Editor’s Notes: Noah is now open in wide theatrical release.
Noah is one of the most unpleasant experiences I have encountered at the theatres this year. It takes one of Genesis’s shortest narratives (only three chapters) – the story of Noah’s ark and the Great Flood – and bloats it to an overwrought scale while at the same time muddling the essence of Noah’s mission. Director, co-writer and producer Darren Aronofsky assembles an $130 million production, but the visual effects and set design (not to mention the acting talent) are wasted on a tale that lacks the gravitas that should allow the movie’s themes to tower in our minds like the plains and mountains that do on the screen.
Aronofsky portrays the biblical flood with action-movie cynicism and bombastic audio-visuals (Clint Mansell’s score is relentless). The director dramatizes Noah as if it were an Old Norse saga, yet he only achieves the pomposity that superficially defines these expansive tales. Sagas were also said to be “tales of worthy men,” yet one of Aronofsky’s many failures in Noah is his inability to genuinely illuminate Noah’s bold decision to cleanse the world of lust and sin. Instead, he keeps this 139-minute fracas on one loud, shamefully nihilistic note.
Aronofsky’s nihilism trivializes the important themes – mercy, regret, revenge – of the biblical flood narrative. The man’s interest in shallow spectacle overshadows any true commitment to Noah’s spirituality. Noah, played effectively by a burly Russell Crowe, is a hero without a coherently realized vision for us to psychologically interpret. Aronofsky pretends to be a psychological filmmaker by providing Noah with dreamt visions of the flood – along with flashes of the serpent, the forbidden fruit and Cain killing Abel – but the visual display is distractingly exhibitionist. It’s an excuse for him to get fancy and jolt his audience, similar to what he did with the frenetically feverish process of junkies getting high in the excessively stylized Requiem for a Dream – a film most people only seem to remember for Jennifer Connelly’s “come, come, come!” orgy scene.
Connelly actually appears in Noah as the titular character’s wife, Naameh. She is the soft core of the film, even though her sensitivity is not compatible with (and thus cannot be understood within) this narrative’s hard, merciless interior…if it were to have an “interior.” We cannot accept Naameh as a graceful counterforce to Noah’s brute heroism, which worsens as his quest to fulfill the Creator’s will intensifies. Note that “God” and “Jehovah” aren’t included in the Noah vernacular because this version is meant for the realm of folk tale.
Because Noah, it must not be confused, is a work of folk narrative. Aronofsky, I’d argue, believes the Great Flood is pure fiction – which is fine – so he avoids the inclusion of “God” to remove the story of its Judaic basis and in turn make it legendary. But folk narratives are traditionally passed down and told to teach popular, often moral lessons about the times we live in. Michael Curtiz’s 1928 film Noah’s Ark did this impressively by comparing the Great Flood (“a deluge of water drowning a world of lust”) to World War I (“a deluge of blood drowning a world of hate”). It generated an Intolerance-inspired narrative that stretched millennia to show how truth in God and salvation continues to save the world from its sins. The movie is kind of hokey, but nonetheless earnest.
Aronofsky’s nihilism trivializes the important themes – mercy, regret, revenge – of the biblical flood narrative.
Aronofsky, on the other hand, has made a career winning audiences (and apparently producers) over with his specious metaphysical “thoughts.” The man has an extravagant visual eye when he collaborates with cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who also shot Aronofsky’s exquisite-looking yet tedious The Fountain), but his cosmic imagery always seems conceptually shallow and out of place. Consider the moment when Noah, ensconced in the ark with his family, narrates the fabled story of the six-day Creation. The vignette is visually impressive, but only registers as a flashy episode of neatly-etched visual effects that fail to shed light on Noah’s divine mission, or natural gift as a storyteller.
Aronofsky constantly misdirects other similar moments of characters finding enlightenment. He cannot cut a scene (with his editor Andrew Weisblum) to properly create an “arc” (excuse the pun) out of Noah’s life lessons. For example, an opening sequence of father-son bonding between young Noah (Dakota Goyo) and his father Lamech (Martin Csokas) comes off as dull set up, because Aronofsky is not devoted to taking a close, penetrating look at Noah’s beliefs. When Noah soon after tells his son Ham (Nolan Gross, later played by Logan Lerman), “We take only what we need, what we can use,” as they brave an apocalyptic wasteland, Aronofsky does not emphasize Noah’s paternalism, his ascetic teachings of kindness and discipline to his children – exactly what their very world lacks and must be destroyed for.
Noah is never about character transformation or the urgency of the world’s rebirth. It compromises as a blustery blockbuster without heart and mind. Aronofsky cannot even use the “Watchers,” fallen angels in the guise of stone giants, in any interesting way. They are rocklike plot devices that help build Noah’s ark and then take their final stand against Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) and his band of barbarians in one of the most cluttered, illogically staged action sequences I’ve seen in a while. You also have Anthony Hopkins as the 969-year-old Methuselah, who is given little to do other than to scavenge the ground for berries.
These events are all pre-Flood, I should add. The film’s final hour, which involves the great deluge, is especially awful as Aronofsky crosscuts like a caveman from Tubal-cain hidden in the ark’s hull to the familial drama on the upper deck. Most of the scenes here have no momentum; others are painfully rushed. Don’t even get me started on the relationship between Shem (Douglas Booth) and Ila (Emma Watson), an affair so incoherently integrated into the narrative that Ila’s blasphemous pregnancy barely holds water in terms of conflict. None of this resonates.
Rarely a deep thinker, Aronofsky crafts Noah with the sincerity of an atheist at the altar. While my criticisms should not be confused as religious-based (I’m about the form, people!), Noah is certainly a blasphemous enterprise. It’s been banned so far in Pakistan, Indonesia, UAE, etc. for violating Islamic law. But on those terms, that could excuse some to assume Aronofsky’s work here to be bold or edgy. Noah is controversial on religious grounds, but as the stuff of cinema it’s no challenge. Stuffed with unsubstantiated themes, Noah is a grueling experience that, once it is over, makes us more thankful to have left the theatre rather than to have witnessed the world reborn in new glory.
[notification type="star"]20/100 ~ PAINFUL. Noah is an abomination. Its “blasphemy” doesn’t do damage nearly as much as Darren Aronofsky’s lazy attention to storytelling and action sequences. It uses its $130 million budget to unload overwrought visual FX on the screen. More a bombastic Norse saga than a biblical narrative, Noah is a flat-footed tale of one noble man’s divine mission to return the world, through watery means, to peace and glory.[/notification]