Game performances, amazing special effects but too cumbersome to get through.
Though I wrote these words before seeing Noah, they are an apt way of describing my feelings towards the film. It's impossible to just dismiss it as a bloated, overblown folly, since there are a number of interesting ideas in there which are approached intelligently. Equally, calling it a masterpiece of any kind is far too generous, since the film is riddled with faults, particularly in its second half. In the end, all you can say about Noah is this: it is a flawed but fascinating epic, whose many shortcomings make its successes all the more intriguing.
Before we begin to analyse it, we should probably address the controversy that the film has created among religious communities. There are opinions on both sides within both the Christian and Jewish faiths, with responses ranging from the film being a valuable document of an important story to a Kabbalistic tract which doesn't even mention the Creator as being God. Perhaps the most measured response is that of Justin Welby, the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury, who described it as "interesting and thought-provoking" - an ambiguous and typically Anglican turn of phrase, designed to avoid or mitigate this kind of controversy.
It is, frankly, both foolish and narrow-minded to view Noah purely in terms of its relationship to the Biblical story - in other words, to reject it outright if it doesn't literally correspond to our accepted version. The account in Genesis is relativel yshort and has a lot of gaps in the story where time passes - gaps that have to be explained if an audience will continue to suspend their disbelief. There have been animated treatments of this story in short form, both humourous (Disney's Silly Symphonies) and serious (the BBC's brilliant Testament series), but to make it work as a feature film, the story simply has to be expanded. The language of Hollywood is different to the language of the Bible; in order for us to get anywhere, there have to be concessions.
To try and address this problem, Aronofsky bring in elements of other creation or flood stories, particularly those from the Gnostic or Mystical elements of the Jewish tradition. It is from this that we derive the fallen angels or Watchers (spiritual beings imprisoned in rock), the serpent's skin having magical properties, and the idea of Adam and Eve only gaining a recongisable physical form after eating the forbidden fruit.
Aronofsky's main reason for this - aside from an interest in Kabbalah present in his other works - is to address some of the logistical and technical questions that a modern audience may have about the story. For example, the Watchers provide an explanation as to how the Ark was able to be built in what seems a short space of time, and the descendents of Cain (led by Ray Winstone's character) give things an extra sense of urgency. For viewers who haven't grown up with faith or regard the concept as somehow anti-intellectual, such explanations are welcome even if they're not always completely believable.
You have to admire what Aronofsky was trying to do with Noah. On the one hand, he is attempting to bring the Biblical epic into the 21st century, explaining for modern audiences what previous generations may have taken for granted. On the other hand, he tries to address the story in humanistic or even atheistic terms, telling the story of Noah as that of a man suffering delusions and uncertain over what his awful visions mean. Trying to tell a Christian story in a 'post-Christian' world can be a tall order at the best of times, but trying to combine it with an alternative interpretation of the same story is really challenging. Aronofsky is trying to pull together multiple versions and interpretations of the story of Noah to try and find a common, greater truth in among the details - a task that is by no means easy and which is highly commendable.
To this end, Noah is filled with some truly fantastic and striking imagery. The CGI is impressive on a general level, with Industrial Light and Magic giving the Watchers a real physicality and bringing a forest convincingly to life out of nowhere. But the most impressive sections are Noah's visions, in which he images his feet sinking into the blood-soaked earth, then finds himself underwater drowning in a sea brimming with corpses. At times the film is truly terrifying, and its nightmarish feel is a welcome change from the more fresh-faced, sanitised versions of the story.
Up until the battle for the Ark, Noah is a very interesting if bizarre portrait of a man following his faith, in a manner which is somewhat condusive to the Biblical story. There are some silly moments in this section (such as Anthony Hopkins' performance as Methusalah) but it is a well-written drama, whose characters have believable and complex motivations, and in which the role of God is left open to interpretation. Much of this is made possible through Connelly, who gives a great performance as Noah's wife Naameh.
But once the battle happens and the Ark 'sets sail', the film slowly begins to unravel and becomes steadily more indulgent. Once the action is solely confined to the boat, the film begins to plod, as if it was searching around for something interesting or shocking to do in order to fill the many days and nights. Because there is less sense of momentum, all the plot points that are introduced feel jarring and awkward, and the film slowly becomes less interesting and less believable.
The two biggest missteps that the film makes are epitomised by its central male performances. On the one hand, having Winstone's character stow away on the Ark rests on a massive contrivance: if he had really hacked his way in like that, chances are that the whole thing would have sunk. This in itself could have worked, providing tension and surprise, but instead the character becomes a lazy cipher for all the evils in Man, and Logan Lerman isn't skilled enough either to hold his own against Winstone or to make his decisions that result from his presence seem believable.
On the other hand, Noah himself undergoes a jarring shift from man of faith to psychopath in under 20 minutes. It's all very well showing Noah as having survivor guilt and wondering whether he has done the right thing - all of that is believable and interesting. But to suddenly have your main protagonist turn around and say that everyone he was worked hard to save should be killed, including his own children, is a huge betrayal of trust.
There's nothing wrong with having Noah as a morally ambiguous protagonist, who may tip over into darkness and despair but is compelling in the way he behaves and the decisions that he makes. But Aronofsky's Noah doesn't do this. Instead, it presents him as a good man with good intentions, who is doing the right thing in building the Ark, and then out of nothing decides to makes him a monster. Having worked so hard to make Noah so appealingly ambiguous, Aronofsky plants his flag in the sand and compromies the whole project. Even if do you buy the character development, the conflict that results is so dragged out that it becomes difficult to sit through.
Noah also fails to address other problems or discrepancies with this story. We might buy into the explanation of how the animals are put to sleep, but the death of one animal is glossed over without giving us an idea of how the new creation's nature is permanently altered by its absence. The film tries to shed light on the rejection of Ham by giving said character more agency, but ultimately its explanation isn't dramatically satisfying. Finally, with the flood now gone, it leaves us with no idea - well, no comfortable ideas - of how the human race will repopulate itself from just two baby girls. Having done the legwork to explain things in the first half, moments like this are inexcusably lazy.
Noah is an admirable yet ridiculous epic, a film that can neither be entirely dismissed nor unconditionally embraced. Aronofsky's ambitions for the story are very interesting, and taken on a visual level alone the film is quite extraordinary. But it's ultimately hobbled by several poor narrative decisions and a feeling of needless, growing indulgence. In the end it's neither a triumph nor a tragedy, balancing, like the Ark on Ararat, somewhere in the middle.
Rather than just an excuse for another apocalypse movie, this is a study of the Bible's depiction of human nature, and a character study of its god and of Noah. This is the one time in the Semitic religious texts where man teaches its god something about the preciousness of life here on earth, and its god listens and agrees ...for a little while. But it's easy to see that the Bible's man is just as dark as its god, since just after having witnessed all of human and animal life destroyed, save for the few on the ark, Noah, supposedly the best of humanity, has such a poor perspective that he curses his own son's lineage into being "the lowest of slaves." That part was politely altered in the movie since it's a bit of a buzz-kill for mankind 2.0, but it doesn't make it into the Sunday school teachings either.
Of course, the world's pre-flood history as written in Genesis would have to have come through Noah and his family of survivors. Aronofsky includes the tradition of verbally passing down these chapters, but he ingeniously deconstructs the narrative we see in Genesis today into two perspectives, starting from the beginning when there was nothing. First we hear Noah's version, centered around the creation of a harmonious world, pure and holy, except for man; then we hear Tubal-Cain's version, centered on man as the only creature created in god's image and master of the world's creatures to do as we see fit. By splitting the first chapters of Genesis into two different perspectives, Aronofsky breathes life into the text as a cultural collaboration of early mankind battling then as we do now over the always clashing values of living conservatively and harmoniously or pursuing power and self-fulfillment.
An inconsistant, mediocre acting and no rewards at the end!
A tiresome bore if a movie.
Noah (Russell Crowe) is living his life in isolation from the communities of king Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone). Noah and his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), their two older sons Shem (Douglas Booth) and Ham (Logan Lerman), youngest son Japheth (Leo Mchugh Carroll), and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), are living on the outskirts of civilization, aided by a group of fallen angels. Then Noah is given apocalyptic visions of an oncoming flood and the mission to save the world's animals. After speaking with his 900-year-old grandfather Methusselah (Anthony Hopkins), Noah is convinced what he must do, and it involves a lot of intensive manual labor.
Aronofsky treats Noah and the beginnings like Greek mythology mixed with a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy epic, and it's madly entertaining. The visuals are stirring, large-scale, and sumptuously memorable (the Earth covered in spiral weather patterns is a standout, along with Noah's visions and a Tree of Life-style triptych narrating the birth of life). The film has come under fire from conservative critics for its creative deviations from the Bible, but sidestepping a larger conversation, why should a movie be punished because it wants to entertain a wider berth of people than the faithful? Does it truly matter that the people refer to the Big Guy as "The Creator" rather than "God"? Would these people even use the word "God"? This just seems like a petty battle of semantics. It seems like certain critics are looking for any nit to pick. Sure giant rock monsters that were fallen angels might make people snicker, but why should this aspect of the story be any more preposterous than a man and his family gathering two of every biological creature on the planet? I loved the rock creatures, I loved how Aronofsky introduces them, I love how they walk, I love that Aronofsky even finds a way to give them a redemptive storyline, offering an emotional payoff. Seriously, why should these be any harder to swallow for narrative stability?
There were fears that Aronofsky would be less than reverent to the source material with his additions and subtractions bringing it to the big screen; Noah is a Biblical epic for our modern age but also one fervently reverent to the lessons of the tale. First off, a literal version of the Genesis tale would be boring and short. There is going to be some additions and they should be welcomed. What Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel (The Fountain) have done is taken a story filled with casual larger-than-life events and given it a smaller human perspective that is thought provoking. When Noah's sons ask about wives, it's personal planning but also a necessary part of, you know, repopulating the planet. They're being anxious teen males but the small, relatable plot line also finds a way to relate to the larger picture, a tactic Aronofsky frequents. There's a focus on family, fathers and sons, jealousy, but it really comes down to a personal level, differing perspectives about the overall purpose of man. The human-scale provides a richer context for the Biblical tale's better-known aspects, like Noah turning to the bottle. As a result, we get the special effects spectacle without sacrificing the potent human drama at work. While the movie may never refer to "God" by name, it's respectful and reverent.
Another aspect about what makes Noah so daringly visionary is that it doesn't blink when it comes to the darkness of the story. Over the years popular culture has neutered the tale of Noah into a cutesy tale about a guy on a boat with a bunch of happy animals. I think we've purposely ignored the lager picture, namely how truly horrifying the entire story is. It's an apocalypse, humanity is wiped out; children and babies are drowning. Everybody dies. The later brilliance of Noah is that it doesn't mitigate this horror. Once Noah and his family are inside, the floods having arrived, they painfully listen to the anguished wails of those struggling for life in the waters. The movie forces the characters, and the audience, to deal with the reality of a world-destroying cataclysm. Noah's visions of the ensuing apocalypse are beautifully disturbing. The film takes place eight or nine generations removed from Adam, and God is already willing to take his ball and go home. After watching mankind's wickedness, you might sympathize with The Creator. Aronofsky's film has an unmistakable environmentalist stance (how does one tell this story without being pro-nature?), but he also shows you the brutality of mankind. The citizens of Tubal-cain have no respect for life, at one point kidnapping crying young girls and literally trading them for meat to eat. Resources are dwindling and people are pushed to the brink. There's some sudden and bloody violence, as death is not treated in the abstract or with kid gloves. This is no cutesy story for the little ones. No stuffed animal tie-ins.
Of course once the flood occurs, the story seems like it's at an end, Noah and his family having only to patiently wait out before starting over. It's during this second half where the movie becomes even more personal, challenging, and philosophical. Noah believes that his family was spared to save all of those creatures born on Days 1-5, not so much Day 6 (a.k.a. mankind). He accepts this burden with solemn duty, declaring that his family will be the last of mankind to ever walk the Earth. However, spoilers, his own family pushes him to the test of this declaration. His adopted daughter is pregnant. There is hope that mankind can continue if the child is a girl. Noah sticks to his guns, saying that the child will live if a boy but killed if a girl. Now we've got a ticking clock, so to speak, while in the ark, and it manages to be a personal test of Noah's own faith. How far will he go to enact what he believes to be God's plan? He's single-minded in this regard but he's no zealot, more a flawed and troubled man of virtue trying to make sense of an improbably difficult conundrum. That's the stuff of great drama, finding a foothold in a debate over the nature of man, whether man is inherently evil and shall lead, once again, to the ruination of God's paradise. Can Noah place the personal above his burden? This looming conflict tears apart Noah and his family, forcing them into hard choices. Even assuming the film wouldn't end with Noah butchering his grandchildren, I was riveted.
There's an intellectual heft to go along with all the weird, vibrant spectacle. The film doesn't exactly break new ground with its fundamental arguments and spiritual questions, but when was the last time you saw a Biblical movie even broach hard topics without zealous certainty? Definitely not Son of God. There's an ambiguity here to be admired. Noah isn't a spotless hero. The villain, Tubal-cain, actually makes some good points, though we all know they will be fleeting. Tubal-cain is actually given more texture as an antagonist than I anticipated. He's a man who interprets man's mission on Earth differently. Whereas Noah views man's role as being stewards of the Earth, Tubal-cain views man as having been given dominion. They were meant to reap the pleasures of the Earth. Before marching off to take the ark, Tubal-cain pleads for The Creator to speak through him; he longs for a connection that he feels is missing, and so, perhaps a bit spiteful, he declares to act as the Creator would, laying waste to life. That's far more interesting than just a slovenly king who wants to live to see another day.
Aronofsky also benefits from a great cast that sells the drama, large and small. It's been a long while since Crowe (Les Miserables, Man of Steel) gave a genuinely great performance; goodness it might have been since 2007's 3:10 to Yuma remake. The man can do quiet strength in his sleep, but with Noah he gets to burrow into his obsession, which just so happens to be sticking to the edict that man does not deserve to spoil the Earth. It's a decision that challenges him throughout, forcing his will, and Crowe achieves the full multidimensional force of his character. He can be scary, he can be heartbreaking, but he's always rooted in an understandable perspective. Connelly (Winter's Tale) overdoes her mannerisms and enunciation at times, like she's practicing an acting warm-up, but the strength of her performance and its emotions win out. Watson (The Bling Ring) is winsome without overdoing it, Hopkins (R.E.D. 2) provides some comic relief without overdoing it, and Lerman (Percy Jackson) gets to thrive on angst without overdoing it. In short, you'll want these people to live. Winstone (Snow White & the Huntsman) is always a fabulous choice for a dastardly villain.
Darren Aronofsky's Noah is a labor of love that maintains its artistic integrity amidst special effects, threats of infanticide, and giant rock creatures. Aronofsky has forged a Biblical epic that reaches beyond the pew, providing added surprise and depth and suspense. The man takes the modern fantasy epic template and provides new life to one of mankind's oldest tales, staying reverent while opening it up for broader meditation. It's a weird movie, but the silliness is given a wider context and grounded by the emphasis on the human perspective. It's a dark movie, but the darkness is tempered with powerful feelings and a sense of hope that feels justified by the end. It's also a philosophical movie, but the questions are integral, the stakes relatable, and the answers hardly ever easy to decipher. This is a rare movie, let alone an example of a Biblical film, that succeeds by being all things to all people. It's reverent, rousing, thought provoking, exciting, moving, and a glorious visual spectacle of cinema. Aronofsky's epic is a passionate and thoughtful movie that deserves flocks of witnesses.
Nate's Grade: A-
From an artistic point of view there is little to complain about. Aronofsky conjures up breath-taking visuals and special effects, great cinematography and you can tell he knows how to direct actors. From Russel Crowe's great physical presence that carries the film down to the shortest roles of the child actors, Aronofsky manages to generate excellent performances by everyone, even baby face Lorman who hasn't exactly had an impressive track record of multi-dimensional roles so far.
Both the director's art house fans and the religious purists might have problems with the fantastic elements of the film that culminate in an almost Lord of the Rings-esque battle between rock Transformers and an opposing army. That scene does feel out of place in the film, despite of its flawless effects and great visuals. But the third and final act suddenly shows Aronofsky comfortable in his true element: directing actors in narrow space, telling the story of a person obsessed with their dreams (see: Black Swan, The Wrestler). Here, the film finds its dramatic footing and can rely on its actors for a pretty strong solution and surprisingly touching ending.
Of course the message of preserving nature and having respect for all beings is somewhat simplistic and naive, some might say preachy. But at least it's got its heart at the right place and in this day and age more important than ever.
Was Aronofsky torn between two point of views when creating this or did he enjoy taking the middle path? Few scenes help you decide to answer that, especially not the beautifully animated story of creation Noah tells his family, that's combining biblical texts while showing a pretty scientific depiction of the big bang and evolution. I've decided to applaud Aronofsky for this attempt, even if the result is far from flawless or particularly even. At least 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.