by Philip Price
If there is one thing I've always admired and enjoyed about director Darren Aranofsky's films it is the ambition with which he constructs them and the innovation with which he operates within these worlds he builds. With “Noah,” the much talked about adaptation of the Bible story, Aranofsky has crafted what is essentially a mythological epic where our familiarity with the story and characters only serve as the intrigue to why we might be interested in what more is going on in this version. There has been much discussion over the content and the liberties Aronofsky has taken with the story from the book of Genesis, but if anything has been added or changed it seems to only serve the purpose of filling in the gaps of the story that the Bible didn't find necessary to go into detail about. To say that Aranofsky and his frequent collaborator Ari Handel have come up with some interesting theories and ideas within their script is a bit of an understatement. The bad news concerning this is that these sparks of creativity, where the story is allowed to diverge from the beaten path, begin to wear thin after the first hour or so. That isn't to say that the final hour and 20 minutes or so is any less interesting or drags as much of the inherent drama from within the family unit comes into play in these later stages, but it is the aura of those early scenes that stay with you as you leave the theater and the inherent attitudes of the characters that draw us in and make us question their sanity as much as we do our own faith, for better or worse. “Noah” is one of those films where I expected to walk in feeling one way and walk out with a new perspective on the difference between literal interpretation and what more accurately seem to be these metaphorical stories with implied lessons that influence over 70 percent of the world’s population. My world wasn't changed, my eyes weren't necessarily opened to a new way of thinking as I exited the screening, but what I did have was a sense of that still fresh ambition within Aronofsky. It is clear from the opening moments of the film that the director is still very much in tune with who he is and what kinds of films he wants to make and with as divisive a subject matter as this it is nothing short of rewarding to see that singular voice still come through.
In the Bible God tells Noah he is going to put an end to all people because the earth is filled with violence and it is because of them that it is. These bare bones facts remain the same here as we meet Russell Crowe's Noah first as a young boy being taught the selfless ways of his people by his father who is struck down in front of him by the humans that savage the land in the wake of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. Specifically, we speak of the descendant of Cain, Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) and his conviction that God or "the creator" as he is consistently referred to here made man in his own image so that they would dominate the earth. As Noah grew up, married and had three young sons he distanced himself further and further from civilization and waits as if it's destiny for God to speak to him and tell him what he must do next to live a life looked kindly upon by his creator. When he receives this message in the form of a dream he is sure of its meaning, but unsure of what he needs to do with it. He takes his family, wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) to visit his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) so that they may decipher the dream in a way that will give forth a realization. Along the way, they encounter torched and ravaged villages where, amongst the dead, they find a wounded young girl by the name of Ila (who grows up to be Emma Watson) whom Noah and Naameh adopt as their own. Along the way, Noah and his family are surrounded and held captive by "The Watchers" or fallen angels that were banished to earth after failing to keep Adam and Eve in line and have now been turned into monstrous, rock-like creatures that no longer share a compassion for man. It is when Noah and his family finally reach Methuselah and the true intention of the creator is revealed to our titular hero that the watchers decide to give man, or at least Noah, another shot and aid him in his task of building a vessel that will protect he and his family when God deems it time to wash clean the world of all the evil man has brought to it. More difficult than not pissing-off half of the worlds Christian population with his interpretation, the most challenging aspect of creating a film from the great flood story was always going to be making it a story worth telling on this scale and this building of worlds and leading up to the beats we are all familiar with certainly prove ripe ground for Aranofsky to explore both his visual style and his philosophical meanderings that no doubt inspired him to take on the content in the first place.
The opening moments where Noah sifts through the dirt with Shem and Ham as the sky behind them shows a cloudless horizon not as developed as our current state as you are able to see stars and planets shining brightly against the blue palette give the film a certain but very specific tone; one that implies its fantasy/science fiction elements and the type of approach Aranofsky was taking along with several other early factors that serve to either make a point of how outlandish the stories of the old testament actually are and how disconnected they've become from our reality or either to really immerse ourselves in this world and the unwavering commitment of our characters and how their way of life wasn't necessarily out of the normal even if it may seem a bit much by today’s standards. By the fact he was willing to take on the widely accepted story of how man came to remain on this earth, much less to drive home a film that delivers this interesting view on religion and faith and the documents that inspire such loyal followings, but that of how our lives, our individual beings, may not be as precious or delicate to this all-knowing entity that defines how we live those lives is interesting and he is sure to make the proceedings of this nearly two and a half hour conversation just as involving as you'd like it to be. Those who are fans of Aranofsky go to his films expecting a challenge and so even when he has entered the ring of big budget spectacles you automatically look for what you need to be questioning, where you need to be looking deeper. Aranofsky wants you to keep asking questions, he wants the audience to put themselves in Noah's position, asking whether you would have the strength to follow an unseen guiding light asking you to save yourself from an inevitable mass murder while alienating your children at the same time and he does this by calling into question what real lessons or values can be learned from such events or if it can teach anything other than to be loyal to something too many people use to ease their minds as for what to expect after this life than anything else. I'm not pretending to know where Aronofsky stands in terms of beliefs and whether or not this was simply a big farce to him that he turned into a fantasy genre film or if he truly believes that there is a higher power. What I do like to believe is that he falls somewhere in the middle in knowing that he will never know everything and that the mystery and intrigue surrounding the Bible stories, God, Jesus and faith is all too much to ignore and thus must be expelled from the imagination in some way so that even if we don't get it right, we feel we are trying to make better sense of it all.
For me, the preceding paragraph is what Darren Aronofsky taking on “Noah” represents and lucky for audiences, the outcome is nothing if not epic and entertaining. Beyond these underlying themes and implications of stylistic choices there is much more to be feasted on as well and what stood out first and foremost to me was the soundtrack. Clint Mansell has collaborated with Aronofsky several times before (most notably on “Requiem for a Dream”) and here he strays from the loud, Hans Zimmer-inspired tinges the trailer indicated, but instead goes with a much more naturalistic sounding score that hearkens back to the epics of yesteryear while keeping the strange, alien like feeling of the sci-fi genre incorporated in the sounds. It is chilling, to say the least, and every time the definitive strings would strike there familiar note it was a moment of heightened importance for me, not strictly because of what was happening on screen, but because my ears recognized the cue and would send signals of awe through my being. What elevates these sounds in many a scene are the fact Aronofsky and his crew shot on location for much of the film rather than using green screen to re-create the biblical setting. The vastness of the open fields Noah and his family travel across early in the film to the greenery that surrounds them as they build the ark is nothing less than stunning and though there are a few shoddy moments as far as CGI is concerned, for the most part, the animals and the montages are beyond exceptional. There is one moment in particular where Noah shares a story with his family about the creation of the universe and all of the life within it and while there are no principal actors or anything involved in the sequence it jumps from shot to shot so fast, evolving as it does from the deepest reaches of space to the first animal coming out of the ocean and onto land. It is a breathtaking sequence that goes on longer than expected, but doesn't overstay its welcome, just continues to impress with its beauty and the fact it is able to sustain itself for the length that it does while never becoming dull. It was one of those moments where I knew as I was watching it that it was something truly enlightening. While the startling music pairs fantastically with the luscious visuals and interesting editorial choices that make the film stand out from your standard blockbuster it almost seems like a letdown to see regular human beings operating within this other-worldly atmosphere.
As Noah, Crowe does what he does best and that is being a serious thespian who knows how to dig into the soul of every character he takes on. Noah is no different and he has a lot of internal struggle going on. The film doesn't shy away from the fact that what "the creator" is doing is wiping out millions of lives, some much more innocent than others, some of them children and the burden that this places on Noah while the pressure that it puts on him from his family once things become more and more real would seem unbearable for any normal person and the best thing Crowe does here is allow that wear to show through in every ounce of his performance. He goes from being a devout, honest man to that of someone we feel we don't know, who is so tired by the work he's put in to follow his God's requests that he is nothing more than a shell of what he used to be, barely holding up. Connelly, Booth and Hopkins all serve their respective roles well enough while Winstone hams it up more than anything and brings nothing new to the tyrannical villain archetype. Where the interesting roles really lie are in that of Watson and Lerman who both are required to give shades of the outcast, but must play nice in the group settings so as not to disturb the peace. Lerman is especially engaging as the rebel with a cause who hardly has a line of dialogue yet whose plight hits us the hardest and is almost our surrogate into the family and puts us at odds with a man we've grown up admiring and thinking of as the savior of us all. It is a peculiar spot to be in and when we are finally brought to the breaking point it is good to see a film simply acknowledge that some things will never become unbroken and that we have to accept things for what they are. Most will be able to accept Aronofsky's “Noah” for what it is, a vivid interpretation or musing of the impact and lessons the stories of the most popular book in the world teach us, while others will no doubt cry blasphemy or genius! In the end, as a film, “Noah” is an epic that deserves to be seen on the big screen and a movie I will watch multiple times down the road and gain something different from every time. It is the singular experience where I was thrilled the film didn't stick exactly to the source material, but had its own identity to the point we will be able to pull something new and interesting from something old and tired.