Director: John Irvin
Writer: Peter Barnes
I review here the original four-hour 1999 television extravaganza, in all its terrible glory. The version now available at your local video store and in the discount bin at Wal-Mart has been cut down to a two-hour film which, allowing for commercials, means that at least a half-hour is gone. I will not sit through the edited version to see what they've cut. I'm sure it amounts to an improvement.
It also could not possibly save this film.
Here's what appears to have happened.
In a Hollywood where high concept matters far more than intelligent scripting, someone came up with the idea of making the story of Noah into a four-hour film, complete with lavish effects and extravagant hype. Why not? People lined up to see the Titanic sink. Here, they'll get to see the whole world go under! And it's a Bible story, so we can call it serious culture, and sell lots of videos to the Sunday school market.
Of course, none of these overpaid idiots bothered to read Genesis in advance. If they had, surely they would have realized that the four short chapters which tell the tale of the Deluge could not fill four hours, unless they wanted to show endless footage of Noah building a boat.
That wouldn't be very exciting: four hours of some old guy building a boat.
Instead, they threw everything they could think of into the plot and just hoped for the best. Some scenes recall Xena or Gladiator, but with less style. Others are straight out of Monty Python (at one point, a dying man even says, "it's... it's... it's...."), but again, with less intelligence. One of Noah's future daughter-in-laws gets rescued from being the guest of honour at a human sacrifice, in a scene complete with fake beards, an absent-minded high priest, and an idiotic escape plot. The set here resembles a large Taco Bell, which perhaps explains why Yahweh sends a convenient lightning bolt as soon as Noah orders one, as in, "Would you like nachos with that Wrath of God?"
The film also throws in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Noah, it seems, lived in Sodom before the Flood. Now, this rewrites Biblical chronology, but hey-- it provides an opportunity to showcase some effects, and to demonstrate that God is a vengeful God. Noah and his wife, along with Lot and his, are the only ones judged righteous enough to escape. This is odd, because Lot's wife is presented as a screeching shrew, and Lot's ethics permit him to stop and break a ring off her finger after she has been turned into salt. Lot later turns up during the Flood as the leader of some pirates, who cruise the flooded earth in a boat straight out of Waterworld.
Elsewhere, we get an ecological lesson when Noah's wife tries to throw some insects overboard. We experience an asinine subplot about Noah's sons trying to get laid. We see Noah and his family kicking the crap out of a lot of invading pirates(before God zaps the villains with a tornado). We get the family going stir-crazy and Noah questioning his faith. Pretty much all of this, between scenes of destruction, moves with the elegant pace of a drugged snail.
The film also dodges any good explanation of how a small group could build and maintain a floating ship with two (or seven) of every living thing. Possibly, they looked at those proffered by Biblical literalists and found them too ridiculous, even for this movie. God does, however, helpfully label the timber so it could be put together like a big IKEA furniture kit. Perhaps he also provided the wire mesh later shown on the animals' cages.
We could at least hope for some good effects-- but they don't save the film, either. The Wrath of God at Sodom takes the form of some very cheesy comets. Afterwards, Noah and his family camp out on a glaringly obvious soundstage. Even the animal effects are only half-good. While real animals and CGI-generated creatures do appear, the filmmakers also matte in cut-out photographs-- unmoving, still, cut-out photographs-- into other scenes to create the appearance of large animals. They also resort to frequent use of mis-matched stock footage, perhaps covering the many times the actors could no longer keep straight faces. Only the Flood itself is somewhat impressive, but past Hollywood treatments of the subject have been equally good, so this is nothing new.
Bad acting abounds. The award for the consistently worst performance goes to Mary Steenburgen as Noah's wife. She has great hair, though. Actually, the hair is the highlight of the movie. They obviously sprung for good stylists. The women all have great hair. Even many of the men have good hair. Jon Voigt's Noah, with flowing locks and robes, looks like a member of the Jedi Council. Noah's sons fail in this obviously important area; unlike everyone else, they have army regulation cuts (and different accents from the rest of the cast). Anyway, I can safely recommend this movie to anyone who wants to see hair.
What you won't see are many signs of why God is so ticked off. Putting the human sacrifice aside, the earth's doomed inhabitants seem more annoyingly stupid than evil, a sort of antediluvian Springer audience. Sure, you or I would wipe them off the face of the earth, but that's why it's a good thing we're not gods. Since we never really see much terribly evil behavior, the film's God ends up looking like a real mean-spirited jerk. Perhaps that's what leads the film's Noah to later have doubts about God's existence.
The bizarre toying with the tale baffle me more than anything else in this film. Traditional religious types would constitute the obvious market for a film about Noah's Ark. The film-makers clearly recognized this, since the advertisements featured Ten Commandments-style music and a piously ponderous voice-over. However, the creative license they took with the Bible did not please the Church-going crowd (indeed, some church groups protested in the wake of the original broadcast; a few even demanded charges of blasphemy be brought against the producers). The shoddy quality of everything else, meanwhile, is not good enough to please anyone else. My wife suggested the film's makers were forced to go to some fire-and-brimstone Sunday School, and Noah's Ark is their revenge. Perhaps, but if you want a satiric-revisionist Noah, read Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage, which brilliantly (if, to some religious types, blasphemously) and purposefully rewrites the Flood story. Julian Barnes did likewise, in one of The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters ten and one-half chapters.*
's message, in the end, seems to be that God will smite anyone who dares mock God. This is an obvious untruth-- or the makers of this film would be salt pillars.
*Barnes' version reads well, but remains one of the most blatant literary thefts in history. Findley considered suing, but felt legal action would do more harm than good.
A variation of this review, by this reviewer, first appeared at Bad Movie Night.