Darren Aronofsky’s hotly-debated Bible Epic is a big, dark, and deeply weird artistic achievement.
He speaks to you. You must trust that He speaks in a way that you can understand.
When Darren Aronofsky was 13 years old, he wrote a poem about Noah, having been spurred on by his English teacher to put pen to paper about a Bible story that had taken root in his mind. The poem, called “The Dove,” ended up winning a national contest and sent the young man to the United Nations, where he read it in front of the assembly. So, one could say, Aronofsky has been building to this film his entire life.
And it’s a minor miracle he got to make it at all. Respected in independent and art house circles for his psychologically challenging work in Pi and Requiem for a Dream before bombing out with the overambitious The Fountain, Aronofsky rebuilt his career with the intimate, small-scale The Wrestler (earning Mickey Rourke an Oscar nomination) and then the ballet thriller Black Swan (earning Natalie Portman an Oscar win). With the one exception, all of his swings are big swings. His filmography is turbulent, moody, but also spiritual; so despite being a self-professed agnostic, he might be the perfect guy to tackle the story of the world’s biggest storm and the Bible’s most melancholy hero. Especially because it’s been rattling around in his brain for decades.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard or read about the controversy surrounding Noah’s release, which is now the latest controversy the Evangelical Outrage Machine has whipped up. Reports have been flying — the vast majority of which from people who, at the time of this writing, hadn’t even seen the film — about it being “environmentalist propaganda,” shockingly fanciful, and disrespectful of scripture. Well, if you know me at all, that only raised my anticipation for seeing it. Paramount Pictures secretly screened several different cuts of the film, with different elements excluded, but because there was negligible difference in the audience responses, what’s in theaters now is 98% what the studio can cope with and 100% what Aronofsky wants (though he wished he had more money, as every director does.)
If you don’t know me, I’m a Christian, a church employee, and a private school film teacher (I took my class to this today, in fact, and felt like I’d gotten away with something.) I’m also sick and tired of safe, boring, cheesy, and completely ineffective religious films, and desperately wanted to experience Aronofsky’s intended vision for myself…no matter how weird it got. And trust me, it gets downright weird. He, and his longtime co-writer Ari Handel, have constructed an action-and-FX tentpole extravaganza, with many added elements that could be considered “mythological” at best and “fantastical” at worst: fiery swords, hallucinogens, magical snakeskins — and those are minor compared to what I’ll mention later. But there is one hugely important point that needs to be made, and I’ll give it its own line and italicize it so you know I’m serious:
NOAH is not a “Christian” film. It is a deeply Jewish film.
Okay, what do I mean by that? Well, for starters, the Hebrews literally wrote the book on which the film is based, so if anyone has the right to be up in arms, it’s Jewish believers, not Christians. It was their story first. But Noah fits perfectly within the Midrashic tradition, centuries old, of “filling in the gaps,” especially on a story that is only three chapters long and in which your main character only has two lines of dialogue. Rabbinical scholars spend lifetimes discussing and debating these points, talking the events of scripture through to their logical conclusions, all to put a three-dimensional skin on a very threadbare story.
So what’s important here? Man is wicked, Noah hears from God, Noah builds an ark, the animals and his family are saved from the ensuing deluge, and given a chance to restart humanity anew out of God’s infinite grace. That’s our Sunday-School flannelgraph conception of Noah, with the big beard and the big boat and the dove and, you know, MASSIVE DEATH AND DESTRUCTION. (But not the drunk and naked part that comes later, oddly enough.) So yeah, Noah’s got that. It’s got all of that. The theological underpinnings, or what’s really important here — if you’re a believer, anyway; it’s secondary or unnecessary if you aren’t — are intact. God gets mad, God shows mercy. Rainbow.
But those things, and only those things, aren’t enough to fill out a feature film. It’s somewhat shocking, considering the controversy, how many people looooove The Ten Commandments, with all that DeMille threw in to make it four hours long. The Prince of Egypt, with its similarly Midrashic additions to flesh out the early years of Moses’s life? Totally acceptable, because it’s got a Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston duet. Even The Passion of the Christ added stuff that, believe it or not, wasn’t directly mentioned in the Bible. They wrote new lines for Jesus and everything. So the double standard here confuses me. I feel like, in many cases, some who are dead-set against the idea of the film are simply thrilled about having another thing to complain about. POINT BEING: Because he cares more about telling a powerful story than pleasing a hundred different squabbling denominations, yes, Aronofsky takes the story to some unexpected and even terrifyingly dark places. But he has to. He must. This is a terrifyingly dark story — again, about the near extinction of humanity — but what he is able to do, what makes the film successful, is make a story I’ve literally heard a thousand times feel fresh and exciting and powerful again.
It begins with a brief history, explaining that after Cain killed his brother Abel, the line of “good” men continued through Adam & Eve’s third son, Seth. Meanwhile, the line of Cain industrialized, poisoned the land, and got up to all sorts of not good things. Ten generations later, Noah (Russell Crowe, obviously) is the last of the line of Seth, and The Creator has basically had it up to here with humanity and wants a mulligan on the whole thing. But instead of speaking in a booming, James Earl Jones-ian voice, as expected, The Creator communicates to Noah through dreams. Water everywhere. Death everywhere. So Noah packs up his wife (Jennifer Connelly) and his three sons, and sets off to get some clarification.
Right off the bat, we’re thrown for a loop with the appearance of The Watchers, fallen angels who have taken on the appearance of six-limbed stone giants (looking a bit like they walked off the set of The Hobbit, but animated in a herky-jerky style reminiscent of Harryhausen). They had helped the line of Cain build until they were turned upon, and have taken to stomping anyone who comes along and lamenting that they can never return to their Creator. But one of them sees something special in Noah, and agrees to help him. (The two Watchers with speaking parts are played by Frank Langella and Nick Nolte, the latter of whom also plays a gravel monster in real life.) But on their trail is a large group of warriors, led by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), the self-appointed King of the Land. Unlike in your usual versions of the story, we don’t get the requisite scenes of humanity making fun of Noah for his foolish beliefs; this time the warriors can see the miracles for themselves pretty much right away (magically sprouting forests, birds and beasts making a beeline — yes, bees, too — for the ark).
Aside from a squadron of Ent-like Watchers assisting with the construction — because, I mean, there’s only six of them, including the injured girl they pick up along the way who turns into Emma Watson — Noah gets help from his grandfather Methusalah (Anthony Hopkins, in full Yoda Mode) in trying to figure out just what the Creator is up to, and what it means for him. But because the Creator won’t just come out and say what He wants Noah to do, Noah casts about, despairing over the wickedness of Man and whether his family is even meant to survive the storm — and what should happen if they do. His two younger sons will need wives, for starters, so what’s the plan there?
It’s the second half of the film, as the rains come and horrifying chaos and death abounds, that takes a turn for the psychological wrenching that Aronofsky does best, which only mostly works. They verbally and visually draw parallels to other Old Testament stories that occasionally feel artificial, creating conflict and drama for the sake of it, going a bit too far beyond that box that the filmmakers are determined to think outside of. But, again, it mostly works, on a human level if not a Talmudic level. (And as for that nonsense about an “environmentalist” slant? Uh, duh. Of course Noah cares about preserving all of creation as the Creator made it. Why wouldn’t he? Whining about that is ridiculous, even if Noah’s family miiiight just be vegans, or something, but that’s not unreasonable.)
The film attempts to answer a fundamental question: what kind of man would God choose to do this job? To Noah, completing the task set before him — the entire task — is everything, no matter what it costs him. His dogged, mad zealotry consumes him, and is a shocking departure from the kindly Doctor Doolittle figure you might have grown up with. But it’s an interpretation of a Noah as flawed Everyman — humbled by being selected, terrified of failing in obedience, terrified of being wrong, terrified of being right. Even the rarely-mentioned-on-Sundays “Drunk Noah” manifests itself as Survivor’s Guilt of the worst kind: being party — directly and indirectly — to that kind of world-shaking, soul-frying cataclysm would not have been easy. In fact, it would have been nearly impossible.
Aronofsky uses every tool in his toolkit to bring Noah to life, beginning with some truly impressive CGI (particularly with the Ark itself, which — as built to Biblical specifications — amounts to a giant floating box in the ocean). He’s never had a studio budget like this before, and he needs every dime. Even the antediluvian sky looks different, and beautiful, the whole of the Cosmos visible in the light of day. Perhaps the highlight of the film comes with Noah’s retelling of Creation, which is positively Malickian in scope and power, and also cleverly manages to wed the spiritual and scientific schools of thought in a way that, for my part, I found fascinating. The massive practical set of the ark is impressive in scale and detail; the cinematography from Matthew Libatique is evocative, taking advantage of breathtaking Iceland locations; Clint Mansell’s score is some of his best work, bombastic and emotional in equal measure. There is no denying the amount of work and care that went into Noah’s technical elements. It is a gorgeous-looking piece of cinema.
The flaws, unfortunately, are in the content and in the performances. This is huge, ambitious filmmaking, the biggest of Aronofsky’s big swings, and he is determined to imprint his auteur’s stamp on it from the opening frames. So while it is frequently beautiful and consistently thought-provoking, it gets a little muddied in the middle stretches, like the director is determined to cram everything in his head into the film somewhere, from wild battle scenes, to the more overtly supernatural, to the depiction of mankind’s darker impulses.
And because of the concept, cost and tough on-set conditions, it may have limited the pool of actors he could work with. (Liam Neeson was originally attached as Tubal-Cain, but dropped out. Man, THAT would have brought out the church crowd!) Crowe, for his part, brings his innate “Russell Crowe-ness” to the film, gruff and gloomy, seeming to physically carry the weight of humanity on his broad shoulders. The “English Fantasy” accents from the American actors are hit-or-miss, though Logan Lerman (as the more petulant middle son, Ham) has some nice moments with one of the more challenging roles. Emma Watson still does too much forehead acting, but this is one of her best performances to date, and she steps up in a big way in the final reels. So there isn’t anything here that can’t be brushed aside or papered over, and Noah gets a lot of mileage out of its weighty themes and raw power.
This is a messy, complicated film, that does so much well — and the things it doesn’t do so well are still so clearly and closely part of Aronofsky’s vision that they aren’t “wrong” so much as “ehh, that didn’t work for me.” But it’s begs to be discussed, and debated. It is the polar opposite of the cheap audience-pandering, stereotype-enforcing drivel that passes for “religious cinema” these days, because it comes from a filmmaker that is less concerned about what the text is than what it means. So while I maintain that Aronofsky’s respect for the source material is thuddingly obvious, it’s going to upset some people. That’s okay. If you’re walking in assuming you’ll be offended, your bias fully-formed, that will almost certainly happen. But if you’re walking in — whether you’re religious, a skeptic, or just here because you liked Black Swan — eager to be engaged and challenged by a work of art from an actual artist, Noah is a fascinating, provocative experience.
So, you know, don’t miss the boat.