Old Testament, Aronofsky-style
Equal parts visionary and flawed, acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky’s dark biblical epic is, on the whole, a compelling, powerful body of work that deserves your attention.Boasting the director’s trademark visual style, and topically adopting environmentalist elements into its almost disaster-movie narrative, Noah is far from what you may or may not remember from your Sunday School classes.
Indeed, whilst it pays enough respect to religious teachings to largely avoid driving away those who believe in them, there’s plenty on offer here to attract a wider audience.
This particular vision is driven by humanity and morality, sin and judgment, justice and righteousness – themes which have almost as much place without as within the Bible.
The film’s has its greatest strength in these pillars, as it explores the mind of a man torn between his destiny to wipe out the human race – ambiguously signposted along the way – and his heart, which remains with his family and his blood line.Aronofsky flits between nightmarish visions and epic flashbacks to both paint a picture of the battle-scarred ‘evolution’ of mankind, and of the horror of things to come, crafting a part-cautionary, part-reflective tale which avoids many of the usual pitfalls associated with what is – in essence – a tale of outright genocide, by showing the human race as having devolved into a group of mindless, near-cannibalistic brutes who have scorched the Earth black from their abuse.
Crowe stands out as Noah, a flawed anti-hero who is consumed by his obsession, prepared to sacrifice any- and every-body along the way, and driven almost insane in the process, and there is much to appreciate in this frequently bold interpretation, but, despite the Studios reluctantly agreeing to Aronofsky’s final cut, it is still far from a perfect work, hobbled perhaps inherently by the very nature of its source material – however loosely adapted – and frequently disrupted by a timeline that stretches across decades but feels like it could have taken place over a period of weeks.
Whether you know the story of Noah as a Sunday School lesson, a children's story or just from the lacklustre Steve Carrell-starring sequel to Bruce Almighty, this vision will come as something new. In many (favourable) ways it takes its lead from Scorsese's seminal - and highly underrated - masterpiece, The Last Temptation of Christ, in that it follows a familiar Bibically-based protagonist through his harsh and brutal life's journey, beset upon by doubts and uncertainties; by unclear signs and vague, open-to-interpretation messages From Above, which usually come in the form of hallucinatory dreams; and tasked with an unenviable mission which alienates him from all around.
Noah is the last of his blood line, and when he has visions of an impending deluge that will wipe out mankind, he initially looks for a way in which to stop it. Realising, however, that there is no stopping it, he sets about building a great Ark to preserve two of every creature on the planet, and to carry his family to safety. With a plague of scavengers baying for blood, however, it's only a matter of time before he will have to fight to save the Ark.
It's the story of Noah, but not as we know it.
Those who are up on their religious studies may well look at Noah as one of the more morally dubious tales in the undeniably controversial Old Testament. Forget Sodom and Gomorrah - that was nothing in comparison with the apocalypse that O.T. God had in store for the human race back in Noah's time. And many, quite understandably, struggles to countenance this brutal, unforgiving Creator with the indefatigably pacifist God from later years. Hell, some have even compared his actions here with the same near-genocide we know from The Holocaust.
Aronofsky's Noah doesn't shy away from the harsh brutality of this plan, but does soften the blow by positing the human race as a lost cause; a sea of parasitic cannibals who will, if left unhindered, suck the Earth dry of its life force. He tracks this back to the very first sin - Adam and Eve, then Cain killing Abel - with Cain's surviving bloodline having degenerated into something akin to The Lord Humungous's troop in Mad Max 2. Some might wonder whether it's still a grey area - whether this Noah could be as much a reflection of our current future, as a fable on our past - but this only lends the film a higher cerebral edge.
Despite the promising nods towards the style of Scorsese's aforementioned masterpiece, Aronofsky's adaptation takes ideas and input from many other areas and benefits - for the most part - from some imaginative effects. Beyond the post-apocalyptic Max, there's a dash of post-Lord of the Rings-style monstrousness to the piece as a group of fallen angels - The Watchers - roam the wasteland in a form that would not have looked out of place as early rock-based Decepticons from Bay's Transformers series (unfortunately they can only really transform into... rocks). This embellishes the epic scope with suitably epic set-pieces and, largely, fits within this visionary interpretation.
Aronofsky, however, has always seemed more comfortable blending dark fantasy into pure human drama, rather than attempting to elicit human drama within more fantastical realms - for my money, Pi, The Wrestler and Black Swan are far more accomplished works which are largely unperturbed by the potentially ineffective fantasy elements which limited The Fountain, for example. With Noah, his work is far more refined, but it still feels more obviously flawed than in some of his outright human dramas. There's no question that the filmmaker has a visionary eye, and deserves credit for taking such daring risks, but the end result is far from perfect.
Whilst it may have been marginally compromised, the majority of Aronofsky's dark and brutal vision remains intact.
The cast try their hardest to rise above the limitations of the religiously-inspired narrative, with Crowe and Jennifer Connelly on particularly strong form (and Emma Watson putting in one of her better performances but still failing to stand out as a competent actor) but they - as with the story itself - are hampered somewhat by Aronofsky's biggest issue: time.
With days, weeks, months, years and even decades, capable of being traversed in a heartbeat, Noah struggles to maintain the kind of palpable tension that you would expect from it. In essence, it's a Biblical disaster movie, but all disaster movies require an element of running-out-of-time tension to them. Noah jumps and skips the years inexplicably, and expects us to believe that the threat is still real, and still very relevant. The epic runtime itself is not an issue, but the ramifications of condensing what might have better suited an ongoing TV series into 138 minutes are that the flow is frequently and detrimentally interrupted. The biggest victim of this is probably Ray Winstone's antagonist, who not only mooches around making weaponry for what feels like an eternity, but then waits months to come back into play. It's a shame, because Winstone is not only capable of going toe-to-toe with Crowe's Noah, but also afford his character a modicum of self-awareness, and the time-lapses between his involvement only render potentially tense moments both predictable and marginally anticlimactic.
Still, there is much to admire about Aronofsky's bold vision, and any film which takes its cues from Scorsese's Last Temptation; which is prepared to hold true - for the most part - to its darkly brutal core; and which allows even a moment's pause for thought with regards to its commentary on human nature, morality and justice, deserves your attention.
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