DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky
WRITTEN BY: Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel
STARRING: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Anthony Hopkins
You know when you really think about it, the Jewish Torah is filled with some pretty messed up stories. Fire and brimstone, world destroying floods, murder, rape, merciless acts of divine judgment, for all the talk of love and turn the other cheek I hear from most Christians the God of the Old Testament did a lot of really scary stuff. So while most visual interpretations of the text tend to get sanitized so as to appeal to a broader audience, this version, to put it bluntly, does not. Seriously, how did this movie get a PG-13 rating? I was horrified at some of the things depicted here far more than I thought I would. The flooding sequence, in particular, left me stunned with a mixture of awe, horror, and profound disgust. Like I said, it’s definitely not the Sunday school version. Unlike most interpretations this one forces you to watch as people cling and fight desperately to get onto the ark. We see people cling naked to the edge of a mountain peak, watching their only chance of survival float along without them. There’s this one scene involving a girl in a bear trap that made my heart drop to the very pit of my stomach. Everything here is projected against a backdrop of barren wastelands and nebulous mysticism that takes noticeable liberties with conventional notions of the well-known story. Darren Aronofsky brings this vision of this ancient, primeval world life in just about the strangest and most bizarrely bonkers way anyone could imagine, and to be honest, I kind of love it.
In fact probably one of my favorite aspects of this movie was just how fully realized and bizarre this world is. Most of the exteriors were shot on location in Iceland, and it’s used excellently to convey the world’s apocalyptic barrenness. The skeletons of metal structures litter mining pits, and vast fields of volcanic desolation stretch out for miles across the landscape. Fallen angels are beings of light locked in bodies of cragged stone…that’s so cool! I don’t know why people are upset by all this; the “official” version of the story is less than a page long. To me these additions make the movie feel so much more alive, so much more immediate and relatable. And despite what you might think based the subject matter, I’m not sure I would call this is a religious movie. While “The Creator” as he is referred frequently and does have a direct hand in the story, as a character he is pretty much non-existent, consistent with the notion that he’s…well…an unknowable being. He’s not a “good” or “bad” force, but a force in the story none the less. The religiousness of the story is more of a backdrop. Everyone in the movie knows that the Creator exists; it’s just a fact of the world they live in. It’s kind of refreshing in a way. Removing the overt religious connotations makes it so that the movie is universal rather than just a rigid recitation of tired, overdone Sunday school versions of the story. To me that just makes the messages that much more potent. It subverts the audience’s expectations in a more thought provoking way while also keeping it rooted for the most part in a familiar base story. After all, the best adaptations tend to be the ones that make creative changes to the source material to better suit the screen while at the same time keeping the heart and soul of its source material intact. To me, this movie succeeded in not only betraying my expectations of what’s possible in a biblical epic, but also in what’s possible for blockbuster filmmaking in general.
The script, like pretty much everything else in this movie, is a little bit on the strange side. The dialogue is economical, keeping a lot of the archaic “bible-speak” pretty much intact. And while this dialogue is stiff, the performances (for the most part) are not. Russell Crowe, especially, is perfectly cast in the title role. His Noah isn’t the benevolent, paragon of goodness a lot of depictions seem to cast him as. Crowe imbues in his performance with his usual kind of menacing broody-ness as well as a kind of patriarchal vulnerability. He sells every ounce of suffering that Noah goes through, both physical and emotional, with frequent close ups showing us every wrinkle, every anguished glance as he realizes just how much of a toll his task puts on him. As for the rest of Noah’s family, it’s a bit more hit and miss. I can’t say much of Jennifer Connelly. Her role is more to be the rock that Noah relies on to help him carry his burden. She really doesn’t do much save for one particular scene (which I won’t spoil) where she absolutely knocks it out of the park. The actors playing Noah’s children are even less consistent, with Emma Watson doing alright as Noah’s adoptive daughter Ila, and Logan Lerman being…alright I guess in the role of Noah’s son Ham. A lot of the time they seem a bit lost, but they really don’t need to do as much emotional heavy lifting as, say, Crowe does. Anthony Hopkins also appears briefly as Noah’s elderly grandfather Methuselah, but his role is mostly relegated to dispensing magic plot devices and looking for berries (it makes sense in context…kind of). All in all, as far as the cast goes, they do their part in selling the world they live in.
On the visual front, though, this movie uses its budget exceedingly well. Everything is rendered through an unusual mixture of highly creative cinematography and unorthodox editing choices. Silhouettes are used on occasion to great effect, placing the actors against the multi-colored sunset sky in a way that’s absolutely breathtaking to behold. There’s a frequent use of rapid cut time-lapse segments, the most effective of which being as Noah regales to his family (and the audience) the creation story from Genesis. We see the origin of the universe, evolution, and the fall of man all through very quick sequence of cuts, most no more than a second long, some being only a fraction of that. It’s disorienting sometimes, but it makes for an engrossingly delirious interpretation of the. The score by Aronofsky regular Clint Mansell is suitably epic, haunting, and like the rest of the movie, kind of bizarre. The song used in the credits “Mercy is” beautifully caps off the film with a mix of stirring string quartet and lyrics sung, weirdly enough, by punk singer Patti Smith. The animals are done entirely through CG animation. While Aronofsky has insisted that technology is at the point having live animals on a set is no longer necessary, the animals here only look…o.k. They’re not bad, and the fact that they don’t really play all that much of a role in the story means it really doesn’t intrude on the film’s visual aspect much, but they don’t quite reach the point where they’re lifelike enough to be a complete replacement for real-life animals.
Some of the symbolism can also get a bit heavy handed at times. While Aronofsky mostly trusts his audience with enough vagueness to make up their own mind about what things mean, his overuse of certain visual motifs like Cain murdering Abel can *ahem* beat its audience over the head a little. There is bound to be a lot of argument over what the movie was “about”, and while it’s clear that Aronofsky had a vision he was trying to convey I think the message sometimes got a little bit muddled in the spectacle. It doesn’t help that the film’s first thirty minutes or so are a bit uneven, not really finding its footing until they actually start building the ark. This is a new, much larger canvas for Aronofsky, and in his ambition I feel that he may have lost a bit of focus on the story. I think there might have been an environmentalist tract in there somewhere, or maybe it was against strict environmentalism, I don’t know. Also, what was with the glowing snake skin arm wrap thing? That particular thematic thread never really became clear to me, perhaps it’s just some sort of folklore I’m not familiar with. I think it might have been tied to something about legacy and passing on the human birthright to the next generation…maybe. Either way, even though it occasionally misses it’s mark, when the messages work they hit you with a very particular kind of punch. In a world where humanity is on the brink of destruction, there are no clear “heroes” and “villains”, just people trying to eke out an existence in the only way they feel they can. It opens up the floodgates for so many questions about moral ambiguity, and leaves no shelter for the audience to run and avoid them.
In a way, I feel that this movie is a direct examination of humanities flawed absolutist notions of purity and sin. Noah, for however much he sets himself above the cruelty of his fellow man and for all his self-professed piety is, by the movie’s third act, consumed by this genocidal madness to rid the world of human impurity. In the beginning of the movie we see him and his family scavenging, living off the land, and effectively keeping themselves separate from the cruelty and horrors of what humanity has wrought since their fall. In doing this, though, Noah has in the process detached himself from his own humanity. When he’s forced to finally confront the parts of himself he always saw himself as above. It almost seems as though his desire to rid the world of ALL humanity, including himself, stems almost as much from his own self-hatred as it does from his contempt for others. In a way he’s right, most humans in his world live horrific, destructive lives. To him they engulf everything good and beautiful in their wake…or at least most of them do. In his blind devotion to his will of the creator, Noah frequently lets innocent people die because he feels that in their association with sinful people they are already judged, and thus he has no place interfering. After all, as Noah himself says, the Creator doesn’t pick him because he’s “good”; he picks him because he knows he can “get the job done”. It doesn’t help that later in the movie we get, the less we actually see of the visions Noah receives from the Creator. It leaves the audience with a sense of ambiguity as to whether Noah’s vision of a perfect world is really the Creator’s will, or just his own.
In direct contrast with Noah’s zealous sense of piety is Tubal-Cain, the vicious and cruel leader of the Cainites played with brazen confidence by Ray Winstone. His glaring look and growl-like voice make his villainous turn the most memorable performance in the film. His character, for all the evil he does, is actually kind of tragic. He’s cursed not only by his own evil choices, but also by the actions of his forbearers that he was born into and had no control over. In one of my favorite moments of the film, as the flood waters start to fall from the heavens he pleads to the creator to give him a sign, give him some indication that there is something for him other than oblivion and darkness. He rationalizes his hatred and desire for control in that, since he is created in the Creator’s image that shouldn’t he seize on all the aspects of the Creator? Judgment, the capacity of meting out life and death at seeming random, these are things the Creator seems to do, why not him? While Noah is driven to madness by his desire to serve and enact the will of the Creator, every act of Tubal-Cain’s is in direct defiance of the Creator and his designs. His tragedy comes from the ultimate futility of his actions, a futility he seems to know and acknowledge. For all his wailing and gnashing of teeth he knows he can’t beat the Creator. In his search for meaning in a cruel world seemingly without it, he lashes out in the only way he knows he can, and does everything he can to fight the inevitable.
To me, that’s the common thread between these two, a burning need for understanding, a way to make sense of the will and actions of a creator who for all intents and purposes seems indifferent to their suffering. All we really know of the Creator’s intentions is that he’s going to flood the world, kill most life on the planet, and that he wants Noah to build an ark. His providing for Noah is out of necessity to carry out that will. By the end of the movie we are left to wonder whether Noah’s decisions were with the will of the Creator or against it, or even whether it really matters. It comes down to whether the choice of love and mercy over wrath and judgment is truly right course, even though it may be an act of rebellion against a higher power? What’s more, what if it’s clear that one’s act of love will ultimately lead to more suffering and destruction? Is it right, just, neither? Is the capacity for that act something that is intrinsically and uniquely human, or just “all part of the divine plan”? How can that be free will, then? A lot the questions this film raises are open to many different interpretations, and I think the utter lack of clear answers is entirely the point. We’re just like Noah and Tubal-Cain, burdened with the capacity for rudimentary understanding and choice without a clear path as to where to go with it. We see that that path can be warped and skewed towards cruelty and suffering when driven by absolute judgment and blind hatred.
I feel that this film is a plea for people to love each other, to empathize and forgive despite humanity’s wickedness because that’s when humanity is at its best and most beautiful. For all its mythic grandeur and religious imagery, the story is rooted firmly in its own keen awareness of the human condition, and revels in its lack of clear answers. I don’t know, maybe when you see it you’ll have a different interpretation from mine, even as I’m writing this I’m still trying to wrap my head around what I feel. Definitely worth a few repeat viewings for sure. I’m not sure I’d recommend seeing it in IMAX, though, however suited it is to the movies massive scale, while watching the credits I noticed that some of the credits were slightly cut off, leading me to believe that in order to fit the full screen they ended up zooming it in and cropping it to simulate something natively shot in IMAX. If and when I see it again, I’ll probably see it in a regular format for comparison’s sake. With that said, though, Noah is definitely a spectacle, one that I would heartily recommend though it definitely won’t please everyone. It’s already shaping up to be this year’s Cloud Atlas, something so outlandish and ambitious that even when it stumbles in its stride it still has enough unique qualities for me to give it a bit of leeway in my critical judgment.