Darren Aronofsky’s ambition is admirable, but his film is a complete mess — adrift due to some confused directorial choices and an absence of any characterization beyond obsession.
This is the end of everything!
[Some spoilers ahead, for the non-Biblical stuff.]
The run-up to Noah’s release had been plagued with some mild fighting between the director and the studio, after the budget to get Darren Aronofsky’s vision on the screen swelled beyond Paramount’s comfort level. That high price coupled with a worrisome reception at test screenings lead the studio to consider reworking the film to heighten its appeal to religious audiences, an idea that Aronofsky was unhappy with. Paramount ultimately acquiesced to the director’s original version, and his vision is present in the final cut. Further worrying the studio, some religious audiences have bristled at the unconventional biblical elements present in Aronofsky’s film. I’m sure Paramount’s heads are nervously awaiting box office returns from the film’s opening weekend, but amidst the controversy about whether Noah is theologically sound, did anyone bother to ask if the film is any good? For a director as talented as Aronofsky, Noah is an incredible mess, and Paramount has every reason to worry. For this reviewer, it can only be described as a colossal disappointment.
My problem with the film has nothing to do with its non-literal interpretation of the ark story as originally given in Genesis. Making a word for word retelling of the Bible story would be nearly impossible as it’s only four chapters long. Any writer has to flesh out the narrative with additional elements to make it a filmable story. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was met with similar controversy over its divergence from scripture, but in Scorsese’s capable hands that film provides an artistic representation of what the struggle for someone described as both all man and all God may have been like. That film actually strives to clarify a theological issue that may be opaque for much of its audience. (Read David McGinnis’s fantastic positive review of the film for a greater discussion on the responsibility of biblical films.) Furthermore, a director’s main responsibility is to the artistic vision of his film. I’m a big believer in the idea that Tim O’Brien posits in his Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried that art’s responsibility is to emotional truth, not historical fact. So if Aronofsky wants to flesh out his movie with six-armed rock Transformers who aid Noah with the construction process and later personify martyrdom, who cares? Certainly not me. If you’ve seen any of Aronofsky’s filmography you knew that this was never going to be a straight sword-and-sandals production, anyways.
One of Noah’s biggest problems is that while he was busy sculpting the narrative direction of his film, Darren Aronofsky forgot to make anything of his characters. The perfect analogue for this criticism is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which is also a fictionalized retelling of a Genesis story. The characters in East of Eden are so cemented in their need to represent their biblical counterparts Cain and Abel that they never develop into full-fledged people. They are so confined by their fates in Steinbeck’s ambitious, epic drama that they’re never free to develop the dramatic complexity of a Tom Joad or a George Milton. Likewise, none of Noah’s characters are anything but a humanized embodiment of their obsessions.
Russell Crowe’s Noah is a man with absolutely no motivation but to carry out (what he thinks is) the Creator’s plan, and with that single-mindedness he is willing to kill anyone in his way including himself and his family. What even makes this Noah a man that the Creator would entrust with the future of life? Aside from the film’s prologue detailing that he is a descendent of Seth’s line and not Cain’s, we never really see him do anything that would merit this task. He leaves an injured girl — who’s striving to escape the cycle of evil and violence as much as his family — to be trampled and killed. Are he and his children the only descendents of Seth’s line? If so, how do they find a partner to procreate and keep the line of Seth pure of Cain’s evil? If not, do the other descendents of Seth die in the flood? Why didn’t their similar bloodline save them? Like I said, Noah doesn’t do anything inherently good to justify his position. Sure, there’s the film’s theme of conservation with Noah and his vegetarian family acting as stewards for the world, but Noah also seemingly saves thousands of carnivorous animals. It doesn’t add up. Crowe’s character is driven to the point of borderline insanity – more Captain Ahab than Noah. And Noah’s family is no different. His son Ham (Logan Lerman) only wants to find a wife, and he becomes so distraught when denied that he’s willing to murder his father (again, why are these people worth saving?). Ila (Emma Watson) is driven by her desire to be a mother. Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) wants to commandeer the ark for his own preservation. Anthony Hopkins is just here to be Yoda. I’d criticize the individual performances, but I can’t say for sure that each actor isn’t just doing their best with what they’ve been given.
And what’s to say that Noah isn’t just crazy? There’s a disturbing absence of God in the film, ranging from Tubal-Cain’s desire to communicate with a Creator who completely freezes him out to Noah’s lack of instructions about the fate of his family. At one point Noah is convinced that humanity isn’t supposed to survive after the flood. His purpose is to keep the animals alive and then endure the final days of mankind. It’s a theory he’s willing to kill his own descendents to follow. Beyond two early dreams that point towards the destruction of mankind, Noah has no further contact with the Creator. He’s never spoken to, and he’s left to figure things out based on his own interpretations. It wouldn’t be a big leap to compare the film to one of Ingmar Bergman’s films about the silence of God.
Adding to the chaos is the bizarre tone of the film which alternates between science fiction, spiritual drama, fantasy war epic, and a Discovery Channel program. Noah’s first hour zips from scene to scene, never allowing the audience to settle in and invest anywhere. We shift from the descendents of Cain building cities that resemble Isengard to the murder of Noah’s father, and then Noah’s dark prophetic dreams with nowhere to get a firm foothold. Animals are put into suspended animation. The Watchers (read: mystical rock Ents) do battle against and, then, in service of mankind. Noah attempts to fulfill the Creator’s will. It’s a truly bizarre mix that just doesn’t work cohesively. In fact, the CGI battle sequences undermine much of the film’s attempted spiritual tone. None of this is to say that the film flies by. Instead, it’s incredibly sluggish, and it feels every bit of its nearly two and a half hour runtime.
Like with all of his films, Aronofsky is swinging for the fences here, and that’s admirable. Some of the CGI sequences are incredible, and I appreciate his team’s efforts to truly build an ark. But the film’s complete mishandling of its tone and characters leave it adrift without a paddle. Aronofsky’s most successful films have been largely independently financed character-driven features. His only other big studio production was the equally muddled disaster, The Fountain. After that debacle he spent the following years rebuilding his reputation with the Oscar nominated The Wrestler and the Oscar winning Black Swan before he finally got his second chance at a big budget film. If Noah doesn’t recoup the money that Paramount has invested in it, I wouldn’t be surprised if a studio never turns the keys over to him again. Honestly, I couldn’t say that they would be wrong. This just isn’t his best territory, and bigger isn’t always better. There’s supposed to be a disaster on screen, but it’s not supposed to be the film itself.