Given that his past works include Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, it’s understandable why most of us were skeptical and concerned when director Darren Aronofsky announced that he would be adapting the Biblical tale of Noah’s Ark for the big screen. For one, Aronofsky is known for his smaller and more intimate pictures, and even when he has tried to branch out a bit (The Fountain), he’s always kept that personal, more independent feeling in his films.
Right off the bat, we knew that Noah would not be just another straightforward retelling of a classic story. No, if you wanted that you’re better off checking out the recently released Son of God. Instead, Aronofsky’s Biblical epic is an ambitious, brave and visually stunning adaptation that offers a grandiose reinterpretation of Noah’s fabled salvation- not your typical scripture reading. Check any expectations at the door because I assure you, Aronofsky, the master filmmaker that he is, will entirely subvert them.
I’d imagine that most of us are familiar with the Biblical version of this particular story. God (or “The Creator” as he is referred to in the film) is angry at what his world has become and intends to wipe out all of humanity in order to start anew. His wrath is communicated to Noah (Russell Crowe) in a dream, and the character soon finds himself with the monumental task of not only building an ark so that he and his family can survive, but also gathering two of every animal so that the futures of entire species are assured.
Of course, the ark is built, the flood arrives and the dove flies in at the end with the olive branch in its mouth. The basic elements of the story are all here. It’s what Aronofsky does in between and around the core story, however, that gives Noah its unique and intriguing identity.
For fear of spoiling what Paramount has managed to keep a secret, I don’t want to go any further about the plot. I will tell you this though – Noah is not your typical Sunday school retelling. It’s a dark, gritty and fantastical adaptation that pulls no punches and presents a portrait of the titular protagonist that we’ve never seen before. What Aronofsky has done with the story might offend purists or ultra-religious moviegoers, but as someone who fits into neither of those classifications, I think that Aronofsky’s work is utterly fascinating.
Instead of writing Noah as a righteous, honest and upstanding man, the director gives us a complex character study of an almost obsessive follower of God, a zealot, who finds himself at the crossroads between serving a higher power and doing what he thinks is right. Crowe plays the role well, but it’s really the script (by Aronofsky and Ari Handel) that makes the character so interesting. Noah is a man driven by faith and his duty to God. Above all else, he wants to serve God, and he’s willing to do almost anything to complete His will. And when I say anything, I do mean anything. Noah may be a PG-13 film, but things get dark and venture into very questionable moral territory. One scene in particular might have people leaving the theatre.
That being said, it’s this very element – the dichotomy of Noah’s actions and beliefs, and the constant struggle between blindly following his faith and doing what he believes is just – that makes the film such an interesting character study. Is Noah simply carrying out God’s will? How can a mere mortal stand up to the Creator? Isn’t the very foundation of religion based around obeying what God says? Is it wrong if it’s what God commands? The film asks many tough questions like this and, as a story about how far man can be driven by faith, and as a commentary on religious fanaticism, Noah is an extremely interesting piece of work. It will leave you with so much food for thought that you’ll find yourself digesting the deep, philosophical questions it poses for days afterward.
Aronofsky’s latest isn’t all character study though. You see, the director has structured Noah into five clear acts, each one carrying its own distinct tone and feel.
For those who prefer their films a little more action-heavy, you’ll be happy to know that the part where the flood hits is an absolutely spectacular display of visual effects and battles so large in scale that they immediately bring to mind (dare I say) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. There’s one wildly impressive battle sequence that rivals some of the best action epics out there. Aronofsky’s assured and confident direction combines with Crowe’s ferocity on screen and Clint Mansell’s bombastic score to create one of the most awe-inspiring scenes I’ve watched yet this year.
Soon after the battle, Noah becomes a whole other film entirely. On the ark, it steps down in scale to examine morality, faith, religious fanaticism, family dynamics and pressure so great that it can sever life-long bonds between loved ones. It’s a complete shift from the heart-pumping action that precedes it, but, to Aronofsky’s credit, it’s a remarkably natural transition.
I mentioned before that Noah is a real looker, and that can’t be said enough. Once again teaming up with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky has crafted some gorgeous visuals and truly jaw-dropping shots. The effects work by ILM is all top-notch (especially in the flood scene), but it’s really some of the images that Aronofsky and Libatique capture on camera that will hold you transfixed, mouth agape. I’m being completely honest when I say that I’d love to frame a few shots from Noah and hang them on my wall. Some of the images are just that beautiful.
Another Aronofsky collaborator who returns here is composer Clint Mansell. The musician provides another captivating soundtrack, bringing dramatic intensity when the film calls for it and a more peaceful, harmonious sound for the softer moments. It’s another winner for Clint and just proves why he’s one of the best in the business.
In terms of the acting, the ensemble that’s been assembled here is impressive. Again, Crowe leads the pack and brings a strong screen presence to Noah, delivering a powerful performance that is quite understated at times yet still resonates throughout. When his fanaticism takes over, the actor is absolutely terrifying in his relentless quest to serve God. Without so much as speaking, Crowe is able to convey the character’s cold, stoic nature, and though this may make it trickier to relate to him, the characterization of Noah is deeply fascinating to watch.
As for the rest of the cast, I can’t say that there are any real weak links, even if some of the talent doesn’t get much to work with. Lerman and Booth are both somewhat wasted but do fine work with what they’re given. Watson, despite over-acting a bit, shows her maturity once again and proves that she can do so much more than just play Hermione Granger. As for Connelly, she’s certainly the strongest outside of Crowe, giving a heartbreaking performance as the wife of a man who puts his faith above all else.
Noah is a triumph. That said, I can’t quite call it Aronofsky’s masterpiece. There are a few things that keep it from being his best work. For one, at two hours and 12 minutes, it feels overlong. A couple of the earlier scenes, especially in the lead-up to building the ark, drag on a bit, like finely acted padding. Of course, it’s not a deal-breaker, but those superfluous moments do weaken the pacing a little. Also, with such a heavy focus placed on its central figure, the film seems to forget about some of the supporting players at times. Noah’s son Ham (Lerman) falls victim to this the most, as Aronofsky never fully explores the motivations for his behavior. The outlines are there, but the character isn’t sketched out as thoroughly as I would have liked.
Ultimately, Noah is a powerful but complicated experience that’s deeply fascinating in the way it subverts expectations. It will crash over you like the flood itself, knocking you back, allowing you to take in awe-inspiring visuals but also forcing you to contemplate complex questions. An absorbing character study and an action epic all at once, Noah is a highly ambitious, largely successful outing for its director and star.
Though it's not without its faults, Darren Aronofsky's Noah is a powerful experience with some truly stunning scenes.