Aronofsky reimagines 'Noah' as an epic internal struggle
Noah Paramount Pictures
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth and Anthony Hopkins
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 18 minutes
March 28, 2014
(out of four)
The rub with Darren Aronofsky's Noah is that it will be most instructive to the very viewers who will most quickly reject it. In fact, that's bearing itself out already. As a biblical epic - a rare thing these days anyway - it's a film the studio clearly wants to sell to various religious audiences. And no doubt plenty of religious audiences will be receptive to it.
But those that won't or already aren't - and in many cases, it's sight unseen - are who I'm talking about here. Noah will fail them for precisely the reason it actually works. It's because this is a film about difficult faith, not easy faith, and a lot of those protesting the loudest - and I've encountered plenty first-hand - want nothing to do with that. They don't want an interpretation of the Noah flood story; they want a slideshow of the version that tells them what they already know or believe. (Other complaints are your garden-variety nit-picks about fidelity to source material, which are equally silly and are basically white noise to me at this point.)
We live in a culture in which far too many prefer to simply reinforce their own beliefs rather than challenge or recontextualize them, and in which we have more than enough resources allowing us to do exactly that. Anyone who's recently seen a niche, low-budget religious film or an outrage documentary knows how transparently they tend to congratulate their audiences.
Which is what makes something like Noah - for all its flaws - a vital work. Here is a movie ostensibly about the struggle to understand and unravel faith, to decipher the meanings and implications of belief and moral responsibility. It is a movie that trusts its viewers enough to dive head-first into prickly moral territory that actually wrestles with Noah's uncertainty and guilt, while questioning his morality and that of the destruction of the earth itself. If it's not easy for the man tasked with saving life on earth while the rest of humanity is wiped out, it shouldn't be easy for us, either. We should be grappling for answers and questioning the rights, wrongs and implications of this journey right along with him.
It would have been the safe thing for Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel to construct the trite version of this story, to make Noah's decisions easy ones and to ignore all ethical considerations that come with it. But that would have made for a cheap journey, hardly worth the grandiosity of the premise.
Ultimately, when you're adapting a parable like this - or whatever you want to call it - the deeper meanings and spiritual considerations you can glean from it are what really matter. There's not much concrete material to pull from a four-chapter, six-page, 2,407-word story, but there's loads to explore inside those words. Aronofsky took on that challenge, and thoughtfully, imaginatively fleshed out a new interpretation that's richly rewarding on its own, and for the very reasons that a straight-up adaptation might not have been.
It's the spareness of the words in the original text that allows him to explore that which he feels is most potent - and more crucially, allows him to stretch out his cinematic vocabulary to depict what is presented more didactically in Genesis. The first warning comes to Noah (Russell Crowe) in a dream, as he finds himself standing in front of a mountain, ankle-deep in soggy, blood-stained mud, then suddenly submerged underwater as the camera zooms out to reveal countless dead bodies floating around him. He doesn't yet understand what he's meant to do, but he knows one thing: the world is about to be destroyed by flood.
Pieces of the Creator's grand design continue to come to Noah in visions - one through a hallucinogen administered by his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), and a later dream that mirrors the first one. This time, he finds himself underwater again, but instead of corpses he's surrounded by animals, all rising to the water's surface. Another piece of the puzzle solved.
Any other approach to the communication between the Creator and Noah (another in a long line of Aronofsky protagonists whose obsessiveness borders on folly) would make the whole thing too easy. What's fascinating is the way Noah has to constantly interpret what is being shown to him, to struggle to understand what he is or is not meant to do. This proves trickier as the film moves along; the deeper he understands the roots of mankind's "wickedness" (both in its treatment of fellow humans and disregard for the earth itself), the greyer his understanding of the mission becomes. At a certain point, the film's exploration of that internal struggle turns the viewer/protagonist dynamic on its head - at which point Noah's wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) becomes particularly importance as she balances out his (and the film's) conscience.
Crowe proves invaluable particularly during the moral quagmire of the second half, his commanding physical presence asserting utmost authority, but his face subtly betraying his uncertainty, guilt and sadness. Biblical heroes are so often depicted as noble by default, but Crowe's Noah earns his nobility through his struggle to understand what he's supposed to do and why. Few actors possess the gravitas and haunting emotional subtlety to pull that off.
The film is not a "challenge" in the sense that it undermines the idea of a god or creator, or of Noah's story - rather, it's explicitly about the way faith challenges him, about the grey areas within it and the difficulty of fully understanding it. The Creator is referred as such throughout Noah, because the film is in large part about creation - creation of life being the script's most prominent moral struggle and ultimate turning point.
In fact, the opening visuals and title cards recount the biblical creation story, introducing a brief series of motifs (the apple, the serpent) that reappear throughout the film. To be honest, that opening feels rather clunky and unnecessary, especially given that Aronofsky goes over the same territory later on, and much more effectively. The film's best sequence is the creation/evolution montage midway through, in which we see life and the earth unfold from the ground in an extended sequence of jumpy time-lapse photography. Shot with an evolving series of animals in the lower foreground, and as if the camera is mounted to each one's back, the sequence shows civilization opening up before us. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Aronofsky's frequent collaborator) vividly shows us the beauty of the creation of life on earth in its various forms, culminating in an expressionistic take on the Garden of Eden story.
That sequence gets a somber companion not long afterward, as Noah finds himself immersed in horror when he goes out one night in search of wives for his sons. As he looks around he finds only evil; once again the camera zooms out to reveal him surrounded, this time by a fiery, lawless hell on earth that firmly convinces Noah of the necessity of the flood.
The grandness of Aronofsky's epic scale is something he struggles to reign in. On one hand, there's a brilliant ingenuity to his interpretation of the text - notably the depiction of the Watchers, fallen angels cursed to remain on earth and covered in the soil and rock of the planet's surface (OK fine, they're Giant Glowing Rock Monsters, and they're awesome); on the other, various subplots and the apparent necessity for big action setpieces often clash with the rest of the movie, making the whole of Noah a distinctly unfocused effort. A recurring storyline involving Noah's middle son Ham (Logan Lerman) struggling to learn how to become a man is never given the time it needs to really work, and particular elements of a hugely important subplot involving his adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) is short-changed as well.
And as effective as some of the CGI is - i.e. the spectacular flood sequence, the Harryhausen-esque movement and design of the Watchers, Logan Lerman's adorable facial hair - the animals are kind of an eyesore. The film's big shot of them all arriving at the ark is an ugly clash of colors and visual textures.
But in the midst of some of the film's messiness, there are plenty of inspired choices as well. For instance, in depicting a parable through a visual medium that demands a certain degree of logical scrutiny, Aronofsky mitigates the literal impossibilities of the story (like the entirety of the world's food chain co-existing on the same boat), with simple but clever solutions like, to continue that example, a potion that puts the animals to sleep for the duration of the flood.
Beyond that, there's the thoughtful depiction of Tubal-cain - killer, earth-dominator, self-proclaimed king and Noah's primary antagonist - which is rather beautiful, in large part due to the casting of Ray Winstone. As vicious and violent as the character is, we also see Tubal-cain as not just defiant in the face of Noah's proclamations, but emotionally wounded by the thought of being abandoned by the Creator. With the possible exception of Nick Nolte, I'm not sure there's an actor better than Winstone at leveraging a gruff physical exterior against a fragile and soulful emotional center.
That this is my least-favorite Aronofsky film to date is less an indictment on the film and more a credit to him as a filmmaker. (Yes, I loved The Fountain.) Noah remains an impressively idiosyncratic work that's almost always interesting but is also a victim of its own ambition and a frustratingly uneven sense of focus. Still, it's rare to see a film - particularly a studio tentpole - so committed to challenging its audience, its characters and itself, especially on such weighty philosophical subject matter as this. This is a film few could have envisioned or expected.