It was a rather perplexing thought. Why is director Darren Aronofsky, of Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and Black Swan, directing an apparently spring blockbuster about the biblical story of Noah? Why would he leave his old friend Hugh Jackman hanging in The Wolverine to do this instead?
At first, it seemed like a possible cash grab, something uncharacteristic for the director. Bible movies/shows are big business, as evidenced by the History miniseries and Mel Gibson’s mammoth hit, The Passion of the Christ. Noah is certainly a Bible story that could be reworked into a CGI-filled blockbuster, but Aronofsky always seemed like an odd choice to helm something like that. Roland Emmerich would have made perfect sense.
But we should have known better. Aronofsky’s Noah is perhaps a bit more accessible than his other work, but still feels distinctly like it’s his. And outside of a select few “battle” scenes, it’s not really the blockbuster the ad campaign claimed.
Rather Aronofsky’s film is a surprisingly personal look the character of Noah himself, and an exploration of what faith means. Ahead of release, critics were saying the film supposedly made no reference to God, which is technically true. The word “God” isn’t uttered, but he is a distinct presence, and called the “Creator” instead. Noah’s relationship with him is the basis for the film, but it’s more complicated than the original Bible story would suggest.
The film feels a bit goofy to start. We’re told about how the descendants of Cain and Seth parted ways after Cain killed Abel. Generations later, Cain’s people have covered the land in wickedness, while Noah and his family are the very last of Seth’s line.
We also learn about fallen angels who were cast down to earth after the fall of man. Originally, they tried to help mankind, but God punished them for intervening. They went from beings of light to covered in rocks and mud, wretched creatures forever removed from heaven. Cain’s people turned on them as well eventually, enslaving them or hunting them down. Eventually, when they realize the Creator is working through Noah as the end of the world approaches, they come to his aid.
The angels are perhaps the silliest aspect of the otherwise rather serious film, and feel like something pulled out of Lord of the Rings rather than the Bible. But they serve a practical purpose, filling in plot holes in the story like how Noah was able to build such a massive ship in such a short time with just his family, and how he was unable to hold back the hordes trying to board his Ark as the rains came. The answer: Fallen Rock Angels. Okay then.
Once you get past the angels however, the rest of the story follows the Biblical version quite closely in many ways. We see how the Creator provides the lumber for Noah in a barren wasteland, how he draws the pairs of animals to the Ark. We see Noah’s children grow up, and face the reality that they’re going to be the last people on Earth soon enough.
Russell Crowe’s Noah is a generally good-hearted zealot, and wants nothing more than to serve the Creator’s ultimate will as the last of Seth’s line. He follows what he interprets as divine orders without question, and spars with the king of the wicked, Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a man who craves survival above all else.
The madness of Cain’s world is a sort of pre-post-apocalypse the likes of which we haven’t seen before. Since the fall of Adam, the world is ravaged, and the people are a mess of violence and despair. The scenes inside the Cain camp are harrowing, and leave even the steadfast Noah shaken.
While Noah’s family, his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelley), his sons Ham (Logan Lerman) and Shem (Douglas Booth), and his adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), support his dream at first, but things taken a dark turn once the doors of the Ark close. Noah now believes that he and his family are caretakers of the animals, and nothing more. They too have wickedness inside them, and God’s will is a world without man entirely. When Ila conceives a child with Shem, Noah is suddenly the villain, determined to exterminate the infant to fulfill the Creator’s assumed orders.
The film is powerfully acted and scripted, and far more logical and sane stories have featured far worse performances. When viewed from the outside, Noah’s story is rather absurd, but Aronofsky’s version gives the tale real dramatic weight. It’s gorgeously shot, scored and in many ways, on par with his other work. It’s only held back by the central story itself, where giant rock monsters stomping on intruders don’t really mesh with the seriousness of the rest of the film.
Noah is far better than it has any right being, and I’d argue the best Biblical film since The Ten Commandments. It doesn’t pander by painting a picture of a flawless Biblical hero and his benevolent God. It’s a picture of a real man confronted with an impossible task, inflicted on him by what seems to be an almost heartless Creator. It has far more layers than Christians might even be comfortable with.
Noah ends up being a great film, and is worth a viewing regardless of your own belief system. It goes to show that a great filmmaker can turn any story, no matter how old or seemingly absurd, into something compelling.
4 out of 5 stars