Review: Noah

NOAH

When adapting stories from the most famous piece of literature, the resulting work is very much an event. Biblical films have always maintained a fascination among the faithful, whether they seek visual affirmation of their beliefs, or are prepared to cannibalize those who would diverge from the sacred texts. While New Testament fare tends to attract wider audiences, Darren Aronofsky turns to one of the earliest narratives of the Old Testament, in a tale of global cataclysm. Noah’s Ark is a key cornerstone to the Bible, especially in the simplicity of its storytelling. In Noah, Aronofsky takes that Biblical text as only a starting point, and while the resulting film contains both thrills and some compelling moral questions, it also can frustrate in its narrative diversions.

At its most basic structural level, Noah fully adheres to the overall narrative as presented in the Old Testament: Noah (Russell Crowe), a descendant of Seth, is given a message from God (in the film referred to as the Creator) in his dreams, foreseeing the destruction of humanity by a massive flood. He then builds an ark to shepherd his family and all the innocent animals from the coming disaster. Noah, his family, and the animals survive this flood and begin anew as the waters recede. This is where the Bible ends and the film expands. In some cases, the narrative elaborations are thematically fascinating, but others are tangential or simply silly. A prime example of the latter is the inclusion of the “Watchers,” massive beings who are alluded to as fallen angles encased in boulder forms. They explain that they once presided over the Garden of Eden before it was destroyed, but their implementation of helping Noah build the Ark and overall clumsy design is misguided. Another subplot involving a longtime adversary of Noah’s played by Ray Winstone also feels extraneous.

For all of the excessive fantastical elements that are present in Noah, there are also new depths that Aronofsky finds in the title character himself. In fact, the real conflict of the film doesn’t truly begin until just before the massive flood. Since Noah and his family are to be the soul human survivors, Noah goes out in secret to find future wives for his three sons. He also has a foster daughter, Ila (Emma Watson), who is enamored of his eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth), but she is infertile. When Noah goes deep into the camps and sees the savagery of his fellow man, he is presented with an uncomfortable truth: a vision of fire cascading from the skies. He then understands that the Ark is meant for the animals, but his family is meant to die out after the flood, ending the existence of humanity permanently. There is a development, however, that calls this decision into serious question, and Noah is forced to choose between his creator’s will or the future of mankind. These moral queries are not present in the Bible, but they are very provocatively fitting of the brutality of the Old Testament. Further, one wonders if Aronofsky is even calling into question some of the blind fanaticism in religion that drives towards extremism, cautioning against interpretations with heavy consequences.

Darren Aronofsky has had an unimpeachable track record in directing actors, and the overall cast is quite well assembled, especially in the choice of Russell Crowe as the internally embattled savior. A clear pillar of fortitude and compassion for much of the film, he allows for troubling decisions to chip away at Noah’s resolve, and the final hour shows Crowe flexing some acting muscles he hasn’t displayed in more than a few years. Of his sons, Logan Lerman stands out as the middle brother Ham, whose wavering vulnerability shows concern for his family’s future. Emma Watson also plumbs new emotional depths within herself, forced to consider her fate if she cannot bring a new generation to Noah’s family. Anthony Hopkins appears as well as Methuselah, Noah’s sagely 900 year-old grandfather, who naturally acts as counsel as well as ill timed comic relief.

Though there are fantastical elements at work in Noah, Aronofsky’s approach is very much rooted in a literal world.  Matthew Libatique’s photography may bafflingly alternate from grand aerial shots to occasional handheld work, but there are dozens of striking images that bring Biblical visions to life. Chief among these is when Noah recounts the beginning of the Book of Genesis to his family, as the film speeds along frame by frame connecting both the Bible with the Big Bang. The film features several epileptic montages like this cut by Andrew Weisblum, wondrous in their sights and startling in their acceleration. Aside from the Watchers, the visual design of Earth in Noah is quite incredible, shot mostly in Iceland, and implying a barren world raped by the evil of man. The Ark itself is by no means a vessel either, but rather a wooden rectangular stronghold. ILM’s visual effects are fairly seamless, certainly in the stunning images of the thousands of creatures boarding the Ark and in the apocalyptic scenes of aquatic destruction. In an era where the Hollywood studio system is very much risk averse, it is commendable for Paramount to finance a film with this much ambition and scope. Even though Noah has flaws in abundance, it is nevertheless an uncompromising work from Darren Aronofsky, refusing to pander to expectations. In asking foreboding questions without simple answers, it might not be a great film, but it is an intelligent one.

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~ by romancinema on March 29, 2014.

One Response to “Review: Noah”

  1. It’s a very peculiar, odd and challenging film that doesn’t rely on the easy way out and yet manages to be entertaining at any moment. Good review.

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