"We are men! And men are invincible!"
Director Darren Aronofsky has always been known for his ambition. No matter the scope of his projects, he has pushed his actors, his crew, and himself to achieve ever higher results that will equal the ambition he has for the film. His desire to turn the story of Noah and the ark into a film has been a lifelong quest, and Paramount Pictures has gifted him with a tremendous budget to actualize his vision. That fact alone makes this one of the most anticipated movies of the year, mainly because Aronofsky's fans are eager to see how well he does with seemingly no restrictions.
So could the film rise to the level it seemed to be aiming for, or would his reach exceed his grasp? Read on to find out...
Since there's no better place to start than with the text, "In the beginning there was darkness…" Aronofsky opens his film with a summary of the first five chapters of Genesis, leading up to Noah's entry into the saga. As a teen and descendent of Seth, the third son of Adam & Eve, Noah witnesses the murder of his father by Tubal-Cain, a descendant of Cain. Smash cut to Noah as a man, now played by the burly Russell Crowe, father to Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and husband to Naameh (Jennifer Connelly). Noah uproots his family after having a vision from The Creator that the world will be consumed by a great flood. Noah travels to visit his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), from whom he expects to receive more divine news of what part he might play in this saga.
On the way, they encounter a young girl named Ila, whom they essentially add to their clan since the rest of her family was murdered while mining for zohar, a magical mineral that can create light. They also happen upon a band of fallen angels called The Watchers, who have taken the shape of giant rock monsters, and eventually rally to protect Noah when they realize that he is on a mission from The Creator. When Noah receives another vision, that he is to build an ark in which he and his family will protect the innocent creatures of the Earth (mainly animals) in the flood, The Watchers help him to construct the vessel. However, when the self-appointed king Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) gets word of Noah's endeavor, he seeks to either destroy the ark or commandeer it for himself and his followers.
The thing that is most immediately striking about Noah is that it is not short on ambition, vision, or flat-out insanity. This has got to be one of the most far out, big budget studio films ever produced. It plays exactly how one would expect an art house film to look if it had a budget in the nine-figure range, and that's never a bad thing. Whenever a major studio can fund the strange and singular vision of an artist such as Aronofsky, they should take that opportunity and run with it, which they most certainly did here. The biggest issue in doing so is that it may not appeal to a large audience, and that's likely Noah's biggest downside. It has moments that are so insane, you wouldn't believe them unless you saw them for yourself, and as a critic, I just don't get to say that often enough. This is the best possible outcome of giving an auteur a ton of money.
The film is not without its faults, and they are legion. The characters are very poorly sketched, and really betray Aronofsky's previous work which was always heavily focused on character. The only exceptions to this would be Noah, Tubal-Cain, and Ham, Noah's middle son played as a young adult by Logan Lerman. These three characters have arcs (no pun intended), but everyone else is horrendously one-dimensional and end the story almost exactly as they began it. The film also takes a steep plunge at the end of the second act, and never really recovers. Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel decided to give Noah an Abraham and Isaac-esque subplot that doesn't really pay off, and comes precipitously close to ruining the entire narrative. It was as if they let the sharks off the ark first just so they could jump them.
The film will have a very hard time appealing to the more traditional Biblical audience, as it doesn't devote any time to preaching to the choir. Christian audiences in particular have gotten so used to these pandering, nonsensical, formulaic movies that just want to make them feel good about what they believe, that they won't have any idea what to do when they see lumbering rock monsters and magical minerals in action. It's a real shame, too, because much like Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, this is a film that can bolster the faithful by challenging their deeply held beliefs, and allowing them to come out on the other side of the experience emboldened and proud to know that they can still believe what they want to believe, and a movie hasn't changed all that. In other words, the people that need to see this movie the most, likely won't, and that's a real tragedy.
The film looks immaculate. The dirt and grime of the period feels incredibly real and honest, and the visual effects are a marvel. The choice to animate The Watchers like Ray Harryhausen-esque stop-motion creatures was a stroke of genius, and makes their somewhat incongruous appearance that much more palatable. Aronofsky's shot compositions remain among the best in the business, always nailing the big moments and utilizing the 1.85:1 aspect ratio like a master. A sequence on the ark where Noah recounts the creation myth is spectacular and breathtaking, and is the kind of thing that you just don't see enough of in a mainstream film. It's a fantastic set piece and truly delivers on what Aronofsky had set out to do, and the biggest letdown of all is that the film really never gets back on track after this sequence.
The performances are all good, though sadly there are no real standouts. Crowe fares better here than he has in some time, but his third act is the weakest of all the characters, particularly as you're left to watch him fall back on his hammiest instincts. Connelly is good, as is Emma Watson as the grown-up Ila, but they aren't really given much to do other than look pensive or cry. Hopkins is a delight, though he really could have amped up the nuttiness a notch, particularly considering how crazy he seems to have gotten in the last five years or so. Winstone fares the best out of the entire cast, and gives the film a true antagonist that matches the film's scope. He's definitely underutilized, which is high praise considering how much he does with the handful of scenes he has.
Noah is not an unqualified success. It's riddled with pacing issues, underdeveloped characters, and a third act that feels firmly out of step with all that preceded it, but I can't help recommending it for no other reason than it has to be seen to be believed. It's borderline insane, but the moments that work, work well, and the moments that don't, fail so spectacularly that one can't help but admire a filmmaker willing to take such enormous risks. If only every major studio film could be this unique and uniquely crazy. The multiplex would be a much more fun place to spend some time if every film felt more like this one than the interchangeable lineup of noisy, empty, spectacle-driven films currently crowding the marketplace. It's not a great film, it has far too many flaws to be great, but it is an experience that everyone should have, and whether you like it or not, at least you'll have had a reaction to it. That should be every filmmakers goal.
[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]