Sunday, May 4, 2014

Noah Review

By Ben Macdonald

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Logan Lerman, Anthony Hopkins
Release Date: March 28, 2014
Presented in 2D and IMAX

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. (Genesis 6:5-6)

Noah begins right away with a summary of some of the main events of The Book of Genesis that precede the story of the Flood. It’s the kind of exposition that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lord of the Rings movie. The pre-Flood world of the film is very much like that of a fantasy film. The stars shine in the sky during the day and the land is populated by giant rock monsters/fallen angels called Watchers. And as is standard in Biblical epics and fantasy alike, English accents abound. None other than Ray Winstone, Cockney gangster extraordinaire, plays the villain of the story, Tubal-Cain. Or is he the villain? Maybe the villain is God, or Noah, or mankind in general. The essential conflict at the heart of the film is about whether humanity is more like the carnivorous Tubal-Cain, and therefore should perish, or more like the virtuous vegetarian Noah, and should survive. Noah himself seems to be of the former opinion. In fact, his conviction that deep down humanity is irredeemably wicked and his fierce following of divine commandment leads him to become more and more monstrous as the film progresses. Tubal-Cain, on the other hand, may represent the very worst of humanity but his discontent with his lot in life and his strong instincts for self-preservation make him surprisingly relatable. And after all, he was, as he argues, made in God’s image. 
Despite the fact that this is essentially a CGI-filled summer fantasy blockbuster, it is surprisingly faithful to many of the themes of the Hebrew Bible, for instance those in the Book of Genesis which concern the origin of things and the existence of evil and suffering in a world created by a benevolent creator. It is director Darren Aronofsky’s focus on such classical themes and to the kind of dark psychological realism of the Bible that makes Noah so compelling.
The film manages to smartly integrate little details of the Noah story into its unique interpretation, such as Noah’s naked drunkenness. The burly Russell Crowe looks pretty good for a character who’s supposed to be 600 years old. His granddaddy Methuselah, played by Anthony Hopkins, actually does look like he could be 969 (plus he has magic powers). But due to the brevity of the Noah story in the Bible, Aronofsky has to do a lot of inventing. This includes a giant army and battle sequence as well as the aforementioned rock monsters. For its central final conflict, the film actually borrows heavily from the story of Abraham. And fortunately, for a narrative that seems predisposed towards deus ex machina, the conflict ends up surprisingly intimate and satisfying.
Despite His very active role in the events of the film, the God of the film (referred to throughout as “the Creator”) remains mostly at an agonizing distance. For instance, after the Flood, the tormented Noah looks up at the one small point in the sky that is not shrouded in dark clouds and pleads for guidance. There is no answer except for that light part of the sky clouding over.
In a certain sense, Aronofsky is a sort of Old Testament God in all of his films. He always inflicts great suffering upon his characters. Black Swan and, in particular, Requiem for a Dream, are good examples of why his films have often been labelled as ‘misery-porn’. The suffering is often infused in some way with religion. Pi features a character who is tormented by a numerical sequence stuck in his head which he is told by a group of Hassidic Jews is the key to God’s true name and the key to a new messianic era. The self-sacrificing protagonist of The Wrestler is a clear Christ figure, who endures barbed wire instead of a crown of thorns and receives his stigmata from thumb tacks and staple guns. His stripper girlfriend even quotes Isaiah to him: “He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him; And by his wounds we were healed.” Aronofsky’s metaphysical and deeply religious The Fountain is a film concerned with mortality and deep emotional pain. Because of its ambition, CGI visuals and connection to Genesis, this is the film Noah is most often compared to.
Noah is visually spectacular at times and an improvement over the arguably, depending on your aesthetic sensibility, HD wallpaper look of The Fountain. Noah uses a number of highly modern stylistic techniques such as the rapid succession of still photographs. Some of the most striking images have figures silhouetted against the sky. One great sequence stylishly shows the story of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. Later in the film, the silhouette of Cain killing his brother is rapidly interchanged with a variety of figures from recognizable time periods, linking all violence to that destructive part of humanity represented by Cain.
But perhaps the most compelling image of the film is of people sprawled out against a cliff surface as waves crash against them sending them smashing into the water and rocks below. The image is taken from Francis Danby’s 15-foot wide painting “The Deluge” (1840). This shot is followed by a shot of Noah’s family inside the Ark; they eat a meal as they listen to the screams outside.

Francis Danby's "The Deluge". Zoom in and you'll see many interesting details, such as Noah's Ark illuminated by moonlight in the background.

Aronofsky is a serious director, unrelentingly so. He’s also extraordinarily talented and ambitious. I think there’s something to what Wesley Morris wrote about how he “might be the greatest American director never to direct a great movie.” Every film he makes strives for serious greatness and profundity. And it’s because of this that his films are endlessly fascinating.