The most remarkable aspect of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ is simply the fact that it exists. It’s not supposed to be possible for an idiosyncratic director to get a massive blockbuster budget to make a challenging and thought-provoking movie, no matter how many battle scenes are wrapped around the ideas. More than that, such a movie certainly shouldn’t take source material out of ‘The Bible’ and then take great liberties with that material to suit the filmmaker’s intent rather than church rhetoric. And yet, somehow ‘Noah’ exists. Flawed though it may be, it’s both a fascinating directorial experiment and a satisfying blockbuster.
If you know the Noah story, you know the basics of the movie… and yet you don’t. Russell Crowe indeed plays the descendant of Adam who’s tasked by God to build an ark to save two of every creature on the planet from an apocalyptic flood. Except, in Aronofsky’s version, the message from God comes not from a voice in the heavens, but via two hallucinatory visions: one in a dream and another provided by his father’s (Anthony Hopkins engagingly overacting as only he can) hallucinogenic tea. Then, when Noah starts constructing his ark with his family (Jennifer Connelly, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, and an adopted Emma Watson), fallen angels in the form of rock monsters assist in the task. Good thing too, since Ray Winstone soon arrives leading a tribe of filthy heathens that Noah and his rock army must viciously fight off.
So, it’s certainly a very different version of the story – one rooted equally in blood-and-guts fantasy epics as much as Biblical tales. But those changes to the story are just the ones you’ll see in the trailers. Aronofsky’s most daring work is more character driven and comes after the flood. His Noah isn’t just a badass/savior, but also a deeply flawed man perfectly portrayed by Russell Crowe, who has finally decided to do some acting in a movie after a few years of coasting.
Unable to call up his creator for advice, Noah toils and tortures away under the burden of his task. When his son questions why he can’t save a woman to be his wife in the new world, a screw comes loose in Noah’s head and he becomes convinced that his task is to supervise the death of humanity. He lets his son’s possible partner get trampled to death during the great ark battle. When an unexpected child is born on the ark, he decides that he must murder the infant at birth. Aronofsky’s Noah isn’t merely a savior chosen by God, but a lost servant driven to the brink of madness by an impossible task. It’s a fascinating interpretation of the story, and one that only this director could have imagined.
The film feels very much like Aronofsky’s attempt to make the philosophical action epic that he was unable to properly develop in ‘The Fountain‘. Sadly, much like in that film, the director’s ambition often outweighs his creation. ‘Noah’ features some of the finest filmmaking of Aronofsky’s career (in particular, an absolutely astonishing sequence visualizing the “intelligent design” version of creation from the Big Bang through primate evolution), but also suffers from his jackhammer sense of subtlety, his weakness for melodrama, and his unnatural dialogue rhythms.
Admittedly, all of those problems are less overt in a Biblical fable suited to them, but they harm the picture all the same. Still, the fact that Aronofsky has managed to make a film that works both as a visceral fantasy action spectacle and a carefully thought-out deconstruction of a religious myth is a minor miracle. ‘Noah’ is certainly a film that demands to be seen and discussed in an over-caffeinated debate regardless of whether you love or loathe the results. We need more movies like that from Hollywood. Well done Aronofsky for pulling this off, and well done Paramount for backing the project. Whether or not the final result is perfect is beside the point. ‘Noah’ is fascinating, challenging and thrilling blockbuster filmmaking. That’s more than enough to qualify as a success.