “help the humans.” That’s right, the demons were cursed by God for the sin of coming to earth to help us out. Such sympathy for the devils is reiterated throughout the movie—for instance, when Noah passes down as a treasured family relic the snakeskin that Lucifer shed in the garden. Are you getting confused? Relax. Remember: The animals are innocent.
Meanwhile, Cain’s youngest brother Seth behaves much more responsibly, apparently engaging in careful family planning, since he leaves only six descendants, all of them ecologically conscious vegetarians: Noah (Russell Crowe), Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), their three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and his great-grandfather Methusaleh (Hannibal Lector). Okay, Methusaleh is technically played by Anthony Hopkins, but the actor portrays the biblical patriarch with so much of the creeping menace he brought to Silence of the Lambs that we couldn’t help getting confused. Every time he asked his visitors whether they’d brought him any berries, we expected him to say that he would eat them “with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” Noah and his clan are not simply vegetarians, but militants on the subject. When Noah finds three of Cain’s kin who have killed a mammal, he executes their leader for sinful hunting. (Because animals are innocent, even when they hunt. Man does not have the right to hunt, because he is an animal except that… he is not supposed to eat meat… because… the answer is never made clear.) At this point we stopped seeing the denim-clad Russell Crowe as the patriarch father Noah. This wild-eyed killer of deerhunters and enemy of technology revealed himself as the Unabomber.
And the world needed an Unabomber. Because the teeming descendants whom Cain somehow fathered took the knowledge given them by the man-helping, fallen-angel, Rockem Sockem Robots and turned most of earth into Peter Jackson’s Mordor. Then the humans inexplicably turned against the Rockem Sockem Robots, and hunted most of them down. So when the Unabomber responds to the weird, damp dreams that he has been having depicting global floods by seeking out Hannibal Lector for guidance, the Rockem Sockem Robots agree to help him—because they still wish to serve the Creator, even though they are demons. (Demons can still serve God, for instance by helping to kill more hunters.)
More dreams tell the Unabomber to build an ark, so that he can save the innocents—that is, the animals. So the Rockem Sockem Robots agree to build the ark, and defend it from Cain’s descendants—a horde of black-clad, nearly all-male death metal groupies, who subsist on human flesh inside a Hieronymous Bosch painting, and blindly obey the band’s fearsome lead singer, Tubal-Cain.
You can’t build an ark without trees, which magically sprout from the ground when the Unabomber plants the beanstalk seed that Hannibal Lector saved from the Garden of Eden. Dr. Lector proves pretty helpful throughout the story, for instance when Naameh learns of the fertility issues faced by her daughter-in-law, Ila. Naameh bring Ila to Lector for a quick Ob-Gyn checkup, which instantly heals her.
Here is where things get ugly. Because the Unabomber has decided, through careful spiritual discernment that consists of staring up at the sky, that the human race needs to disappear from the earth, that the Creator did not intend to save him and his family, to replant the human race. No, his family was meant simply to gather all the animals, keep them calm and safe by dosing them with great clouds of ganja that billows up out of bowls, and then quietly perish. When he learns that Ila is pregnant, the Unabomber announces that he will execute her child—if it is female, because then it might bear children. And the human race needs to disappear. Because he thinks that God said so. Because only animals are innocent.
The filmmakers solved the problem of how to create dramatic tension on the ark by making the biblical patriarch an incipient child-murderer. So the rest of this long, grim, disturbing film consists of the patriarch stalking around the ship warning his family that he intends to kill the baby, and the rest of the cast shouting and crying that he shouldn’t. This part of the movie does, at least, answer a question that has probably haunted viewers: If you took Jennifer Connelly, at age 44, smeared her face with tears and snot, and asked her to scream her head off and chew on the scenery, would she still be stunningly beautiful? And the answer is “Yes.” It’s the damnedest thing.
When the babies are born, both of them are girls, so the Unabomber prepares to skewer them with daggers in their mother’s arms. But then he looks down and decides that babies are really cute, almost as cute as animals, so he can’t bring himself to kill them. The ark lands, the patriarch gets falling down drunk on the beach, and his son Ham (very sensibly) heads for the hills while the going is good. The human race will start all over again, but this time, just maybe, it will learn “to be kind.” Roll credits.
There isn’t time or space to rattle off all the moral confusions (helpful demons, capital punishment for hunting, Lucifer’s skin as a holy relic) that pop up in this mash-up of biblical narrative and gnostic apocrypha. What’s really tragic is the opportunity lost: The real story of Noah is an allegory with a crystal-clear significance: With the landing of the Ark, God reveals to man the moral code that should govern all mankind—and makes with man the “covenant” that Jewish rabbis still hold binds every human being. This Noachic Code, given to Noah and his family, lays out in brief the moral law that St. Paul said was “written on the human heart,” which Christians believe can be known by reason alone. This code forbids murder, stealing, idolatry, blasphemy, adultery and vigilante justice, and needless cruelty to animals. It is a noble and beautiful statement of the ancient Hebrews’ belief that every human being is called to steward Creation and practice justice, under God. The fact that the Israelites, in their earliest narratives, believed that God cared for the good of every man on earth, is a measure of their generosity of spirit, and the universal message that Jewish stories carry for all mankind. We wish that the filmmakers had treated this Jewish story with the reverence it deserves.