By Simon Miraudo
March 28, 2014
If anyone could rival the fire-and-brimstone-spewing judgement of the Old Testament’s God, it’d be the modern movie-watcher. Though they can’t incite a world-ending deluge, they can – and will – let their disappointment be known by flooding Twitter with their rulings, or, even more devastatingly, by staying away from a film entirely, dooming its creator to… try working in television or something. How audiences will take to Darren Aronofsky’s nutso Noah, a grim, bizarre retelling of the familiar Bible parable, is anyone’s guess. Maybe Aronofsky should start prepping his getaway ark just in case.
Russell Crowe brings his gravelly presence to the part of Noah, a descendant of Adam and Eve’s not-evil surviving son, Seth. He lives a simple life with his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connolly) and sons Ham (Logan Lerman) & Shem (Douglas Booth), until a ghastly premonition informs him of an impending downpour that will send the sinners of the world to a watery grave. Those sinners, led by the barking Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), are born of Adam and Eve’s murderous offspring, Cain. Hey, everyone has a side of the family they’re not super proud of. Tasked by God and encouraged by grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), Noah gets to work on a giant ark to protect the innocent animals that should be spared extinction. Much of the building is actually done by The Watchers, a fleet of fallen angels, cursed with misshapen rock bodies and, in one instance, burdened further with the voice of Nick Nolte. Emma Watson also helps out as Ila, an orphan girl picked up on Noah’s travels as a wife for Shem. Ham, as you would imagine, is pretty peeved that his dad didn’t pull the same ‘wingman’ move for him.
A long-time dream project of Aronofsky’s, he penned it with his producer Ari Handel, only convincing Paramount Pictures to pony up the massive budget after the breakout success of his psychosexual indie Oscar-winner Black Swan. The prospect of Aronofsky ever being entrusted with this much money seemed unlikely in the wake of his 2006 flop The Fountain (which, it should be noted, cost four times less than Noah). And yet, here we are. In many ways, his latest feels like a covert remake of The Fountain. Both features use folklore, science fiction and the supernatural to explore humanity’s struggle with mortality, as well as the prospect of our species’ total annihilation (either by our own hand, that of some God-like being, or the random chaos of nature herself). Many laughed at The Fountain’s earnest hokum. By dressing the same subject matter up in the clothes of a Christian allegory, will people now flock to it, or be further repulsed?
It’s a question that can’t be answered by this review, but will handily be answered by Noah’s opening weekend at the box office. Instead, let’s try and figure out if the thing is any good. In a universe where high-profile frolics like this are either dismissed as gargantuan, hubristic follies or celebrated as ingenious masterpieces, it’s difficult to convey the reality that Noah sits somewhere in between; neither a decisive failure nor an absolute success. These projects don’t allow for comfortable fence-sitting, particularly when they so happily invite the disdain of the evangelical and the militantly-atheistic alike, not to mention the general filmgoing populace, who are always hungry for the year’s first massive flop. (You can imagine the Russell Crowe shaped Wicker Man that will be inevitably erected.) I’ll say this, at least: the fable of Noah’s Ark is one of humanity’s most enduring, and regardless of one’s personal beliefs, it inspires a fascinating debate about what it means to be a zealot, sceptic, sinner, and human being. Don’t dismiss it on religious (or anti-religious) grounds. Frankly, if anyone should be offended by it, it’s the carnivore community. This is as pro-vegan a flick you’ll see that also stars Ray Winstone.
Noah is, surprisingly, not all that concerned with all those animals; traditionally the most fixated-upon element of the saga. Rather, Aronofsky explores Noah’s mighty emotional load, the result of him having to actively fight people off his vessel when the rains finally come, and later having to hear their dying screams through the ark’s wooden walls. Those darker shades of the story are especially affecting, and find the humanity within the sillier aspects of the legend, which go largely unquestioned and are sometimes flat-out ignored. Notice how no-one brings up the inevitable incest that’s required to repopulate the recently cleansed planet. Sounds like it would make for one memorable family meeting.
Contrary to popular panic, Aronofsky’s idiosyncratic directorial fingerprints haven’t been washed clean from the final print. Noah is innately Aronofskian. The man behind such experimental fare as Pi and Requiem for a Dream, as well as the melancholy masterpiece The Wrestler, seems like an odd fit for this Biblical narrative, however, he unquestionably makes it his own. Their marriage may benefit the myth – timeless tales like these can always use a new pair of eyes – yet I can’t help but think Aronofsky should be working on something different. Far be it from me to say the Bible is beneath him… it’s just that it was a lot more fun and fascinating when he was making movies about obsession, bodily degradation and deviant sex, and there’s only a little bit of each of those things in Noah.
The special effects are remarkable, chiefly the charmingly-clunky Watchers, Clint Mansell’s score is booming, as you’d expect, and cinematographer Matthew Libatique captures some stunning moments on some truly unusual vistas (the colour palette of the landscapes is entirely alien). Still, for all its nuttiness, this is a po-faced telling of the tale, often guilty of sliding back into the comfortable sandals of your typical old-fashioned epics when it should be forging fresh, freaky ground. Noah is admirable and watchable, sometimes very interesting and also incredibly cruel and strange. I have conflicting feelings towards the picture, which is perhaps as muted a reaction someone can have to it. This adaptation wasn’t quite a transformative experience, but it was weird as hell, just not frequently enough. I will offer Darren Aronofsky this one unqualified compliment: at times, Noah is unlike anything that’s been done before.
Noah is now showing in Australian cinemas.