To preface this review I’d like to point you towards this article, which explains how I, as a DC film critic, finally got to see Noah ahead of time. Basically, Paramount for some reason thought it would be grand to screen the film for only religious critics, and when they got called on their crap threw the company that does the screenings under the bus. On the plus side they did arrange a screening so I got to see Noah ahead of time for this review (which was embargoed until today despite opening last night).
But that really has nothing to do with Darren Aronofky’s biggest movie yet. At $130 million dollars this isn’t the small budget fare we’re use to seeing from him. Instead it is an epic in the most biblical sense of the word. It’s a daunting task to retell a story about faith in a increasingly secular industry, and the way Aronofsky goes about that is very interesting.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Release Date: March 28, 2013
Knowing the biblical story of Noah, as most of us do, really isn’t going to give you the full idea of Noah‘s plot. While the basic gist of a god wiping the earth clean of sinful mankind by flooding it, and Noah (Russel Crowe) collecting all the animals still forms the structure of the plot the movie elaborates on, expands and removes certain parts. This is more of a telling of the story to focus on the themes of the Noah myth than to tell the story itself. In fact only half the film is dedicated to the part of the story that is usually focused on, the building of the ark, and the rest plays out as a more focused study on the characters, faith and mercy. It’s this latter part that really works.
The beginning of the film feels like some sort of post apocalyptic fantasy film as we find Noah, descendant of Adam’s son Seth, living with his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and three sons Ham, Shem and Japheth. They live alone, outside the cities of men, which are ruled by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), descendant of Adam’s son Cain.The cities have fallen out of favor with “The Creator” thanks to rampant sinning. When Noah dreams a dream of the world ending they family picks up everything to find Noah’s grandfather Methusula (Anthony Hopkins) and on their way to him rescue Ila (Emma Watson). From here on out things unfold pretty much as you expect, except for some stone giants that are cursed fallen angels that aid Noah in the construction of the arc and its defense once Tubal-cain decides to lead his men in an attack.
All that is the first half of the film, and it’s a perfectly passable, big fantasy epic that entertains enough to keep it going and has just enough of that Aronofsky flair to feel like its a bit more than a Lord of the Rings knock off. It’s the second half of the film that really stands out, though. As the floods rage we’re confronted with the actual act of killing everyone on earth, and so are the characters. Noah becomes increasingly convinced that all of man, including his family, is meant to die, and the struggle between his faith in “The Creator” and his love for his family pulls forward. The internal struggles of the family are as old as the Bible itself as sons turn on their father and wives on husbands, but it’s this in depth and powerful look that turns a mythic story into a heart wrenching family piece and finally makes the movie click.
Before the flood things seemed almost rushed, like Aronofsky just wants to get to the part of the film that he knows is good. The plot unfolds pretty matter-of-factly, and while the great battle to defend the ark is cool there’s almost no emotional development. We spend an hour getting the characters where they need to be to be locked in a boat together. It’s a pretty hour, but it never jives as a movie. The second hour gets intense and that’s when the performances come out. Connelly is especially powerful as she falls apart because of her husband’s actions and Crowe’s stoicism throughout the film is a wonderful reflection of the faith that the movie addresses.
It’s interesting to watch this movie as a religious statement because at times, if you’re not a believer, Noah’s actions seem like the work of the bad guy. Many times you find yourself hearing lines the hero of a movie would usually yell about the strength of mankind coming from the bad guys mouth. It’s an interesting role reversal that Aronofsky plays with well in order to confront our hubris and gluttony, but also to paint “The Creator” in a light that isn’t all worship and glory. Of course the sinners must die so the thematic pull between these two ideas loses its thrust eventually, but Noah’s inner struggle with his decisions makes up for that.
However, Aronofsky can’t always keep his own thematic struggles working. He’s often caught between progressive religious ideals (he depicts the days of creation as evolution) and literal miracles (a forest grows over night). It’s possible the idea was to have fantasy aspects while addressing religious ideas in the same film, but these two concepts often contradict each other and it’s hard to get a bead on what the film is trying to say. Of course most of the fantasy aspects disappear once they enter the boat and thus the thematic incongruencies do as well. Another reason the second half of the film works better.
What makes this even odder is that Aronofky’s trademark visual tripiness (see Black Swan or The Fountain) are almost completely gone in the latter half too. The film is directed like the two aspects of his career. The opening half being his more visually metaphoric work and the latter being the in depth searching of a specific character’s soul. It’s odd that they’re so separate when he melded them so well together in the likes of Black Swan.
None of this really eschews the fact that Noah is really a big budget fantasy film. That’s what the studio paid for and that’s what they got. There’s action and huge set pieces and humor and all those things you expect from a tent pole film. The problem is that it works best when it’s not being one of those. Noah works when its about Noah.