by Kathie Smith
When it comes to grand metaphorical fantasies, there is a sort of undeniable appeal to the visually and intellectually stimulating cinematic worlds of Avatar’s alien Pandora, Harry Potter’s scholarly Hogwarts School, and The Lord of the Rings’ and Hobbit’s adventure-laden Middle-earth. These movies (and hundreds of others like them) offer a heightened level of escapism augmented to varying degrees with social, political, and personal contexts that easily negate frivolous reverie. This formula has become compulsory in narrative movies and its use in adapting popular source material, be it books or video games, seems neither surprising nor noteworthy. That is, until Darren Aronofsky’s Noah—a revelatory shock to the system that makes you realize that filmmakers have been ignoring (or in some cases, patronizing) the most potent and ubiquitous tales available.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Producers: Darren Aronofsky, Scott Franklin, Arnon Milchan, Mary Parent
Writers: Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel
Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique
Editor: Andrew Weisblum
Music: Clint Mansell
Cast: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman
US Theatrical Release: March 28, 2014
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
The Old Testament is at turns trippy, weird, savage, and, as one of the cornerstones of Western civilization, incredibly profound. Aronofsky sinks his teeth not only into the story of this man who found favor in the eyes of the Lord, but also into the ethos of the first nine chapters of Genesis, where the Creator relatively quickly deems his experiment a failure and decides to hit the reset button on mankind. Disillusioned with the wickedness of these creatures he made in his own image—symbolized primarily in Adam and Eve’s inability to resist temptation and Abel’s death at the hands of his brother Cain—the Creator instructs Noah to build an ark for the innocent creatures in preparation for a great deluge that will destroy the earth.
Noah starts with an “In the beginning…” preamble, an immediate assertion that Aronofsky has no intention of shying away from the text of the Hebrew Bible, otherwise known as the Old Testament in Christian doctrine. A slithering snake, a throbbing apple, and a rock used in murder lead us into the deviating lineages of Cain, a seed of evil, and Seth, a seed of hope after the death of Abel. Ten generations later, this moral division continues in Noah, a descendent of Seth, and in the descendents of Cain who reap untold havoc on the earth.
When we finally meet Noah as a grown man (Russell Crowe), he’s gathering food in a barren volcanic landscape with his young sons, instructing them to never take more than they can use—even a small beautiful flower. At this point, Noah, who is around 500 years old (according to the Biblical texts), starts to see signs of impending doom and of his role as a servant to God—the growth of a flower from a single raindrop, the plight of both a wounded animal and the hunters chasing it, and dreams of death and destruction by water. In one such beautifully realized dream, Noah opens his eyes submerged at the bottom of a surreal ocean with bodies covering the floor and animals emerging from the underwater graveyard to swim to the surface.
Noah sees what he must do, and he collects his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and his three sons to visit his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), gathering along the way an injured young girl, Ila, orphaned when bandits slaughtered her family. (Ila conveniently allows Aronofsky to sidestep the inherent incest in the notion that we were all begot from Noah.) Noah takes a passed down seed from the Garden of Eden and plants it in the dead rubble at the foot of a mountain. The earth erupts with a vast fertile oasis from which to build his ark and to which he draws all the creatures far and wide; and the Watchers, giant corrupted angels made of rock, mobilize to help Noah with his task of constructing his vessel in hopes of finding redemption from their own depravity.
This is the stuff myths are made of. And by that, I don’t mean that the Bible is a myth—clearly not the point—but that Aronofsky’s visuals, delivered to our ideological collective unconscious, are a thing of perspicacious grandeur, regardless of your God-fearing status. The flourish of phantasmagorical details in nearly every scene discards cliché and breathes life into a world that is often treated with kid gloves. With plant and animal life choked from every vista, the setting itself stirs the intellectual imagination, but so does the engrained ideal of a greater cause to human existence.
Noah is an unapologetic steward of the earth, but he is also an autocratic patriarch, and a divine one at that, who must struggle with the responsibility given to him. Ten years on, his ark is nearly finished and the desperate, believing there is some truth in the rumor that the Creator plans to destroy the earth, are closing in. Noah’s eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth) has taken up with Ila (Emma Watson), and the questions of one family “starting over” and the need to procreate take center stage. Because of the wound she suffered to her abdomen, Ila is unable to bare children, and Ham (Logan Lerman), the middle child, urges his father to find wives for not only himself, but also for Shem and youngest Japheth. Noah sets out to do so, but he takes the warped state of society he finds as a sign that humanity ends with the death of Noah and his family.
Once the rains come and water gushes from the ground in a well-envisioned wrath, the ark becomes a claustrophobic tomb darkened by Noah’s will to save no one but his infertile family and all that flies, slithers and crawls. Matters are made worse when Ila miraculously becomes pregnant, and Noah vows to murder the baby if it is a girl. The Old Testament doesn’t give much in the way of character development for Noah, and it certainly doesn’t build an infanticide drama on the high seas. But it is filled with unquestioning sovereignty of the male lineage and Noah’s duty (and burden) to interpret the will of God. Aronofsky fuels his characters with the venom, splendor, and specificity of this archaic text, effortlessly underscoring the brusque brutality and overt paternalism within the parabolic words that have influenced generation after generation.
Ironically, literalists and conservatives have taken issue with Aronofsky’s vision in Noah, feeling the need to criticize either the shape of the ark or Noah’s pro-animal tenets. (Keep in mind that many of the people who cry that the movie “got it wrong” are the same people telling paleontologists that they got it wrong too.) The naysayers, and certainly those who call themselves Christian, are the ones who have it wrong: Aronofsky does the text a favor by approaching it without political or religious agenda and implicitly allowing for the kind of self-reflection intended in the Torah, the Quran, and the Bible—all of which contain a version of the Great Flood. The power that Aronofsky brings to this story of the original apocalypse is efficacious, but only if eyes are unclouded.
The performances—especially those of Crowe, Connelly, and Watson—are striking and work well outside of parody. Crowe’s Noah is stoic with bouts of pragmatic compassion, and Connelly’s Naameh has a sort of anti-glow of strong-willed servitude. But it will be Watson who earns the most kudos as an impassioned victim and, in the end, analytic narrator to Noah’s desolation. Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel (who, not surprisingly, helped pen The Fountain) falter by giving villainous Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) a larger role than needed in the quagmire that was already morally conflicted. But this is a minor quibble for a film that defies and excels beyond the dubious expectations of a Darren Aronofsky Bible blockbuster. Noah may well be the miracle of critical and commercial success that fans have been waiting for since Pi.