Subject to divine apocalyptic visions foretelling the end of the world, Noah (Russell Crowe) attempts to tell his people to stop their mistreatment of the Earth in order to be saved. No one listens to his warnings, and Noah and his family are cast out to fend for themselves in the wilderness. With the help of six-armed angels known as the 'Watchers', Noah, together with his family and his followers, build an ark which they hope will save them from the terrible flooding that is about to destroy the planet.
Whatever you think about the vaulting ambitions—some would say pretensions—of Darren Aronofsky, the guy has chutzpah. Obviously that’s part of an ancient showbiz tradition. As in, Hollywood loves a rewrite and the folks in LA can get carried away with casting on things like Biblical epics —the blue-eyed Jesus and all that —but some filmmakers would think twice about tampering with the actual word of Genesis.
Not Aronofsky and his long-time screenwriter Ari Handel. Right at the start of his New Age, earth-loving mega budget CGI’ed version of the Great Deluge myth, he reassures us that all bets are off. “In the beginning,” a title announces ominously, “there was nothing.” I, for one, took some solace in this redraft of the ancient text for I began to for see something, and that something was good; irreverent, daring to challenge, prepared to confound.
As a one-time Catholic raised on the phony dead-air sanctimony of Cecil B. DeMille, William Wyler’s Ben Hur and a whole lot worse, I knew what it was to taste movie hell arising from the scriptures so I was hoping for something heavenly—cinematically speaking—with Noah. Perhaps an Old Testament rethink a la Last Temptation, a heady plunge into the theological guts of a profound myth. Alas, it’s a long way from that. Though the early signs for Noah were encouraging, or, at least, not a complete turn-off. The stills and trailer promised a lived-in Holy Land of mud and raggedy folk, battles and special effects that were staggering in their design and delivery. I tried to put aside the fact that this ‘vision’ sans the SFX seemed worrisomely reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Though on second thought, that’s kind of a compliment.) But there’s nothing cheeky or really deep about this Noah. It’s devout and earnest and straight; a dirtied up Sunday school yarn tricked out with ‘cool’ effects so as not to alienate the smart kids.
Part of Aronofsky’s audacity lies in his image as a thinker. Now the movie has arrived—and behold its physical attributes are bountiful and magnificent, though some of the effects seem bizarrely intentionally ropey —he’s giving drop-dead serious interviews that are more than the usual immodest utterances about research and getting it right. His loftiness knows no bounds. In one article I read, Aronofsky complimented the new Pope on a sermon where the Pontiff urged all to recognise that we must accept our obligation as ‘stewards of creation’. Which not coincidentally is exactly what Aronofsky thinks and his Noah pounds away at this theme like, um, the world depends on it.
It may come as a revelation but one of the best things about the movie is Russell Crowe as Noah. It’s a surprisingly understated piece of acting. Using a softened Aussie accent and playing the whole thing in his best radio voice —a soothing mix of grave confidence and anguished conscience—Crowe resists the temptation to bloat the part with grandeur. He’s an ordinary father on a mission. Indeed, the central thrust of Aronofsky and Handel’s script is an aged conflict rehearsed in many a Hollywood epic: the struggle between a high duty and the obligations of family. Noah’s great struggle here isn’t so much with God but what it takes to be a good parent.
The early scenes are the best. Noah learns that the Creator is angry with humankind via a vision that is rendered brilliantly: an undersea shot of Noah surrounded by hundreds of drowning souls. His grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, playing the movie’s light relief) offers Noah a potion and under its hallucinogenic spell he learns he must build an ark for all animals and his family: wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo Carroll), and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson). Everyone else—since they’ve filled the world with violence and neglected the Creator’s gift—is forbidden to take the ride. Channeling the Creator, Noah becomes the terrestrial embodiment of the Hard God: merciless and single-minded in his quest to preserve what is Good. Noah’s passion throws him into conflict with the desires and needs of all his brood; this leads to schemes of lust and revenge.
Meanwhile, Aronofsky and Handel provide Noah with an adversary in the form of Tubal-cain, a descendant of the world’s first murderer, Cain. Played by Ray Winstone, he’s more like the villains of Game of Thrones; a gloating, menacing bully. Noah finds assistance from this menace in the Walkers, fallen angels (a sly and clever reference to the Bible’s Nephilim). Being giants and blessed with expert carpentry and engineering skills, they come in handy when time gets short in knocking together the Ark. They’re also cute and scary; a bit like King Kong but made out of rock, with glowing eyes. And frankly their presence in the movie seems something of a sop to a market place that can’t get enough of gee-wiz.
Still, for all Aronofsky’s skill with design and effects, his heart (and soul, perhaps) doesn’t seem to reside in creating those grace notes of logic that are part of the fun of taking a lean Bible story and fleshing it out with detail. His interest lies in the human story and not the practical necessity of getting all creatures great and small on the boat without tearing each other to pieces. (The solution provided by the movie is, if you can believe it, a magic potion.) This isn’t as rewarding as it sounds. The cast apart from Crowe struggle not the elements but a script that doesn’t call upon them to do much more than suffer.
Obviously Aronofsky and co. are proud of their dedication to ideas. Everything in the movie, the director says, from its fanciful details and characters to its grim, stark look, has its roots in scholarship. But it’s not the movie’s notion of God that sticks. It’s the images: like the corny but beautiful slide-show of Creation or the Ark itself, which looks like a gigantic knotty block of chocolate imitating one ugly high-rise parking lot with a drive way carved in one end (built to the actual dimensions specified in the Bible, we’re told). Better yet is the flood itself, a surreal nightmare of scrabbling bodies and torrents of water shooting from the earth into the sky like gigantic tree trunks. In that way, it’s a traditional Hollywood Biblical epic. It’s about the higher power of spectacle.