Noah

When you make The Black Swan and The Wrestler, giving your studio tons of artistic credentials if not buckets of cash, said studios are going to give you some leeway on the projects you’ve been obsessing over since high school. This is true, even if, like Darren Aronofsky, you’ve already made one difficult film that didn’t quite work and flopped at the box office, namely The Fountain. “Maybe he’ll get it out of his system and go back to more conventional topics,” they figure, or perhaps he’ll nail it and create a classic for all time. Whatever they were thinking when they greenlit Noah they had to have been counting on the inevitable free publicity when the controversy erupts over an odd take on a beloved biblical story.
From a narrative standpoint, there isn’t much to hang your hat on in the Noah story. It only lasts a couple of pages and like most of the bible it is written in an expository style that modern readers find dry and unexciting. There is almost no characterization or description or any of the other things we expect in a story. People go to it for religious inspiration not entertainment. So Aronofsky has a lot to flesh out here. He’s added characters like Ila, played by Emma Watson, an orphan whom Noah, played by Russell Crowe, adopts. There are sub-plots and a villain, Tubal-Cain, played by Ray Winstone. With all that Aronofsky pads this thing out to over two hours, which is the proper length for a biblical epic, I think we can all agree.
But to me, and as it turns out to Aronofsky, the most interesting thing about the story of the Flood is how can a righteous man pull up that ramp, stranding people as the waters are rising? Even if God is telling you that they are wicked beyond redemption it has to be a hard thing to do. This expands into a larger question about the nature of faith. In this film Noah does and intends to do some pretty extreme and awful things because God is intent on rebooting His creation. He’s God, so He knows when a person or a race of people is beyond redemption. He knows when genocide is appropriate.
Compassion is a virtue that God wants in man. But in this case He is seemingly asking Noah to cast it aside and aid Him in destroying mankind while saving the part of creation that has not fallen, the animal kingdom. How does a righteous man feel about being asked to do all these terrible things? There has to be some doubt and that’s where the real central conflict of this film comes in.
The acting and technical elements are all excellent here. The part of Noah is not really a stretch for Russell Crowe, but he takes the character from strong but good hearted family man to fanatic, to madman, to broken failure, to finally humble penitent, convincingly. Everybody else is good too, especially Emma Watson, and Ray Winstone, but they are really in support of Crowe’s performance.
It is a pretty film. They use the volcanic plains of Iceland to stand in for post-Eden desolation. The special effects are well integrated into the picture, even if they aren’t particularly jaw-dropping. The costumes get away from the traditional robes and sandals of other biblical epics. I’d like to know where Ila and Naameh, Noah’s wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, get their hair done and how they keep their clothes clean when there isn’t any running water, but those are minor things and besides miracles were a lot more common in those days.
The real problem is that there is a lack of rigor to Aronofsky’s theology. I’m not sure what he’s trying to say. And certain things don’t make any sense. Dense forests spring up overnight from a single seed; there are fallen angels encased in rock that you can talk to and who will help you build your ark: barren women are made fertile with a touch. All these manifestations of the divine occur out in the open and unremarked upon. And yet the will of God is still unknowable?
There is also a New-Agey odor to the whole thing. Noah and his family are vegetarians and somehow eating animal flesh leads to sin. The protection of nature and the animal kingdom is a very important motivation for Noah, one for which he is willing to watch all or most of humanity die. These are basically the same motivations and goals as Ra’s al Ghul’s in the Batman comics. Ra’s is a villain, by the way. Aronofsky is trying to push some buttons. In the movie God is always referred to as the Creator and Eve’s role in the fall is never mentioned. That seems like a jab at the fundamentalists.
In the end I would not put Noah in the ambitious but flawed masterpiece category. It is told in a fairly linear and conventional fashion. I sense very little willingness to push the envelope of filmmaking aesthetics here. It is merely a take on a biblical story, worth watching but hardly great.

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