Film Review: Noah (2014)

When one thinks of the biblical tale of Noah’s Ark, rock giants don’t immediately spring to mind. There are no pitched battles either, where hordes of half-crazed garbage people bum rush the infamous boat, desperately attempting to escape wide-spread ecological devastation. In fact, much of Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of the Noah mythos feels like a dramatic artistic liberty, and yes, some of it swings powerfully into almost the hallucinogenic and the laughable.

Underneath this, however, is a clever take on the subject that possesses both philosophical and emotional weight. Noah may feel superficially like a bad joke, or that someone perhaps took a bad hit off a crack pipe before making it. And yet, the basic questions that the story ruminates on are valid ones.

Noah is literally a tale as old as time, one so ingrained in our collective culture that it’s basically unnecessary to recount it here. However, while Aronofsky respects the basic tenants of the myth there are several departures. For one, the word “God” is never spoken, a decision that (as expected) sent many a religious nutjob into a petulant fit. This is an utterly insignificant issue, as recognition of a supernatural deity (here referred to as a nebulous “Creator”) pervades every bucolic nook and cranny of Aronofsky’s film.

Another major change is the expansion of the role of the “giants.” These beings are apparently briefly mentioned in the original text, but here are depicted as being the damned forms of the “Watchers,” celestial angels cast out of heaven by God.

Now, these creatures do look ridiculous, and would seem at home marching alongside that bearded, boring fuck Treebeard from LOTR: The Two Towers. In Noah, they serve a clear and pragmatic purpose: they help Noah and his family accomplish what would have been the impossible task of building the ark. They also function as pretty effective and truculent vanguards for when the film introduces Noah’s primary antagonist: the warring brute Tubal-cain, embodied here by cinema’s resident hardman Ray Winstone.

Winstone’s character is followed almost mindlessly by a whole host of people, who wage war on Noah and his family. This type of inter-tribal conflict (Noah’s family is descended from the virtuous Seth, while Tubal-cain and co. hail from that bastard Cain), is yet another major instance where Aronofsky’s film differs from the biblical story, and is its most important aspect.

What Noah does (and does well) is set up a critical dichotomy between two diametrically opposed philosophical viewpoints. In one corner there is Tubal-cain, who is bitter and resentful at the idea of a Creator dictating to him anything about the human experience. His hard-line, nearly Nietzschean perspective clashes powerfully against Noah’s stoic servitude. The titular ark maker espouses a cosmic hierarchy – where man is definitively under the thumb of the big guy in the sky, subject to his whims and watery temper tantrums.

The blatant environmentalist allegory, which received considerable words typed about it on the Internet, is generally facile and uninteresting; yet it is never really harped on too much to be overly problematic. Mostly this shit exists on the back burner, established visually through the impressive photography of DP Matthew Libatique. The story appears to consider the jostling worldviews of Noah and Tubal-cain to be of more paramount importance, which is the correct approach.

As the iconic boatmaker and savior of the animal kingdom, Russell Crowe strikes the appropriate authoritarian and virile tone. While initially appearing to be rather static and one-note, the actor gradually builds his character’s complexity, eventually reaching a fiendish, disturbing and patriarchal intensity not seen since his days as the ol’ Gladiator. Crowe’s preternatural gravitas even lends credence to the movie’s more asinine scenes, such as where the rock giants do battle with Tubal-cain’s clan and Crowe’s Noah begins screaming at them like an unhinged madman. One caveat here is that even Crowe’s believable performance can’t transcend certain moments. This is particularly evident during a real gut-buster of a scene where Noah gets blackout drunk.

Aside from Crowe’s and Winstone’s character, the other actors are fairly disposable. Connelly gets a couple of moments where she basically attempts to start a second flood with her tears. Emma Watson also appears with teeth so straight and white it makes one envious of the high quality dentistry people enjoyed during antiquity. This is basically her character’s most memorable quality, although she plays off Crowe’s Noah well enough as the character becomes increasingly zany near the story’s conclusion.

These figures functionality is relegated (like nearly all female movie characters) to helping illustrate the growth of the male lead. However, at least here this growth is dramatic. Noah asks searing and upsetting questions about the nature of mankind. Can we change as a species? Can we develop a higher nature? Or, conversely, are we doomed to remain out of balance with Eden?

With these questions in mind Aronofsky’s Noah uses the flood myth as a construct to explore whether or not the human race is worthy of mercy. In the filmmakers’ minds this is the dramatic arc behind the original sparse tale from the Bible. Unfortunately for the film, the questions it raises are far more successful than the answers.

Additionally, while Aronofsky and co. view this as the question that God was grappling with during the flood, they transfer this inner dilemma to Noah, which only partially works. The idea of Noah being a conduit for all of God’s knowledge and will never seems overly credible, as the deity remains invisible throughout the story. This causes at least some of the action to not make much sense. Still, the remarkable thing about Noah is that while there is a lot of nonsense on display the resonance of the story’s message emerges intact. One has to also admire Aronofsky throughout all of it. His bold, audacious filmmaking is something unique. He takes risks; he jumps into the deep end. In Noah’s case the film has a lot of holes in it (including some inconsistent tonal issues), but it’s to the writer/director’s credit that it largely stays afloat.

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