The bumper crop of directors that first broke out in the mid-to-late nineties—Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Spike Jonze—have gradually worked their way into relatively mainstream American filmmaking over the past two decades or so. But it hasn’t always been an easy road, owing to their collective lack of interest in doing anything that isn’t, in some way, a personal project. The idea that anyone in that group might make, say, a big-budget Biblical epic seems ridiculous on its face, a rebuke to their hard-won independence.
And, at first, Darren Aronfosky seems unlikely to qualify as the exception. But while his Pi and Requiem for a Dream were low-budget mind-tweaking downers with almost no sense of humor (whereas most of his contemporaries have dabbled in some form of comedy), Aronofsky seemed to yearn, even in his low-budget days, for imagery so arresting it jumps off the screen.
He swung for the fences with The Fountain, a time-hopping sci-fi-romance dream project that finally made it to screens in 2006 after years of tribulation. Even in a less expensive incarnation, the film still lost money, and Aronfosky’s next two projects, The Wrestler and Black Swan, were more intimate and simultaneously his biggest mainstream successes. Black Swan did particularly well—it’s his biggest hit and arguably his best-realized film—which gave him the clout necessary to mount a return to big-canvas dream-project territory. As it turns out, next on the dream project queue was a Biblical epic, and the result, Noah, is now on Blu-ray.
Noah retells the story of Noah’s Ark filtered through Aronofsky’s intensity, rather than the pageantry of the faith-movie industry. God, an unseen force, “speaks” to Noah (Russell Crowe) through visions, warning of a coming global flood and compelling him to build an ark to save pairs of the world’s animals. He receives help not just from his family, but also from fallen angels that look like rock monsters, which move with the tactile quiver of stop-motion.
Yes, there are rock monsters; they even sport celebrity voices (albeit of the gruff, Nick Nolte variety) and, at one point, assist Noah in a battle against approaching hordes, who set upon the ark once the apocalyptic flood begins. Yet despite the flights of fantasy imagery, this isn’t a Hobbit-ization of the material, the Bible as blockbuster. Once in a while, it resembles such a thing; more often, its visuals reach for poetry. The first half of the movie often sets Noah, his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and other characters as silhouettes against vivid color skies; the effect is more storybook than modern big-budget fantasy.
Though it’s somewhat less aggressive than some of his earlier films (and features far more rock monsters), Noah is recognizably Aronfosky’s. He repeats images of the snake and apple from the Garden of Eden and Cain’s murder of Abel with percussive jolts recognizable from the ritualized drug use in Requiem for a Dream, and uses time-lapse-style cutting to create a montage of water cutting through the landscape. That technique returns in one of the movie’s most stunning sequences, depicting the birth of the universe and man as a campfire tale, told by Noah and visualized onscreen through rapid-fire evocations of science and evolution as much as Bible stories.
Noah also represents a return, after the warmth of The Wrestler and the occasional dark laughs of Black Swan, to the dour Aronofsky of yore, who could engage in fierce competition for the title of most humorless American auteur. Like Nina in Black Swan and Randy in The Wrestler, Crowe’s Noah becomes single-minded and self-destructive (and Crowe gives one of his best recent performances). He threatens to tip into zealotry as he further extrapolates God’s will to include the complete eradication of man from Earth. The movie, then, manages to raise questions about the meaning of faith and the interpretation of God’s will that respect belief without turning pious. Its seriousness has soul.
Aronofsky is visible in the special features, but doesn’t offer a commentary track. Instead, the Blu-ray’s extras amount to an hour of material on, essentially, production design: the locations in Iceland used to simulate an Earth in its infancy, along with the Ark’s massive exteriors (a physical set built on Long Island) and shipping-crate-style interiors. They’re less promotional and more visually striking than much behind-the-scenes material, and highlight the movie’s technical triumphs, but Noah is more interesting than its impressive combination of computer-based and practical production techniques. Aronofsky dares to interpret the Bible, not just genuflect towards it.