I remember when the trailer for this was released. There were fears amongst those that I spoke to that it looked generic, safe and Hollywood-heavy. But knowing Aronofsky, I knew it wouldn’t be any of those things, and I was right about that. Others I spoke to were concerned that it would be disrespectful to the Bible and their religious beliefs. I don’t believe the film is offensive to faith and religion at all either. It certainly takes creative liberties, but it doesn’t do so to spit in anyone’s faith. “Noah” is unlike anything you’ll see this year probably. That statement is filled with shades of both praise and confusion by the film’s bizarre choices on my part.
I should say that is isn’t necessarily a religious film, in the sense that this is nothing like recent releases “Son of God” or “Heaven Is For Real”. However, “Noah” is a very spiritual film. If I had to compare this film to another, I would compare it to “The Last Temptation of Christ” by Martin Scorsese. I’ll probably bring up this comparison again in this review. While yes, both films are completely different in terms of scope and budget, both take creative liberties in the story and bring the same approach to their main characters, presenting the man behind the legend.
The plot follows Noah(Russell Crowe) from his childhood watching his father cut down in front of him, to the historic tale of his building of the ark to survive the floods of the Earth with the help of rock giants, The Watchers, who are fallen angels(this is what I meant by creative liberties). It then moves past the flood to the claustrophobic days he spent on the ark floating at sea, as well as the lasting effects the event had on him later in life after they’ve hit land.
Russell Crowe is the type of actor who is like the ark itself. Staying steady amidst the waves and insanity around him, remaining unbendable. Naturally, his subdued ferocity lends itself well to this film. The way the guilt and realization of the annihilation he assists in does creep in though, and Crowe carries that arc convincingly, bordering on being terrifying. Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson as wife Naameh and adopted daughter Ila don’t have much to do but cry and support their men, but I still felt they were bringing a certain honesty and commitment to it all they the script probably didn’t ask them for. Each tear from them breaks through the celluloid and touches the audience.
Ray Winstone serves as the antagonist in the form of Tubal-cain, a war leader who seeks to take the ark from Noah and The Watchers. Winstone’s ferocity proves as a nice counterpart to Crowe’s Noah. Both characters are unwavering in their goals, and juxtaposing the two shows just how easily one could be the other in another time. Winstone breaks through the villain mold, bringing some dimension to the role, though I felt the film would have benefited from more. One scene sees him talking out to God in frustration, something Tubal-cain seems to have not done in a long time, and the pain and fear residing beyond his eyes makes for a wonderful revelation of his character.
Among Noah’s sons are Shem, Ham and Japheth, played by Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman and newcomer Leo McHugh Carroll. While Booth and Carroll are both serviceable in their roles, it’s Lerman who gets the biggest sense of a character arc. Lerman is an actor I have faith in to be someone great, and he performs well here. But I get the sense some of his character scenes were either cut out, or the existing ones were under-written. The leaps between marks of his arc never quite stick the landing. Ham’s seduction to Tubal-cain is compelling but never fully realized.
Anthony Hopkins continues his trend of playing old wise men as Methuselah. It’s always pleasant to see him in a role like this, but they try to turn him into a source of comedic relief as he begins a crazed search for berries to eat. It never feels at place in this film. As I write this I realize that in a Noah movie with rock monsters, an old man’s comic desire for berries is what I had trouble buying into.
The Watchers are an intriguing interpretation. The design and mechanics of their movement is captivating, lying somewhere between the clunky movement of stop-motion and the smoothness of CGI. Nick Nolte and Frank Langella’s already raspy voices are put to great use here, I joke that their characters weren’t CGI at all, but costumes for Nolte and Langella.
At one point in the film, Noah announces to his family that he was not chosen for this task because he is righteous, but because he will get the job done. This is the general attitude Aronofsky sees Noah with. This film isn’t your primary school recantation. It doesn’t shy away at all from the moral and existential darkness that surrounds this tale. Noah has always been praised as a hero throughout my childhood, but this film points out that he just as easily could be considered a villain. His commitment to his task moves from faith to violent zealotry. I don’t want to go into too much detail behind this character turn, but Aronofsky considers possibilities that are bold considering the G-rated nature of this tale we’re used to. He really pushed the PG-13 rating in this film. Aronofsky doesn’t let us forget that this man did in fact let an entire species of humanity die. He considers that some of them maybe didn’t deserve it. These considerations bleed into Noah’s tortured psyche, and it has a lasting effect of guilt. One of the most stunning, and haunting images in the film and also perhaps the year, has the ark in the background, while in the foreground humans cling to a rock formation as waves bat them off, screaming and wailing. Their cries ring throughout the ark as Noah does his best to block them out. It looks like the greatest painting Goya never made.
Throughout the film the photography from Aronofsky regular Matthew Libatique shows an emphasis on the surrounding landscape, displaying the relationship between man and nature. There is a particular scene where Noah and Naameh stand against an early morning skyline, their silhouettes standing out from the starlit backdrop. It infers a certain connection with the cosmos, and perhaps heaven. Clint Mansell returns as Aronofsky’s composer, and his score captures the mystical nature of the film. While I could complain that it sounds too similar his “The Fountain” score, I could just as easily praise it for that.
In his review, Wesley Morris stated, “Darren Aronofsky is perhaps the greatest American director to never make a great film.” He might be right, even though I don’t entirely agree as I place “The Fountain” among my favorite films, but I think that quote does do a great job of summing up why I was able to move past some of the cliché pitfalls in “Noah”. Aronofsky convinces you he’s really doing his best to give you something you’ve never seen before. He’s going all in, as committed and obsessive as his protagonist. While at points the film will make you roll your eyes in bafflement, it will also have moments that completely wow you. The film never feels lazy despite its stumbles, and that’s due to Aronofsky’s fervent pursuit of delivering the fantastic. One sequence midway through presents the creation of the universe and the Earth, and it’s an absolutely stunning and memorable presentation.
I’m sure many people will be uncomfortable with this presentation of a Biblical legend. 3 people walked out of the screening I attended. But to be honest had it been a line-by-line, precept-upon-precept adaptation it would have been boring. Like “The Last Tempation of Christ”, it managed to present the human we hadn’t seen before. It gave the main character conflict that in my opinion made him a much more relatable figure. The main character’s grappled with their faith and doubt. I wasn’t ever taught these interpretations as a kid, and it’s nice to consider that they may have dealt with the same internal struggles that I have at times. Aronofsky gives us a legend, but he also gives us the man – the human – behind the legend.