There’s little question that someone or something should destroy the world of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, a brutal and dirty place plagued by bad men and bad deeds, the kind of joint where the only people who appear to possess any kind of virtue are forced to scrape by in a mystical-looking wasteland, continually fearful for their lives. And yet, the entire narrative of Aronofsky’s would-be epic is so strange and so oddly reworked, that’s even its most basic plot point – God picked this guy, go with it – is ultimately hard to hang on to. Noah sinks itself, even if it takes a damnably long time to get there.
Aronofsky is back into The Fountain territory here, loading his film with plenty of gorgeous imagery, stunning locations, and rich colors that blossom at the most unexpected of times. When we come upon Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family – wife Naameh (Jennifer Connolly) and his three young sons, played in later years by Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Leo McHugh Carroll, all of whom are woefully underused and thinly developed – we’re already well aware of Noah’s lineage. The son of Lamech, Noah believes (and has long been told) that the care of humanity is in his hands, which makes the sudden appearance of a sprouting flower (no, really, it springs forth from the earth in mere seconds) and the start of some chilling visions somehow feel long overdue.
Noah has a mission, one he’s long anticipated, and it entails building a vessel that can survive the massive flood that “the creator” (never “God”) is sending down to cleanse the planet. Noah’s faithful family never questions his visions, and the family (soon joined by a young orphan girl, later played by Emma Watson, who gets in a few solid crying scenes) set out on a journey to essentially clear the plan with Noah’s craggy old grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), and get to building.
Sounds pretty standard, right?
You haven’t met the rock monsters – excuse me, “the Watchers” – just yet. Plenty of things in Biblical stories are weird, strange, and wholly inexplicable, but the appearance of the Watchers, giant rock monsters who move and look like lumbering Transformers, have got to be at the top of the heap. Fallen angels who came to Earth to help Adam and Eve, the Watchers eventually turned against man when he turned against them, and Noah’s first ark-building task is to escape them, charm them, and use them. Building an ark is hard, okay? Even when God is on your side, and the addition of some lumbering rock formations can’t possibly hurt. But it can, and Aronofsky’s big, bold vision soon looks oddly silly, flat, and strange. Rock monsters?
The film’s script – from Aronofsky and Ari Handel, who also wrote the director’s The Fountain alongside him – has taken a number of liberties with the traditional bones of the story, and although tweaks and twists are to be expected, many of the changes are significant enough to change the film’s tone and messaging in some major ways.
Flood myths are popular in a number of cultures and religions, and versions of Noah’s story pop up in plenty of them, but the most recognizable (and literally Biblical) version comes in the Bible’s Book of Genesis. That version of the story makes it clear that eight people were on board the ark – Noah, his wife, their three sons, and their sons’ wives – yet Aronofsky and Handel cook up a massive subplot that involves the desire of middle son Ham (Lerman) to procure a wife (and, yeah, sure, one for youngest son Japheth, too, why not?) before the flood comes. Teen hormones, it seems, still raged back during the time of miracles, and Ham’s needs and wants are both relatable and totally maddening. His father’s opinion on such things is even worse.
Noah eventually becomes convinced that the creator does not intend for his family to “be fruitful and multiply,” believing that the ark is not their salvation but one final punishment. Basically, Noah thinks they get to build it and then die. The animals are the ones who will be saved. Humanity will die out with them. Thanks for all the manual labor, Noah, it was super cool of you. Noah’s belief (which, yes, goes directly against what the Bible tells of the story) consumes him and threatens both his sanity and the people he loves most. It gets ugly.
Elsewhere, Noah exhibits an inexplicable skill set when it comes to combat and battle, the kind that comes in handy when a horde of soldiers, led by the evil Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), descend on the ark just as it nears its completion. Again, this is a story about the destruction of the entire world, but Aronofsky seems to feel it needs something extra, some hand-to-hand combat, a bit more blood to spice it up. When the film does focus on genuine human pain – people begging to be let aboard the ship, a mass wailing on a rock outcropping during the flood, while the ark bobs impressively nearby – it’s deeply effecting, but the reliance on manufactured violence and drama is cheap, stupid, and wearing.
Yet, for all the giant changes and sweeping switcheroos that steadily dismantle Aronofsky’s work, there are plenty of neat details that actually clarify a story that has been so muddied along the way. Noah pays wonderful attention to the animals that populate the arc, imagining them as vaguely recognizable versions of existing animals (the bear-things have tails, the elephant-things are short-tusked and larger than normal) that occasionally have roots in the dinosaur-centric world (most of the lizards and such that slither across the screen look like tiny dinosaurs, big ridgebacks and all) that have been called to enter the ark after drinking from a miraculously springing stop-motion God-river. Aronofsky and Handel even have a fun answer to the perennial question, what did those animals do on the ark?, as Naameh lulls them to sleep by way of a medicinal mist.
The flood itself is, however, quite impressive, and the ark, the ocean, and even the swirling sky leave a lasting impact. But that’s all to be expected from a film about the world’s most famous flood – fictional or not – and that Aronofsky can’t rise above the basics, no matter how audaciously he attacks them, is its own kind of disaster.
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