[28 March 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Free will. It’s either the flaw in God’s design for man or his gift for living outside the strictures of his scripture. It’s the core of organized religion, determination drained of its actual meaning with sin and supplication replacing its otherwise humanistic designs. In his new film, Noah, arcane auteur Darren Aronofsky takes a simple Bible story and blows it up. He turns the cutesy tale of “cats and rats and ele-phants” (but no unicorns, sadly) into a struggle between the individual and an obvious Supreme Being. There is no question of God’s existence in this stunningly ambitious and often flawed masterwork, He is everywhere - in the ground, in the air, in the scarred psyche of the characters. He even provides the film with its major strength, and one of its biggest (albeit, imagined by the filmmaker) problems.
They are called The Watchers and they represent angels banished by God. When they fell to Earth, hoping to help the poor, original sin bearing humans, the Creator decided to curse them, covering them molten stone until they became nothing but ambulatory rock. It sounds like something out of a Guillermo Del Toro dreamscape and makes this otherwise spiritual exercise weirdly supernatural. We learn of their origin, how they helped the city-dwellers to defy and defile God’s plan, and their noble suffering. But the minute they become part of Noah’s ark building brigade, the movie starts to veer off course. Aronofksy, his co-writer Ari Handel, and his excellent cast do everything to keep us on the right moralistic path. The F/X, on the other hand, scream Jack the Giant Killer.
Luckily, the movie is much, much better than that Bryan Singer abomination. We begin with Noah as a boy, witnessing the death of his nature-loving, ecologically minded father at the hands of mad carnivore King Tubal-cain (eventually, Ray Winstone). After growing up (into Russell Crowe) and marrying Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), Noah has three sons—Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll)—whom he teaches the ways of the land. This is in sharp contrast to the scorch and burn path of Tubal-cain’s “civilization.” One night, Noah is visited by a horrible dream of death by fire and water. Asking his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) for its meaning, he learns that Earth will be destroyed by a massive flood and that he is meant to build an ark to save “the innocent” (read: animals, birds, and insects).
And so begins the story we all learned in Sunday School, except accented with unwieldy motivational shifts and a bunch of computer generated boulder men. Noah starts putting together his vessel, the species arrive two by two, and—wouldn’t you know it—Tubal-cain finds out about the secret forest building site, storms the encampment, and lets his “subjects” know that this particular localized ‘King’ is not happy with the whole ‘end of the world’ thing. As his people degenerate into savages, Noah frets over the fate of humanity. He believes that God wants all of mankind dead. All. Thus, he keeps Ham from finding a viable wife while gladly taking in a young girl - Ila (Emma Watson) - who is presumably barren. In essence, our hero is not sure what his Creator wants, and this leads the movie into places both provocative and, on occasion, quite frustrating.
Aronofsky constantly channels the primitive beauty of this new Earth, complete with unblemished countryside and bright blue skies. His inhabitants are not scruffy near Neanderthals but prosperous, and in some cases, poisonous people. We get hints at a non-religious agenda (Noah tells the story of Genesis while Aronofsky counters with a complementary Cosmos like evolutionary explanation, and a discussion about violence leads all the way to World War II and Vietnam), but for the most part, this is a movie about faith, about interpreting the meaning in God’s action (and inaction) and using free will as a stopgap between all out hedonism and pure fundamentalism. Noah is the latter, limiting his viewpoint to a tragic detriment, while Tubal-cain is the former, full of himself and ready to rid the world of the questionable conclusions of Noah so his minions can prosper.
It’s a fascinating back and forth, dogma and theology highlighted by engaging F/X and some weird narrative choices. As for the acting, it’s almost uniformly great. The children aren’t expected to do much of the heavy lifting, so they really don’t excel, but Crowe and Connelly are amazing. The whole movie is basically one woman standing by her often inconsolable man, and when Naameh urges her husband to lay down his burden, the performances from both Oscar winners are stunning. Crowe is particularly good throughout, never once really overplaying his noted Heavenly calling. Winstone is just a moustache twirling tyrant, on the other hand, given some great dialogue to deliver but never investing Tubal-cain with anything other than standard issue movie menace. Backed by the strong cinematography of longtime Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique and a solid score from Clint Mansell (another regular), this is smart, sensational filmmaking.
And yet we still have to deal with those rock men. They are clear miracles, the kind that Tubal-cain claims will “sway” him one way or the other. In truth, they’ve been helping man since Eden and yet they come across as scoffed at and inferior. They solve a great deal of narrative issues—they help build the ark, they protect Noah and his family, they aid in the last act stand-off—but they are also unnecessary. Would it have been better if Noah and his sons were “blessed” by God to be as strong and as capable as these sacred stones? Perhaps provide real angels who could add to the ethereal qualities already on display?
Since Aronofsky doesn’t make too much of the pragmatic positions he takes, we could easily have added such Gospel magic and not had to deal with voice actors speaking through boulders. But again, this was the artist’s choice. He had free will to make it. Such then will be the fate of a film premised on the exercise (or misapplication) of self-rule. Noah is not a blasphemous anti-God screed. Instead, it’s an amazing movie that misses being an all out masterpiece by one autonomous idea.