As far as compelling fantasy literature goes, The Bible does kind of set an incredibly high bar. As a religious tome some certainly hold to its words as having more inarguable sway over their decisions and prejudices, but judged objectively as a storytelling text, there’s much thought-provoking and soul-stirring work in those pages. It remains one of the most scathing literary examinations of destructive masculinity out there, but it also analyzes themes of existentialism and morality in seemingly broad, but implicitly devastating ways. That Darren Aronofsky, whose work has long been obsessed with the tragic inequities of human beings, would choose to adapt from this wealth of human inequities feels like an instantly exciting possibility. Taking on the story of Noah, one that’s often recognized as a lighthearted children’s story, is less expected from the man behind Requiem for a Dream.
The tale as we know it: Noah is told by God that a great flood is coming, he gathers up the animals two-by-two and the whole gang rides out the storm just fine. I mean, I assumed the Fantasia 2000 version left a couple things out, but that was the gist of it for most growing up, so it sounds like an uncharacteristically twee diversion for Aronofsky to make. Thankfully, there’s much left out of the conventional telling and even from the marketing of the film. We start with a picture-book telling of how Adam and Eve left the garden and mankind spread wickedness and progress throughout the land via the descendants of Cain. It’s a weird marriage of Catholic-family-friendly iconography and violently dark content that immediately causes us to suspect Aronofsky’s trying to evade more than just the very publicly expressed studio concerns, but those of religious audiences as well.
It’s a long while before we get to the plot proper, since we’ve got to get acquainted with kindhearted yet righteous protagonist Noah (Russell Crowe, putting his uniquely stoic pathos to a more drastically conflicted role than he’s inhabited in years) and briefly meet his plain, totally characterless family. Then we must go through a cross-country road trip where Noah adopts orphan girl Ila, his family finds refuge in a band of misshapen fallen angels called The Watchers, and they all rendezvous with Noah’s grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, whose age is just a couple years above Methuselah’s actual age of 969). Not until after all does progress even begin on the ark.
Jump to Act 2 of the film’s overly reliant 3-act structure, where the construction of the ark has taken years and Noah’s children have aged to be uniformly beautiful creatures with scarcely any personality between them. Ila (Emma Watson) is stricken with sadness for her inability to be impregnated by hubby Shem (Douglas Booth, whose work in last year’s Romeo and Juliet feels totally bipolar in comparison to his blank work here). Ham has what comes closest to a genuine emotional arc of the children, cavorting with the wicked humanity out of desperate desire for appreciation and connection.
The one who changes worst of the years, though, is Noah himself, whose near-psychotic turn in the second half offers the most complex and compelling conflict. The excessive violence of humanity is shown in all its terror-inducing glory, so shrill and inflamed that the creator’s extreme response feels entirely justified. It’s also enough to set Noah on a path of self-destruction, not only of himself, but humanity in its entirety. Noah is the only necessarily villain in a film where a villainous legion of humans is obtrusively forced into the story for a Helms Deep style battle sequence, which may be the most stylistically inert thing Aronofsky has ever directed, and it has giant rock angels to work with. It’s dark, murky and visually monotonous, diluting the impact shock of the imminent apocalypse.
Man’s wickedness must be destroyed, but what of women? There are three female characters present, and not one of them has a strong, independent personality to carry. Jennifer Connelly puts the meh in Naameh, Noah’s wife whose late-film turn against his resolve amounts to little more than pathetic sobbing. Watson’s Ila, too, is powerless, both as a tortured young girl and when she’s literally plunged into adulthood. Watson’s face is used as a sympathy magnet here, having to navigate wild emotions that come across less as passionate than as hysterical. Ila and Naameh get plenty screentime, but Na’el (Madison Davenport) gets barely enough to be a memorable character, yet she’s the only one who feels like more than just somebody’s wife, a bit ironic given her utility in the story.
But outlandish gender politics are normalcy in nearly every bible story, and here they at least add emphasis to how cruel man is, Noah included. Aronofsky’s unmistakable vision isn’t totally diluted, and there are many incredible images that use the elements for maximum impact. The antediluvian sunset is gorgeous to behold, as are flash montages that bring about the origins and emergence of life in a matter of seconds. They’re more appreciated touches of insanity than the extinct animals which feel like unfortunate signs of a Star Wars influence.
The visual effects here feel almost intentionally garish, The Watchers looking like something straight out of an old-school Jim Henson production. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography makes better work of symbolic images than the stationary scenes, where natural textures override any intuition for framing. Editor Andrew Weisblum’s work is especially choppy, finding neither flow in the overarching story or even in isolated sequences. Possibly the worst offender of the tech crew, though, is Clint Mansell, whose blaring score enhances the visually shrill sequences, but is overbearing over the film’s too often dull images. The stretches of waiting for catastrophe to strike in one way or another are too lengthy for Noah to feel streamlined and exciting, and by the end it feels like much less than the sum of its impressive parts. It further proves Aronofsky as one of cinema’s most unique minds, but is better left to pare things down the emotional basics than expand on a bloated canvas.
Bottom Line: Darren Aronofsky’s never been more ambitious than with Noah, but his incredible style’s never been more diluted by useless convention.