It may seem strange to mention “plot spoilers” in connection with a cinematic presentation of one of the most famous old stories from the Book of Genesis, but anybody whose familiarity with the story of Noah derives solely from that source is going to encounter some surprises in this film. One could be outraged, especially if one believes that “The Bible” is presented as a literal source of history of Divine Inspiration with which one must not tamper.
But if one takes The Bible as the epic mythology of an ancient people, then I say “all’s fair” in trying to make a dramatic movie with some suspense to engage the rapt attention of the audience. So the departures from Biblical text served to enhance the drama. Everybody knows how the story of Noah turns out in the end, of course, and the filmmaker wasn’t about to change that, but keeping an audience engaged through a two+ hour movie requires some more plot complications than are provided by the simplistic Biblical text.
In Genesis, Noah, his unnamed wife, his three sons and their wives are cooped up in the Ark through the period of the great flood. In this movie, none of the sons are married when the flood arrives, although the oldest, Shem, is hot for the family’s adopted daughter, who is around his age but believed by them all to be barren. As they are adrift upon the rising waters, Noah sits down his family around the dinner fire and tells them that they are destined to be the last humans, as G-d has decreed that all humanity must be eliminated as a failed experiment. Since their little band includes only Noah and his wife, who (at age 600 according to the Biblical text) were not expecting to produce any more children, and three sons with a barren step-daughter in tow, no more children will be produced and when the youngest son, Japheth, dies, that will be the end of the human race. What they weren’t counting on, however, in this verion of the tale, is that the daughter has been blessed shortly before the deluge by Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah, and is no longer barren. Indeed, her furious coupling with Shem in the forest shortly before the deluge has gotten her pregnant. When Noah hears this news, he is outraged, since it is a violation of G-d’s plan as he understands it. This Noah is a fanatic who is single-mindedly dedicating to carrying out G-d’s plan. If the young woman bears a girl, he says, he will have to kill it fresh from the womb to avoid the possibility of another generation of humans being produced.
There is another complication. Ham, the second son, deprived of female companionship but horny as any young man could be, has ventured into the corrupt world and found a new girlfriend, but in the rush to get to the Ark as the rains begin, she is trampled underfoot when Noah refuses to release her from a trap set by the descendants of Cain (who are depicted in this film as the corruptors of the earth). The resentful Ham is back in the ark, skulking about through disaffection from his father, and discovers that Tubal-Cain, the king of the corrupters, has managed to stow away in the ark. They conspire together for revenge against Noah… another source of suspense. But you know how this has to turn out. Tubal-Cain must die, and Ham must survive in order to incur Noah’s curse in the post-Ark incident that leads to the descendants of Ham’s son – Canaan – becoming a different people from the descendants of Shem and Japheth. (And, of course, Shem’s woman has to bear a girl — twins in this account — so that the earth can be repopulated after the Flood. But, a loose plot-element, after being cursed by his father (and not explicitly so in this account), Ham wanders away feeling that he doesn’t “belong” with the family, and one wonders who he is going to produce descendants if he’s not going to be around to couple with one of his half-nieces, since all the other women in the world were wiped out in the Flood…. ??
Anyway, there is lots of tampering with the Biblical text here, but the resulting movie stands up pretty well on its own. Russell Crowe is properly obsessive as the stubborn and fearful Noah, and Jennifer Conley is fantastically good as his wife – there is at least one scene, where she pleads with him to abandon his plan to kill any girl born to their step-daughter – that is definitely Oscar-worthy in its intensity. Anthony Hopkins is quite entertaining as old Methuselah, and the young actors who play Noah’s sons and step-daughter are all quite fine. The piece is a bit overrun with special effects, and the decision to make the “giants” – Nephtilim – who receive passing mention in the Biblical account into interventionist stone figures that come to life as the Watchers threatens to turn the piece into too much of a sci-fi thing. But, on the other hand, the entire production is richly imagined, and I don’t really think that it can be tarred is irreverent. I would see it again… after a decent passage of time.