Noah: A catastrophic spectacle

In the dark of the movie theatre I took notes on Noah. These read, in part:

DOOM STRINGS

Motley leathers

That’s a lot of CGI for talking rocks

Slave trade? Cannibalism? WTF??

Ray Winstone!

STOP THE LOUD

Alas, my caps-locked pleas for mercy went unanswered. Like every contemporary blockbuster, Noah has a soundtrack designed to batter the defenceless cinema-goer into total submission. Why craft a subtle emotional cue when, with overpowering string instruments and the ubiquitous sonic boom, you can prevent an audience from thinking at all?

Despotic sound is only one of several flaws in a film which has, nevertheless, topped the box office in Australia and the United States. I don’t know how director Darren Aronofsky has managed to make the apocalypse boring, but he has. At every moment where he might have paused for long enough to let a viewer dwell upon Noah’s heavyweight themes — the judgement of a divine Creator, the origins of sin, humanity’s relationship to the environment — he ploughs joylessly ahead with more rain and more moralising. Humans are bad — as exemplified by Ray Winstone, an evil warrior with Winstone’s own East End accent. Nature is beautiful and benign, though snakes are a bit dubious. The role of women is to breed.

One doesn’t turn to the Old Testament expecting progressive gender politics, but it’s nevertheless galling to see how biblical patriarchy meets Hollywood-style sexism in Noah. Jennifer Connolly, as Noah’s wife Naameh, plays the wife-of-the-hero right to factory specifications: she strokes Russell Crowe’s troubled brow and gives him meaningful, supportive hugs. She cooks the meals, looks after the kids and, obligingly, subdues all the animals with a soporific herbal mixture. Emma Watson, prim as ever, plays their adopted daughter Ila, and gets to endure morning sickness aboard the ark. The film is as sentimental about maternity as it is judgemental of human folly — not necessarily a contradiction.

Ila’s newborn babies are CGI, Noah’s ark is CGI, the flood is CGI, the animals are CGI, and the gravel-voiced Watchers (fallen angels encased in rock) are also CGI. This lack of human touch, of materiality, has a lot to do with why a film about the destruction of humanity is very much less than moving. Contemporary digital effects have given us new standards of filmic spectacle — The Life of Pi, Gravity, Avatar — while also constricting our imaginations. At no point during Noah did I wonder what a world-ending flood might feel like: how it would stink, for instance, of rotting corpses. There are plenty of corpses in Noah. None of them seem real.

This deadening of affect is the film’s real failing, because Noah is transparently an allegory of climate change and the probable catastrophes that it will cause, or is already causing. At a time when we desperately need imagination — moral, artistic, scientific — this film gives us little. “We get to start again in a new and better world,” says Noah. Only we don’t.

 

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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