Face Off: Noah’s Ark (1999) and Noah (2014)

When Darren Aronofsky’s Noah came out in 2014, the website I was writing for at the time sent me to screen it and review it. The film stars Russell Crowe as the biblical Noah and follows his ark-building journey after God warns him of a great world-cleansing flood. Animals arrive two-by-two for the cruise, forty days of rain ensues…you know the story. Amongst my original thoughts was the following:

“This is probably Aronofsky’s least personal work — the close-quarter character examinations of Pi and The Wrestler aren’t at play here, and while the character of Noah is drawn quite well, the confines of a big-budget blockbuster based on what may be the most widely-read story of all time just doesn’t allow for as much intimacy.”

I was wrong. Not about the impersonal nature of the film — that’s still the case — but about Noah being based on the Bible.

Yes, the kernel of the story and the plot framework of Noah are certainly the same as the Book of Genesis story of the Great Flood. But that story is remarkably condensed — under 3,000 words in the King James Version — and thus could conceivably be retold in wildly different ways. And it has been. The first film adaptation dropped in 1928 and followed a German actress, a New York playboy and a taxi driver imprisoned during the trench warfare of WWI. In 1998 Disney made a present-day Noah starring Tony Danza, likely the closest a Disney movie would come to addressing humanity’s mass extinction until Avengers: Infinity War. And then in 2007 we apparently needed a sequel to Bruce Almighty and, shit, Steve Carell is available. Let’s make him Noah!

Evan Almighty (2007)

Point being the story of Noah is malleable, as far as Hollywood is concerned, and the gaps in that biblical tale can be filled with just about anything. But the thing that most people overlooked upon the release of Aronofsky’s Noah was that it shared a lot of similarities with Noah’s Ark, the Jon Voight-led miniseries/TV movie that came out in 1999. Chief among these similarities is the interiority of Noah himself, a character who has no inner thoughts (to which we’re privy) in the original biblical text. We’ll discuss that in a minute. But in the additions to the story and the production design, the only real difference between the two is that Aronofsky did the whole thing with a straight face. The Jon Voight miniseries, conversely, is inundated with such buffoonery that Evan Almighty sort of looks like a genuine epic.

“Woohoo! Hashtag mass extinction!”

Essentially we have stuff that happens in the King James Bible; it’s “dramatized” in Aronofsky’s version; it’s bastardized and rendered utterly absurd in the miniseries. For instance:

  • Noah builds an ark at God’s command; but he’s still haunted by dreams of mankind’s destructiveness; God puts a finer point on it by triggering a literal volcano, saying “Is that enough of a sign for you, Noah?”
  • Noah’s sons are allowed to bring along some girls who will become their wives; but Ham’s betrothed is nowhere to be found when the rain starts; Ham finds his bride-to-be, punches her in the face, and drags her unconscious onto the boat.
  • God saves Noah, a “just man” and his family; but Noah goes crazy, suggests every one of them has to die after all; prances around with a parrot on his head.
  • Everyone else is wiped from the Earth; except the main villain, because it’s a movie and the good guy needs to battle somebody; the animals join in the battle, like the climax of Aquaman.
  • At the end Noah gets shitfaced drunk, and yeah, that’s just a thing that happens.
  • The thing just keeps going and going and going.

Aronofsky’s movie was blasted in 2014 for how ridiculous it all was, but those people clearly never saw the Ark miniseries. It might be said that Noah is a restrained version of the stupendously silly Voight iteration; the intensity of Noah’s visions, the subplot with Ham, the addition of a villain and the idea that humanity was actually not intended to survive were all birthed in the 1999 version, and these unique aspects miraculously made it into the blockbuster film. He might deny it, but I’d be shocked if Aronofsky wasn’t inspired — consciously or subconsciously — by Noah’s Ark.

A primary point of similarity lies in the complete failure to really lock down Noah’s position on the value of life. In Noah, Russell Crowe spouts dialogue about the sanctity of life and scolds his young son for picking a flower…and soon after, he chops down an entire forest to build a boat. In Noah’s Ark, Jon Voight insists that humanity must be wiped from the Earth. His family eventually comes around to his point of view…and yet they’re all pumped when James Coburn floats up to the Ark in a bumper boat. Noah shoots the shit with him as if they’re in the same bowling league and then Coburn, his cameo complete, floats away again to cash his paycheck. Noah, instead of insisting that this sinner be drowned in a flood from The Almighty, waves happily and says “Goodbye! Take care!

That conflict, despite turning into a gaping plot hole in both iterations, still remains indicative of Noah’s inner conflict in Noah’s Ark and then in Noah. Voight and Crowe ask the same question: when God said everyone’s gotta die…did he mean everyone? Did he mean me and my family? Voight’s version asks this while garbed in costuming reminiscent of Hook, while lollygagging around like a court jester, while thinking he’s in a Terry Gilliam movie. There aren’t very many redeeming qualities in taking the goofy approach to a biblical adaptation, which should’ve probably torpedoed the idea of the miniseries at the script stage. At the start of Ark there’s a short disclaimer that reads: “for dramatic effect, we have taken poetic license with some of the events of the mighty epic of Noah and the Flood…” There is certainly license taken, though the effect it achieves is not dramatic and is inescapably unpoetic.

Aronofsky’s Noah has some great stuff in it, particularly as regards the cinematography. There’s an iconic series of silhouettes that zoom back and forth in time, including a “war’s always the same” bit that accelerates its idea even without the voiceover narration:

Noah (2014)

The birth-of-the-river sequence also operates on the same time-lapse device, though once it becomes clear that these scenes are the most gripping of the film the rest of the “adventure” starts to lose its luster.

The POV dove flight sequence shows how action-packed the Bible can really be, like that part in Battlefield 1 where you play as a carrier pigeon. Keep flapping!

At the end of the day, Noah falls to much the same tomfoolery that sank Ark, so the stark similarities between the two probably don’t conjure the phrase source material as much as they conjure the phrase haven’t we learned anything?

As luck would have it, I could have actually asked Noah‘s director this question myself. At this past year’s New York Film Festival screening of Roma, Mr. Aronofsky and I used the theater’s restroom at the same time (separate urinals). As I moved to wash my hands my inner conflict waged to and fro, admittedly with lower stakes at hand than the continuation or extinction of the human race. The toilet flushed, but it was a different sort of relief I sought. “Um…hey…ever seen the shitty miniseries Noah’s Ark?” I whispered. But the automatic hand dryer drowned me out, and Aronofsky departed the restroom forever (unless he had to go again later). I stood there yearning for an answer to my plea, voiced aloud but unrequited, and I knew that there may in fact never be an explicit spoken response from the creator.

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