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This 'Noah's Ark' sinks before docking

Tuesday, May 04, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

If the world is destroyed tomorrow, we can safely blame NBC.

I don't think God will be happy with the network's "Noah's Ark," a four-hour mini-series airing today and tomorrow at 9 p.m. on NBC.

Produced by Hallmark Entertainment, makers of "Merlin" and "Gulliver's Travels," "Noah's Ark" doesn't live up to the Hallmark brand name that's usually synonymous with quality family entertainment.

Instead, we get a biblical epic filled with inane humor and contrived drama: Noah's wife tries to kill animals she dislikes by dumping them overboard; Noah has to keep his sons from making out with their girlfriends, turning the ark into a latter-day Love Boat.

You know there's trouble when the mini-series begins with a disclaimer: "For dramatic effect, we have taken poetic license with some of the events in the mighty epic of Noah and the flood."

Sorry to ruin the lesson plans of Sunday school teachers, but it's more than poetic license. Hallmark and NBC have changed the story into a cross between "Armageddon" and "Waterworld."

Some of the best film adaptations of literature take liberties, but the ones that work best remain true to the spirit of the novel on which they're based. The spirit (and the Spirit) are lacking in NBC's "Noah's Ark."

"Noah's Ark" begins with Noah (Jon Voight) and his wife, Naamah (Mary Steenburgen), living in Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot (F. Murray Abraham) is Noah's best friend.

My memories of Lutheran Sunday School are fading, but I'm pretty sure we didn't learn any stories about Noah and his family fleeing from the ashes of an ancient sin city. Scriptwriter Peter Barnes has an easy explanation. When Noah suggests they write down their adventures for future generations, Naamah says not to trust the "scribbling scribes.

"They have a very bad reputation," she says. "By the time they're finished with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, they'll probably say we weren't even there!"

Ha ha ha.

In fairness, "Noah's Ark" is true to the Old Testament in its un-politically correct depiction of violence. Viewers get to see animals aflame, and a hysterical woman gets slugged by one of Noah's sons.

Lot's wife, played with gonzo shrieking by Carol Kane, turns into a pillar of salt when she looks back on Sodom and Gomorrah just as in the good book. The city is destroyed by what looks like leftover special effects from NBC's 1997 mini-series "Asteroid."

Other visual effects don't fare so well. Many of the animals that board the ark two by two are obviously computer-generated one by one. They don't look real. Likewise, Noah's encounter with lava appears pasted-together and fake.

NBC has touted the number of Oscar-winners in this production. It's a pity "Noah's Ark" will stain their resumes (so much for using the Oscar cachet to positive effect). James Coburn, who won a best supporting actor Oscar for "Affliction" in February, gets two short scenes as a peddler who sells trinkets to Noah and his family. The brevity of his screen time will make it easier to forget his participation, but there's no such luck for F. Murray Abraham as the out-of-place Lot.

Abraham turns up in one of two scenes that vie for the title of "most embarrassing moment in a mini-series or movie." Lot's gang of water warriors attacks the ark like leftovers from a "Mad Max" movie.

If that's not the worst moment in "Noah's Ark," it has to be the tangential story of Noah's sons busting up a virgin sacrifice ("She's the only virgin we could find on such short notice," a priest quips).

When a shipwreck of this magnitude washes up during sweeps month, there are so many burning questions: Who thought this was a good idea? Who decided to take a story that doesn't fill two complete pages in the Bible and stretch it to four hours?

Alas, we'll never get answers to those questions.

Instead, thank whatever deity you worship that you weren't involved in the making of this monstrosity. Chances are the filmmakers already have a boarding pass to the afterlife - "Going down!" - and you won't want to follow in their wake.


'Noah's Ark'

When: 9 tonight and tomorrow on NBC.

Starring: Jon Voight, Mary Steenburgen.

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