Aronofsky’s back with a new film, and, despite only being in theaters for two days, has already sparked enough controversy to last the remainder of 2014. That film is the Biblical adaptation Noah, which is more a cousin to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ than John Cleese’s Life of Brian. That is to say, it’s an affirmation of faith rather than a scathing critique, and while both classic films are skeptic of the divine, one encourages that feeling while the other confronts it. Noah’s singularly designed to carry emotional and spiritual weight to believers and nonbelievers alike, but that won’t stop some religious groups from exclaiming with rage. We’re already seen accusations that Noah is little more than extreme environmentalist propaganda (a bogus assertion by anyone who’s seen the film), and numerous other complaints follow. Mainstream religious adaptations have always been a calculated risk by movie studios, and I envision Paramount Studios tried to convince Aronofsky to cut the film by pleading, “Boy, if you thought Harry Potter fans were bad, wait ‘till you mess up the Bible!” Aronofsky got final cut, and, no pun intended, thank God. Noah treats the divine with delicacy, told more as powerful fable than as the history of God’s people. But I should say this upfront: Noah is weird.
Instead of adapting the Genesis flood story literally, one we’ve all heard a thousand times, the story is transformed by filling in its holes. In junior high religion classes, students would question teachers on how Noah built the entire ark himself, or how the animals were fed, or the seeming moral abandon of God’s dooming so many. Noah deals with these questions head-on. In the same way it took the outside eyes of a Brit to make a great film about American slavery, it took a self-professed Atheist to have the gusto to make valuable additions (as opposed to changes) to the story. These additions are apparent from the opening minutes, where we’re told after the fall of man in The Garden of Eden and Cain murdered his brother Abel, two lines of men were formed. The righteous men descended from Seth (the third and least famous son of Adam and Eve), and the wicked men of Cain. Cain fled to the Watchers, who are six armed fallen angels made of rock and vibrant yellow light. The Watchers taught Cain and his people what they knew about creation, which gave birth to an all-devouring industrial empire that consumed the earth’s resources. No, the film isn’t subtle. I loved them, but most don’t seem to. They abide by the film’s own internal logic, used not only to solve many of the original story’s gaping holes, but to assert a hierarchy of celestial consequence. They’re doomed to earth and play a potent foil to Noah and his family. They’re design is beautiful but disturbed, and they walk with a bizarre unnatural motion that gracelessly clanks against the ground.
Following a series of beautifully abstract dream sequences that recall his hyper-stylization in Requiem for a Dream, Noah (Russell Crowe) announces that they have to build an ark. A brutal self-proclaimed king named Tubal-cain, played with excelling foulness by Ray Winstone, wants it. However, this drama is just first half of the film, where Noah is most like a fantasy epic in the vein of The Lord of the Rings. That comparison might offend some, but it shouldn’t. After all, despite a flaming glowing eye and elves and dwarves, The Lord of the Rings is a highly religious text. The second half is almost completely within the ark itself where the genre shifts to a close quarters family drama and thriller. This second half took me by surprise, not only in how its scale shrunk from vast to claustrophobic, but in its audaciousness to depict Noah as an obsessive and potentially violent figure. This is where all the many thematic threads laid throughout the film shift into focus, and viewers are forced to question their own spirituality as much as Noah must question his. He’s out to carry out God’s work, no matter how bloody. Noah is a film of astounding personal vision and expert achievement, but its real genius is how it touches on the underpinnings of what it means to be a believer. Faith is celebrated as much as it’s challenged, and as Noah is overcome with internal conflict, the film explores hairy themes startling to see in a studio film; namely, dealing with the thin boundary between blind faith (that can lead to the destruction of others as much as yourself) and following a higher power with absolute, but competent, devotion. These ideas could have been more resolute in their clarity and a final word is never given on them (despite the ending), but so much is thrown at your heart and mind that I walked away dazzled. Aronofsky dramatizes many aspects of faith, and as a non-theist he was the perfect person to show how universal a theme this is.
Everyone knows Clint Mansell from his famous Lux Aeterna from Requiem of a Dream, but his collaborations with Aronofsky have been some of the most fruitful of modern cinema. His score for Noah is diverse, aged, and transcendent. It’s one of his best. Russell Crowe almost hits the same mark. His Noah is his best performance in what seems like forever, although he gets unnecessary hate for his performance in Les Misérables. The rest of the cast is fine. Jennifer Connelly in particular deserves mention, although Emma Watson’s role isn’t to play a character, but a series of thin emotional cues. Watson’s proven to be a fine actress and needs better roles.
For such an aesthetically driven director, Aronofsky’s typical stylish direction is almost totally absent. When you don’t have rock giants (that look an awful lot like Infernals from World of Warcraft), sprouting CGI forests, or surging waters, the images are boring. The photography has seemingly little visual design. Compositions and lighting have the same bland moodlessness of a Marvel movie, far removed from Black Swan’s master class of visual ingenuity. Studios demand a certain look for their movies, so it’s a gift any of his trademark technique remains. When the film is at its most outlandish and hooky, Aronofsky relies on the realism of his signature handheld camera to make the unreal real. One highlight is a midnight trek through a hellish town of flame, violence, and jagged black metal captured frighteningly with a handheld camera. Imagine a documentary feel walking through the pits of Isengard in The Lord of the Rings. It’s a harrowing sequence and one of the film’s best. In contrast, Aronofsky doesn’t seem to know how to film huge effects shots. Almost all of the movie’s big effects sequences include aerial shots sweeping around the action in a 360 degree view, with relatively little variation on the formula. He’s clearly new to having a big budget, and one would expect more innovation in form from a director of this caliber.
Lack of variation or not, these scenes are often spectacular, especially the 45 minute section leading up to the midpoint that’s as spellbinding as anything I’ve seen in years. Also outstanding are the time-lapse sequences that show a flurry of movement and creation in seconds. The effects are occasionally wonky, but often great. Effects giant Industrial Light and Magic even bragged some shots were the most demanding they’ve ever delivered. The production design depicts a world outside of time, somehow in our past, present, and future all at once. The ark’s design is robust and practical, and seeing it overwhelmed with crashing water as a malevolent army descends is as rousing as anything you’ll see this year. If that makes Noah sound like a blockbuster, don’t be fooled. Despite its budget, this is Aronofsky’s strangest film since his debut, Pi, a Lynchian thriller where a mathematical genius tries to understand all of existence through numbers whilst being chased by Hasidic Jews. I recommend it.
Noah is jam-packed with strange choices, and it constantly takes unexpected directions that may leave less seasoned audiences puzzled and angry. The design, story, performances, and general direction are all deliberately challenging, and I must admit they have an alienating effect. Noah is unlike anything you or I ever seen, and two voices emerged as I watched. One is of admiration and love, for both the film and its fearless maker. The other is the cynical exclamation that there’s a reason these choices have been avoided in the past. Those two voices become so intertwined I stop being able to tell what worked for me and what didn’t, since Noah is a work so cohesive that you pull one piece a way and the whole puzzle is foggy. But, despite several missteps, Noah has enormous value for anyone open to its eccentric indulgences, and the first thing I said as I left the theater was asking how a film like Noah got green lit. I meant it as a compliment.