Published Mar 28, 2014The promotional campaign for Noah has emphasized the CGI spectacle of the film while leaving audiences to infer its Biblical origins. Completely omitted from the trailers currently gracing our ad blocks is mention of the film's director, Darren Aronofsky, who is coming off a Best Director Academy Award nomination and dozens of other accolades for his last film, Black Swan.
That the studio is ignoring the goodwill engendered by their director as they unleash their hundred-and-fifty-ish million dollar spring tent-pole art flick, says a lot about the struggles that went on behind the scenes between Aronofsky and Paramount over its final cut.
Noah opens with the fall of man, the murder of Abel by his brother Cain and the flight of their brother Seth. Flash forward several generations and Seth's lone descendant, Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family lead a life "as the creator intended," while Cain's descendants lay waste to the land and the animals and the people that inhabit it. Noah has a vision that finds him standing on blood-soaked ground in front of a lush green mountain before a great flood drowns the entire world. Taking this as a sign from God, Noah, his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and their three kids set out to find Noah's Grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who lives on the mountain from Noah's dream.
Along the way they encounter a wounded girl whose family has been murdered by scavenging Cain acolytes. The scavengers reappear, and as Noah and his family flee, they encounter the Watchers, earth-encrusted fallen angels. The Watchers mistrust Noah, but one sees well in him and helps the family reach Methuselah, who councils Noah and gives him a seed from the Garden of Eden. Once planted, the seed grows into a lush forest from which Noah and the Watchers find wood to build the ark that will save Earth's creatures.
Fast forward a number of years and the ark is almost complete, while Noah's children have grown up. His oldest, Shem (Douglas Booth), is in love with Ila (Emma Watson), the girl the family rescued, but her wound has left her barren, hardly an ideal situation if the family are meant to repopulate the earth. Meanwhile Ham (Logan Lerman), Noah's middle child, is frustrated and lonely and is drawn to Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) and his followers who want access to Noah's ark. Their willingness to achieve their goal by any means necessary only emboldens Noah's notion that mankind are wicked and unworthy of God's compassion.
Despite its religious roots, Noah is not a religious film. "Creator" is frequently substituted for God, which is reportedly completely absent from the script. The biggest aesthetic holdover from the source material is the marginalized role of women.
Filmed partly in Iceland, the film's barren, moon-like landscapes resemble a dystopian science fiction film whose basic plot structure mirrors a moral fable with some environmental undertones, but it still could have been fun. Instead, Noah feels weighed down by its own over-seriousness. Aronofsky's actors do what they can with the stiff dialogue, but only Winstone and Watson really manage to get out from underneath the script.
Reteaming with his regular collaborators, elements of Aronofsky's signature style abound, such as the quick cuts that emphasize man's sin, mirroring Requiem for a Dream's eye dilation sequences. Noah's obsession with following God's wishes, meanwhile, is consistent with the obsessive nature of all of the director's lead characters. Yet it lacks the visceral terror of his past characters' physical action, be it Randy "the Ram's" hulking, broken down body (The Wrestler) or Nina Sayers' bone-cracking toes (Black Swan). These hallmarks are instead replaced by giant CGI set pieces that make the film feel more like a lost Tolkien story than a Bible tale. The Watchers in particular have a very Ent-like quality to them.
Noah is hardly Aronofsky's best film, but it's still well worth watching. The through-line character study of Noah and his struggle with his weighty task is never overshadowed by visual set pieces like the inevitable flood scene. Audience familiarity with the story actually hampers Noah as we become all too aware of where the "inspired-by" line lies; Aronofsky could have explored similar themes without the Biblical baggage. Instead, he's Trojan-horsed an art-house film into theatres under the guise of a blockbuster.