We’re finally beginning to move past the doldrums of February/March. A couple big releases for kids, namely The Lego Movie and Muppets Most Wanted have kept us entertained, but something bigger is on the horizon: the summer blockbuster. Oscar season is over and done with and budgets are back in style. Next week sees the surprisingly early release of Captain America: Winter Soldier, but before we launch into superhero mode, we have the much less-expected CGI Biblical epic:
The Plot: I’m sure you know the plot. Noah (Russell Crowe) and his small family are the last remaining descendants of Seth, the son of Adam and Eve who neither killed nor was killed by his brother. Cain’s descendants have spread over the entire world, consuming all resources, living or inanimate, and leaving a blasted wasteland in their wake. As the last members of an Eden-esque lifestyle, Noah and his family are chosen (by God) to build an ark to host two of every kind of animal, and survive the oncoming apocalyptic flood.
I was curious going in to see if Darren Aronofsky’s Old Testament epic would have anything in common with the Charlton Heston epics of the 1950s (Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments). The answer is no, it has almost nothing in common with those films. About the first half of the film is about Noah consulting his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) to make sense of God’s request, and then actually building the ark. Rather than trying to appease the inevitably offended sects by making these sequences in anyway plausible, Aronofsky goes full-blown fantasy. The pre-flood world is almost entirely CGI, there’s a magical fire-making ore, and Noah teams up with some fallen-angel-turned-crazy-rock-monsters voiced by Frank Langella and Nick Nolte, for some reason. The one thing I did really like about these Watchers, as they’re called, is that their movements are animated in a sort of halted fashion that recalls Ray Harryhausen Claymation effects.
There is a fair amount of grandiose spectacle in this film. The CGI landscapes are populated by CGI animals, most of which are slightly fantastical variations on real, familiar creatures. At first that seemed a tad unnecessary, but it works more as Aronofsky’s way of leaving room for evolution to take place in a visibly evident fashion. The flood is also wildly stylized with massive jets of water and sweeping tidal waves. Even though this is where the majority of the action takes place, this segment of the film is mostly pretty boring. They’re rehashing the Biblical story without much intrigue or innovation, not really adding anything to the millennia-old story.
And then things get interesting. An entire city’s population shows up, having followed the birds and the beasts, seeking refuge from the impending storm. Led by Tubal (Ray Winstone), the last descendant of Cain, these people will do anything it takes not to get wiped out, but Noah has his mission from God and will do anything to see it completed. Aronofsky hits his stride once it starts raining and people freak out. He doesn’t beat around the bush with the implications of an apocalyptic flood. God means to kill everyone, saving only the innocent. In this case, “innocent” doesn’t apply to humans, it applies exclusively to animals, because they are still how they were in Eden, uncorrupted by desire, emotion, or knowledge. Once this realization finally sets in, people get desperate. They will kill, maim, torture, enslave, and pretty much anything else if they think it will buy them a spot on the ark once Tubal has killed Noah and claimed it for himself.
They manage to make Tubal a pretty intriguing character. He is the antagonist, and he is brutal and brutish, but not altogether evil. The only thing that separates him from Noah is that while Noah is fighting for God, Tubal is fighting for Mankind. The question of whether or not Man is inherently good or evil comes up a fair amount throughout this movie. Noah believes that Man is evil, but Tubal thinks there’s a chance for redemption and survival. Unfortunately for him, his radical notions predate Redemption by a few thousand years, and he goes about trying to retrieve it in kind of a messy way.
While Tubal is not fully evil, Noah is not fully good. As I said, he will stop at nothing to see his mission completed. If he has to kill people to stop them from boarding his ark, he will. Whether or not they are bad people doesn’t concern him. When the flood finally hits and Noah and his family are on the ark, Aronofsky ventures into some psychological horror territory. Classic Aronofsky. Noah has completed his task: all of the animals are onboard; all of the humans are dead… except for him and his family. So, the only thing God was unclear about in all of Noah’s visions was his fate. Is he meant to survive? Should his eldest son Shem (the confusingly attractive Douglas Booth) marry and propagate the human race with Noah’s adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson)? If they do have children who could potentially continue the species, should he allow them to live? He doesn’t know, and God ain’t tellin’. Ila and Shem’s fear at what their father might do is out-dramatized only by Naameh’s, Noah’s wife (Jennifer Connelly), but the good stuff comes from Noah’s internal struggle and developing madness, which are excellently written, well directed, and very well acted by Russell Crowe. In fact you could say that Noah has a wonderful arc.
Claustrophobia, doom, and terror define the second act, and the execution is beautiful. It’s a shame Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel couldn’t apply these elements to the rest of the story. The tonal shift is so drastic as to almost cause whiplash, but it would have been perfectly suited for the rest of the film. Noah is so confident in what he is doing for so long, and then has a terrible breakdown. I would have loved it if his conviction subsided into fear and uncertainty earlier on, or possibly right away.
As for the religious elements, I did not find any aspect of this film particularly offensive. Aronofsky treats the story as a fantasy narrative grounded in aspects of reality, but it doesn’t seem disrespectful. The Creation, Eden, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel—he makes no statement as to whether any of these things are true or false for the viewer, just that they’re true for the characters. I gather some editions of the film are preceded by a religious disclaimer, but there wasn’t one before the version I saw, nor did I think it would be entirely necessary. It’s a movie. As an adaptation, it takes an artistic license, as it should. The question should just come down to whatever works best for the film. Of course, not every decision does work best for the film, but I’d say Noah is about half of a really good movie, and half a bland, indulgent, soulless adventure epic.