From the get-go – a clash of desert gangs; of bikers without wheels; of serpent helmets, crashing bodies, and hornswoggle; of skin-thumping, drum-humping, pigsticking, and barbaric yawp under a wheel of carrion birds at the Sodom-and-Gomorrah Super Bowl – it’s clear that Noah’s Ark (Sunday and Monday, May 2 and 3; 9 to 11 p.m.; NBC) intends to play the Old Testament for laughs. On these killing fields, phlegmatic Noah (Jon Voight) is a sort of male nurse, like Walt Whitman or Allen Ginsberg. Not only will he refuse to attend a pep rally with severed heads – he won’t even go to the postgame orgy. This mystifies his buddy Lot (F. Murray Abraham). For Lot, the whole point of war is the orgy after. Nor is Lot in any rush to hurry home to loudmouth wife Carol Kane. But Noah has a call-waiting date with God on Mount Topek.
We must speak of this God. Think of Him as the British East India Company, telling the Royal Navy where to go and what to do to keep the wogs in line. He even sounds, in Noah’s ears, like a plummy civil servant. When Noah complains that 300 cubits is awfully long for a boat, God tells him: “I think big.” On the other hand, He is as whimsical as He is arbitrary, as irrational as He is divine: “It’s always all or nothing with Me, Noah.” Suddenly: “Noah, the end of the world is tomorrow.” We are talking about adolescent behavior. I am reminded of the albino ape in Bernard Malamud’s God’s Grace, of the supreme vanity in Joseph Heller’s God Knows, and of those Norse, Greek, and Hindu gods in Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet who turn us into rocks and spiders: “Natural disasters are proofs of the gods’ displeasure, because the world is our fault. Therefore incessant expiations. Therefore human sacrifice.” Which human sacrifice is “the heroin of the gods. It’s highly addictive. And who will save us from deities with major habits to feed?”
Such a God in the first half-hour of Noah’s Ark lobs comets at the snake cultists and slave flagellators of orgiastic Sodom. And Carol Kane, of course, although she has been told specifically not to, will look back to gloat. “She always said she was the salt of the earth, and now she really is,” Lot later explains to Noah, after he has become a bandit, before he turns into a pirate. Curiously, in Peter Barnes’s breezy screenplay, Lot’s wife is saddled with most of the shrewishness usually attributed to Noah’s wife, Naamah, who is supposed in legend to have refused to board the ark. This is so Mary Steenburgen can play Naamah as the mother not only of her own rough sons – dreamy Japheth (Jonathan Cake), sharp Shem (Mark Bazeley), and headstrong Ham (Alexis Denisof) – but also of the cupcake consorts brought along in order to breed the rest of us – Esther (Emily Mortimer), Miriam (Sonya Walger), and especially Ruth (Sydney Poitier, daughter of Sidney), whose virginity is such a big deal to the rain god Mole and horny Ham both. Naamah may be a bad cook – “She can burn water,” Noah tells us – who cares little for the animal kingdom, but biblically speaking, she’s “a good wife.”
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Even more than Merlin, which was brought to us by the same producers, Noah’s Ark depends on special effects to carry a four-hour mini-series with a weak storyline. So be advised that you’ll see a lot of neat stuff when, for instance, Noah seeks a sign that God’s sincere and gets his eyebrows fried with a volcanic eruption. Or when Noah needs expert help to save Ruth from a fate worse than Ham and says, “Lord – it’s your turn,” and God bolts down some blue lightning that renders the priests of Mole deaf and dumb. Or the ark itself, which looks like a Cubist hybrid of aircraft carrier, Polaris submarine, and Stanley Kubrick monolith. Nor the infinitely obliging animals. And, of course, the ultimate waterworks, the Big Wet.
Noah, meanwhile, drinks too much and whistles up a jig. Naamah succumbs to Victorian female hysterics. The sons and their cupcakes, having been enjoined against “procreation” till they’re in dry dock, rise in Oedipal revolt. Down with the patriarchy! Even God, after perhaps one too many expiration notices, concedes that “I can be wrong.” Only the animals behave themselves all the way to the promised land, when a dove goes out like a Communist Picasso and brings back vegetables and rainbows.
If F. Murray Abraham overacts, Jon Voight compensates by not, and Steenburgen’s somewhere in between. Sydney Poitier is almost worth a holy war. Everybody else seems to be having fun just being silly. I am reminded of the Eddie Izzard comic routine on Noah in which the patriarch tells a duck about the flood. The duck says, “So?” (There is that fishy loophole in the whole diluvial death wish.) I’m also reminded of the old New Yorker cartoon in which, watching from a cliff as the ark sails off without its splendid singularity, stands a pair of lonely unicorns.