Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel
Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Douglas Booth, Leo McHugh Carroll, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Nick Nolte
PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content
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Taking one of the most familiar Bible stories and turning it into a feature motion picture might seem like a simple task. When you give the task to Darren Aronofsky, everything simple gets twisted into something complex. Noah positions itself quickly as an anti-Bible film, one that takes the familiar story and adds enough unusual flourishes to make it a completely different story.
The story we grew up listening to (if you were from a religious family) was of a man, his wife, his three sons and their wives who are tasked with building a giant ark upon which 2 of every animal on earth would climb before the world was destroyed by a massive flood. The story carries dire warnings against corruption of the species in that God would destroy the earth if it became too wicked.
The basics of that tale are present. Noah (Russell Crowe) is a descendent of Seth, one of the frequently unmentioned sons of Adam and Eve, who has been granted dreams that he interprets as a message from The Creator (who is never referenced by the title God as in the Judeo Christian belief structure) that man has become vile and destructive and will be destroyed. He sets about building an ark to house the various creatures that will flock to it at The Creator’s request. As he makes his journey across the land to seek his grandfather Methusalah’s (Anthony Hopkins) guidance, they take on the sole survivor of a Cain-descendents raid. Ila (Emma Watson) would later become wife to Noah’s son Shem (Douglas Booth).
From there, Aronofsky crafts a cautionary tale of his own, adding elements that link modern wickedness to the past. Cain’s descendants raped and pillaged the earth, deforesting, destroying and killing all who stood in their way, including Noah’s own father. Before the flood, there was a single continent across which Cain’s descendants expanded violently and without respect for others. Noah and his children are the last in the line of Seth and will need to repopulate the world once the flood is over, but whereas the original text had Shem, Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japeth (Leo McHugh Carroll) accompanied by three wives, Aronofsky gives only one of them a wife and, as Noah explains to Ham, God will provide their needed spouses.
Adding depth and drama is expected in a feature length film of such a short Bible passage. However, reverance to the source should at least be a small concept when fashioning a new saga. Aronofsky may respect certain aspects of the story, but in his effort to add intrigue, tonally distinct beats and social commentary, Aronofsky has managed to take away a lot of the hope that is encompassed in the tract. That hope remains, but it isn’t as evident or without sacrifice as it was in the Bible.
Crowe’s interpretation of Noah, based entirely on Aronofsky’s creation, is aggressive, desperate and struggling to find hope in the chaos and destruction around him. This should be Crowe’s wheelhouse, but he somehow feels miscast, overly emphasizing the viciousness of himself and of mankind who he is supposed to represent. Connelly counteracts this overbearing mentality with a sweetness that almost makes me forget the awfulness that was her A Beautiful Mind performance or any number of similar outings since.
Watson shows some measurable signs of growth in her first major release since leaving the Harry Potter franchise. Had Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel given her character more than just generic character beats, she might have been able to take them somewhere. Lerman takes the scripts weaknesses and infuses them with strength making Ham a perfect embodiment of youth. As similar as this character is to those in his prior work in Percy Jackson and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Lerman manages to craft slightly different variants with each. While I’m not sure he’ll be able to break out of the troubled-teen mode in the future, while he’s in it at least there are few better to watch.
Aronofsky and Handel struggle to find relevance in their screenplay, crafting unbelievable and frustrating departures from the base story. Commenting about man’s inherent desire to rebel and crush those who stand in their way, Aronofsky has concocted a far-fetched vision that can’t seem to right itself after the audacious and off-kilter opening. Aronofsky’s directorial style is preserved from his past films, though some of his flourishes don’t fit well within the confines of the film. He periodically casts his actors against colorful backdrops while leaving them in silhouette. The infrequency of this technique makes those uses ill-fitting. He’ll move from intense, interpersonal character drama to sweeping Biblical effort without recognizing that his films don’t look as much like The Robe or The Ten Commandments as he may believe that they do.
Still, if you want to apply a subversive interpretation to his film, one that actually mocks the religious and their adherence to an antiquated and questionably believable mythos. Looking at Noah in this way, gives one a modicum of respect for his effort. It may not work perfectly as such a film, but it allows a small bit of solace for a horribly flawed film from an admittedly courageous filmmaker.
I’ve always felt that the filmgoing experience is heightened by a sense of discovery. Whether it’s finding out who Rosebud is in Citizen Kane or discovering the twist ending of The Sixth Sense or uncovering what happened in each of the three endings in the movie Clue, our cinematic experience is enhanced by the element of surprise.
As a film critic, it’s incumbent upon us to preserve that delightful shock factor for our readers, which means a focus on avoiding spoilers as best we can. Sometimes we aren’t always successful, even though many of us try to be. Yet, some films, like Citizen Kane are embellished by the surprise in not only the final moments, but those leading up to them, even going back so far as the beginning of the film. To discuss the full impact of a film, sometimes it’s integral to write about some of these moments. As such, I am hoping to implement a feature in each of my reviews, starting with this one, that permits me to go into a bit more depth about problems or successes of the film without worrying about betraying those conclusions to those who don’t want to know.
If you have seen the film or don’t care about spoilers, please read on. If you don’t want to know, skip this section until you have a chance to see the film.
Two of the film’s most graphic scenes would have a dulled impact if they were discussed without spoiler warning. The first of these is set at a camp at the far edge of the forest surrounding Noah’s ark worksite. To placate the masses and keep them from overrunning the fence separating the ruling class and the warmakers, they toss in a small animal which is instantly torn to shreds. The scene showcases how humans deprived of respect and comfort can resort to vicious displays of violence in an effort to feed themselves. It simultaneously speaks out against the wealthy and the politcally conservative who would rather throw red meat at the masses than try to address their issues. The border in Noah is both figurative and literal. There is a boundary separating the public and the leaders who wage war on their behalf when war is unnecessary. It’s a powerful statement that may get lost in the breadth of this particular narrative.
The second scene speaks to the mind of Noah and his sudden change in belief that humankind will perish and that he and his family are temporary shepherds of the animals through the flood. Ham has found a potential wife, that Noah told him God would provide, but she is captured in a snare as they are running from the hordes attempting to take the ark as the rains begin to fall. Instead of helping his son free the woman who may help him repopulate the world, he pulls Ham away and the young woman is graphically trampled under the feet of the approaching masses. Its this scene that begins the slow collapse of the Noah character. He is broken and afraid, and with no communication from God he believes he knows what’s in God’s mind even if the truth is something murkier.
Essentially, Noah represents the defeatest, hopeless segment of the religious population. These are the people who believe that God intends the worst and punishes those of his creations simply for being imperfect. The rest of his family see hope in their future, even in the bleakest of time. In the end, it’s these individuals who win out. It suggests that for modern civilization to move post its reliance on war and defeatism, it must embrace a a more hopeful and cautious attitude, not assuming that God merely wants to destroy that which is purportedly wicked. Noah at least recognizes himself as flawed, so this particular analysis of his actions may not be perfectly accurate.
There are countless spoiling scenes that have an impact on the viewers perceptions and beliefs about the film’s purpose and structure. Darren Aronofsky is much more likely to speak metaphorically than he is literally, so accepting a grain of salt in the discussion is important. In what may be a final deconstruction of this particular story, and probably its most disturbing, he lets the narrative stand as the Bible has it written. With the world destroyed, the entire repopulation of the planet, all 7.23+ billion of today’s people is born of the same family. While there is slight genetic diversity with Ila’s bloodline, that’s everyone. If you look at it as the film ends, who is going to repopulate? Ila alone cannot do it, but she does have two daughters, the exact number of wives that God was supposed to send Ham and Japeth. A very patriarchal view, but one which is almost literally the word of the Bible.
Probables: Production Design, Visual Effects
Potentials: Costume Design, Makeup & Hairstyling, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
Unlikelies: Picture, Director, Acting, Original Score, Film Editing, Cinematography
April 24, 2014