A film review by Craig J. Koban April 4, 2014 

NOAH jj
½   

2014, PG-13, 139 mins.

 

Russell Crowe as Noah  /  Jennifer Connelly as Naameh  /  Emma Watson as Ila  /  Logan Lerman as Ham  /  Douglas Booth as Shem  /  Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah  /  Ray Winstone as Tubal Cain  /  Kevin Durand as Og  

Directed by Darren Aronofsky  /  Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel

NOAH is a ferociously ambitious retelling of the classic Genesis flood narrative as detailed in, yes, the Bible.  It’s also a grand scaled disaster film, a parable about sin, judgment, obsession, and the righteousness of God, and a fantasy action spectacle with more than an aesthetic hint of THE LORD OF THE RINGS thrown in for good measure.  NOAH is also a Darren Aronofsky film, and his esoteric fingerprints can be felt all over it.  No stranger to tackling subject matter regarding deeply flawed, yet compulsively driven characters (see THE WRESTLER, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, and BLACK SWAN), Aronofsky seems like a terrific fit to tell the tale of a conflicted Noah that struggles with taking on God’s mission for him.   

Alas, the usually headstrong, audacious, risk-taking, and shrewd minded filmmaker can't seem to harness his trademark discipline throughout NOAH.  There is no doubt that Aronofsky brings substantial artistry to the table here, not to mention that he gives the Biblical story a sweepingly grandiose and epic look and feel.  He also knows his way around the headspaces of his actors, whom are all in fine form here.  Unfortunately, the real problem with NOAH is that – for as visionary as the film is – his deconstructivist take on the Genesis tale seems to battle itself in terms of what kind of film it ultimately wishes to be.  Deep down, Aronofsky seems more compelled to hone in on the richer psychological complexities of his characters in NOAH, but he's simultaneously driven by monotonous CGI mayhem that seems more akin to the universe of Tolkien to that of the most read book on the planet.  As a result, NOAH's more reflective dramatic nature seems subjugated by its visual effects and spectacle.  The film just feels more hollow minded than it should be. 

 

 

Aronofsky opens the film with a brief retelling of Adam and Eve’s temptation towards sin in the Garden of Eden, which led to future generations of mankind being driven by their own selfish impiety.  This leads us to the tale of Cain and Abel and their descendants, who in turn allied themselves with a race of beings known as “The Watchers,” or fallen angels on Earth that have taken the form of gigantic, lumbering rock monsters (one of the film’s more unintentionally laughable alterations of its Biblical source material).  From here we meet Noah (Russell Crowe), a righteous man that begins to have nightmarish and apocalyptic visions in his dreams.  Thinking he has gone bonkers, Noah seeks out his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who drugs his grandson, after which time he experiences more troublesome dreams.   

Noah soon becomes convinced that these dreams are the “Creator” (the actual word God is never mentioned in the film) telling him of his upcoming plan to wipe the slate clean, so to speak, with everything and everyone on the planet.  However, before the Creator will end the world as he sees fit via a massive flood, he entrusts Noah to build a massive ark to save the animal species of the planet (conveniently, Noah is befriended by the Watchers, whom become great laborers considering the impossibly large ocean vessel that Noah is tasked with constructing).  As Noah prepares his divine mission he finds himself in the crosshairs of Tubal Cain (Ray Winstone), a tribal leader that rejects Noah’s righteous mission and decides to take his newly constructed ark by force, leading to a massive standoff between Noah, the Watchers, and Tubal Cain’s minions.  

Then…the flood comes… 

I need to get this off my chest right away: I have no fundamental problem with any filmmaker making tweaks – large and small – to any Biblically themed film, and Aronofsky certainly has taken great liberties with the source material in NOAH that may anger many viewers.  As a result, NOAH comes off as one of the more nuttier-than-a-fruitcake Bible flicks of all-time, which gives it, I guess, some of its eccentric intrigue.  At its best, NOAH works as a sort of New Age take on environmentalism (God wants to ravage the world because mortal beings have, in turn, have ravaged it) and dives headfirst into Noah’s internalized struggles in accepting and then realizing the plan of his creator.  Crowe acclimatizes himself commendably to the tricky title role, easily and masterfully showcasing Noah’s dark and dreary descent into madness as the burden of his mission begins to override any semblance of his humanity.  Aronofsky never shies away from showing the darker impulses of Noah, whose own grip on sanity slips as he tries to prepare himself, the animals, and his family for the Creator’s cleansing of Earth.  When NOAH hones in on…Noah…the film is on rock steady ground. 

The problem, though, is that Aronofsky and his writing partner, Ari Handel, gets bogged down and distracted by too many disinteresting subplots that strays attention away from Noah himself (like, for instance, a recurring and lingering story of Noah’s son Ham and his potential betrayal of his father, which never really pays off with the emotional wallop that it should have).  Furthermore, once the flood does come and the ark sets sail, NOAH gets further bogged down by a hastily tacked on a thread involving Tubal Cain stowing away on the vessel to plot his ultimate revenge against Noah, which ties back in with Ham.  The buildup to the ark construction seems to be the main focal point of interest in the film (not to mention Noah’s crippling descent into fanaticism as he doggedly prepares himself to fulfill his end of God’s bargain), but too much of NOAH frustratingly tries to pull our attention away from this.   

NOAH is indeed a visual marvel and has many moments of grand, awe-inspiring inspiration.  I especially loved a sequence showcasing the creation of the universe and the story of Adam and Eve, using CGI effects, bravura time-lapse photography, and all other sorts of movie magic trickery to relay Noah’s retelling of the development of the world as we know it.  Less compelling are the film’s action sequences, like Tubal Cain’s raid of the ark, during which time we see the Watchers swat away at their infinitely smaller prey like flies.  Again, it’s not that moments like this are not consummately handled and well staged; it’s just that they feel derivatively appropriated from something out of a cinematic Middle Earth.  Instead of being endlessly thrilling, the would-be grand and enveloping action beats in NOAH come off as dull and perfunctory. 

NOAH is a weird film.  A very weird one.  By his known admission, the self-admitted atheist that is Aronofsky planned to make the “least biblical biblical film ever made,” and for that he has wholeheartedly succeeded.  There is absolutely no doubt that he has made a truly visionary motion picture here that will challenge many a filmgoer…and will perhaps frustratingly annoy more than a few.  Unfortunately, the director’s grand ambitions and overall vision for his unusual take on the well-known Genesis flood tale gets too sidetracked during its already long and cumbersome 139 minutes.  I love the fact that Aronofsky never slavishly sticks with Hollywood formulas and conventions; his directorial resume is proof positive of this and, to a degree, NOAH also daring reflects his anti-establishment demeanor.  Yet, NOAH is a flawed film - grasping for greatness and never achieving it – that seems to have slipped out of Aronofsky’s typically controlled hands.  It wants to be an epic popcorn blockbuster and a deeply felt mediation on blind faith and free will, but it never finds a successful middle ground between the two hemispheres.   

 

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