“My father said that one day, if man continued in his ways, the Creator would annihilate this world…”
I’m no religious scholar, nor do I remember much from my Sunday school classes and CCD studies when I was growing up and attending Christian masses, but the story of Noah’s Ark is an Old Testament tale that transcends the bindings of the Bible. For forty days and forty nights, Noah and his family protected the lives of Earth’s innocent animals – two of each kind, one male and one female – as a giant flood washed away the Earth and made it fertile for a new beginning. The inspiring story is grand, though admittedly short and accessible, and can stand alone without its religious backdrop, which includes Noah, the last living descendent of Cain and Abel’s other brother, Seth, learning of the forthcoming apocalypse through visions provided by God himself and thus crafting an ark suggested by the premonitions. However, like all biblical fables and religious yarns, there are striking segments within Noah’s tale that are glossed over in favor of a cleaner, less controversial take, but when included make for a memorable story ripe for interpretation.
So, in walks filmmaker Darren Aronofsky to reassemble those forgotten puzzle pieces into a sweeping epic that lacks traditionalism in its narrative plotting, as well as any conventional foundation as a large-scale motion picture. All the more surprising is its backing by Paramount Pictures, a major Hollywood studio that more or less let Aronofsky mull and seed all of the various remixes of the Noah story into one majorly thoughtful film that ranks awfully high on both the ambition and the spectacle scales. The best part about it all, however, is that Aronofsky’s Noah, with all of its assorted flaws, is successfully stunning and might be the filmmaker’s most impressive picture if not necessarily his finest, tightest, or most all-around polished.
Noah is a far cry from the majority of Aronofsky’s filmography. He’s always found success when crafting intricate character studies, such as masterpieces Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler – both so raw and harshly real – and his Oscar winning Black Swan – scarily visceral – but his most notable fumblings come when he attempts to present his own provocative thoughts, which can’t always make the jump from terrific idea to idealistic visual. Pi, while admittedly a first feature, is more incomprehensible than challenging, and The Fountain is simply an example of a director losing direction. Noah has earned acceptable comparisons to The Fountain, my least favorite Aronofsky film, but even when it comes closest to being The Fountain 2.0, Aronofsky holds onto the various extractions of the overall story that he is retelling and never loses sight of his intentions, even when the scale and narrative focus narrow and the visible personality succumbs to some compromises.
Aronofsky works the film accessibly enough for studio security but doesn’t once let it slip from an intelligently stimulating high, nor lighten above a brooding and brutal atmosphere. It’s the director’s ever-present earnestness that gives Noah staggering depth, and his fruitful collaboration with cinematographer Matthew Libatique continues with ominous and emotional work that shrouds the film in a rich earthiness and decidedly cloudy grimness long before, during, and after the rains come. The directorial choices are still bold and, at many points, daring and inspired; when Aronofsky shows off the practical sets arranged for the film’s second and third acts (the ark itself is a miraculous piece of production design) or leads us through impressive time lapses, crafted as enthralling single frame montages, this is when Noah boasts itself fittingly. Even the biggest detractors won’t be able to not appreciate these moments. And speaking of ‘moments,’ Noah does contain many, mostly due to Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel’s distinctly mythic approach that combines Adam and Eve, The Book of Enoch, environmentalist cautions toward industry, and the Seven Days of Creation (showcased in a remarkable animated sequence) into an analysis of mercy, spirituality, and the darker sides of faith and devout duties.
Noah’s supernaturalism is where The Fountain comparisons are most fitting, but in Noah it all works far better than expected. One of the film’s biggest question marks going in was The Watchers – fallen angels consumed by Earth, having transformed into, for lack of a better description, rock monsters – and I think they’re actually one of the film’s highlights. Never one for fantasy myself, I found the stop-motion action of the Watchers to be fascinating constructs, and their illustrated backstory is tragic and their employment in the film’s central action set piece is not only awesome but is also majorly cathartic. An elemental vagueness about them allows added mysticism, lying somewhere in between the rock giants in the first Hobbit film and Pan’s Labyrinth’s eponymous faun. Plus, some of the Watchers are voiced by Mark Margolis, Kevin Durand, Frank Langella, and Nick Nolte, an added bonus.
The animals’ trek to the ark is another imaginative wonder, instigated by Noah’s planting of an Eden seed given to him by his magical grandfather, Methuselah, played by a reassuring Sir Anthony Hopkins (why he possesses magic powers and nobody else in the film does is a point that avoids explanation), and suave editing leads to a herd of CGI animals emerging from the forest. Finally, the flood itself is astonishing, and certainly horrifying, as geysers erupt from the ground and a four-way tsunami comes rushing in from all directions catapulting the massive ark into a planet-wide sea. This major sequence is bookended by an audacious shot of the remaining survivors clinging to a rock as Noah and his family listen to their deafening screams from inside the ark; it’s one of Aronofsky’s most chilling images. Noah is not an easy film to watch (a PG-13 rating is honestly questionable)but those prepped with an Aronofsky history should expect nothing less.
There are two key additions that Aronofsky and Handel provide, one is surprisingly stimulating and the other is valiant but not wholly successful. With the film nearing the halfway point, we are introduced to Tubal-cain, a living descendent of Cain and therefore a very, very distant relative to Noah who claims that he is the King of Men. He becomes Noah’s antagonist, one who hides behind vile confidence but at the same time is wholly God-fearing, and he’s played effectively by Ray Winstone. The growling actor gains our sympathy in strange moments, and while his development is somewhat muted, Aronofsky gives him poignant details which Winstone picks up on in each key scene. The other addition is a tricky narrative switch in the film’s back half, which shaves the spectacle and focuses on the immediate family now residing within the arc. It concerns the well-being of man’s future, which is a decision given to Noah by The Creator (the word ‘God’ is never used) that becomes increasingly difficult and gravely personal. This section of the film is ugly, borrowing some horror film cues, but the plotting becomes condensed and convenient; even a film like this where divine intervention wouldn’t be totally out of the question is a little too easy when the rest of it is vastly conceptual. Yet, the acting is spotlighted here, specifically Emma Watson and Jennifer Connolly, as well as a haunting, rarely seen side of star Russell Crowe.
Watson doesn’t come into the film for a while – the majority of the beginning takes place when Noah’s children are young – but when she finally does appear, she’s an impressive presence, miles better than her The Perks of Being a Wallflower co-star, Logan Lerman, who never differentiates his performances from movie to movie. She carries much of the emotional weight in the thorny back half and she succeeds more times than not. Connolly, meanwhile, reminds us of her Oscar winning chops, benefitting from a reunion with Aronofsky, who directed her in Requiem for a Dream, and her A Beautiful Mind co-star, Russell Crowe – that film earned her Best Supporting Actress. Connolly is an unwavering mother, protective and loving but overly caring, and as the film moves along she starts to unleash herself. One scene opposite Crowe left me speechless, as it does Crowe’s Noah. And regarding the titular craftsman, the character’s arc is as rich and expansive as the vessel he constructs, played zealously by Russell Crowe. Crowe makes us feel every complicated action and decision, and transforms from a humble gatherer and father into a strong-willed prophet who may or not be misinterpreting the instructions he’s been given.
For all its inherent religious associations, thankfully Noah raises more than just theological questions. It asks us to ponder our treatment of the environment and our treatment of one another – mercy is a key theme – and the theory of evolution and progressions of science and its connectivity to man. Those aforementioned time-lapse sequences build upon Aronofsky’s contemplations on evolution and how it might coincide with biblical creationism, they also illustrate the environment as a heavenly vastness that man chose to destroy; a boundary-less Eden that bore the wounds of each sin following Adam’s original. The bare world that The Creator has chosen to destroy is one that demands replenishing and a fresh start, but how did it get that way? Should we be conscious of our own world and what we are doing to it? Could we very well destroy it, maybe not in way associated with the Almighty, but in another way? These environmentalist associations have caused a stir, but they are poignant nonetheless as Aronofsky uses the past to represent the present and the future. And while the religious dealings don’t reach the controversial levels that the press has hyped up, it does mirror the director’s own frustration with religion. Noah’s adherence to his higher duties combats his morals and ethics, and this comes to the forefront in the film’s third act and is resolved tolerably if not finitely. Noah’s mentality is shaved from Aronofsky’s wrestling match with religion, and it’s this clear personality inhabiting the film that creates flaws within the final act. However, for all of these flaws – and maybe even because of them – Noah possesses something that most films of this budgeted size forget about or omit completely: The film has a soul…Darren Aronofsky’s soul.
Aronofsky has built his career on original thoughts and varied filmmaking. Objectively, Noah looks like something pressured by a profit seeking movie studio, and the trailers try to spin the film into that light, but upon finally viewing the film, which only screened for select critics in Boston, Aronofsky has made something that’s not only impossible to sell to a broad audience, but very well could never find an audience. It’s a hard film to recommend because it is so out there and so challenging for the median moviegoer. It’s dark and stirring – Noah’s visions are small horror films unto themselves, accentuated by Clint Mansell’s booming score – and lengthy and hefty, and I’m sure there’s more widespread intrigue than actual desire to go out and see a film that is all of those things, even among Aronofsky fans. Yet, if the intrigue guides you to take a chance on this solicitous spectacle, take the ride inside the ark that Darren has built, for this will surely be a film that remains in some kind of conversation throughout the rest of the year. It absolutely deserves discussion.
In short, I found Noah absolutely captivating, a remarkable if somewhat prickly and untidy synthesis of small, intimate filmmaking expanded onto an IMAX-level, budgetary scale.
Review by Mike Murphy