It’s not a common occurrence when directors I greatly appreciate take on material I have no real interest in seeing, but it’s happened a couple of times. When it was confirmed that filmmaker Darren Aronofsky’s next film would be a Biblical epic about Noah’s ark I couldn’t help but feel disappointed, not only is it an extremely well known story, but a ludicrous one that a depressingly large number of people still seem to think could have actually happened, I’d much rather he work on singular visions of his own like The Fountain. But there’s hope still, Aronofsky isn’t interested in making the film just to preach, indeed he appears to be a non-believer himself.
While big-budget mainstream Biblical epics appear from time to time (Ridley Scott’s take on Moses, Exodus is due later this year), nowadays the words ‘Christian film’ tend to conjure images of cheesy low-budget American dramas that mostly fly under the radar of non-Evangelical audiences. Really though, there isn’t any reason why a ‘Biblical film’ has to be a ‘Christian’ one (or any Abrahamic religion), it can just be another ancient mythology to source stories from. And that seems to be the approach Aronofsky’s taken with Noah, it isn’t like any Bible film you’ve seen before, it’s not trying to teach audiences lessons by recounting bible stories, instead it’s using the myths as a basis to explore complex moral questions, and create breath-taking images. The film’s already caused some trouble with religious audiences, along with being banned all over the middle-east, and while there was briefly talk of the studio re-cutting it, I’m very glad that Aronofsky’s original version is the one we ultimately are able to see.
Any film interpretation of the story of Noah is going to have to take numerous liberties with the source material, after all, despite being one of the most famous Bible stories, and taking place of many years, the flood narrative takes up only 4 chapters of the book of Genesis. It’s full of gaps and takes barely minutes to read, Aronofsky’s understandably had to inject many elements of his own. A lot of this is to be expected, such as the lengthy character-establishing scenes of Noah’s (Russell Crowe) family life prior to the flood, which take place in a very unspecific place, filmed in Iceland, Hollywood’s current favourite location of alien landscapes.
Other additions help to smooth over some of the more impossible aspects of the story, all the Animals just come to Noah’s ark en mass of their own accord, rather than he and his sons having to go out and collect them, and his wife is able to produce some kind of magical wonder drug that subdues all the animals (without affecting the humans), putting them into a sort-of coma where they (very conveniently) don’t need to be fed or cleaned up after. One of the most welcome additions is that of the Watchers (that are in the Bible), a race of Giant fallen angels. In Aronofsky’s world, they appear as huge monsters that were ‘once light’, but are now encased in rock. They assist Noah in the construction of the ark, which takes place over many years. Aronofsky also removes any references to Noah’s age, which is supposed to be several centuries.
There are some new characters added in, rather than Noah’s three sons simply possessing unnamed ‘wives’, a significant female named Ila (Emma Watson) is adopted by Noah and his wife (Jennifer Connelly) as a child. She ignites a bit of jealousy among the two older sons that occasionally looks to take the film in a soapy, melodramatic direction, but also leads to the film’s darkest, and arguably most striking moment. Noah isn’t afraid to explore what exactly man was getting up to that was so wicked to be deserving of destruction, the glimpses we get of a nearby town are suitably horrific.
Noah possesses a nominal ‘bad guy’ in the shape of Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), the violent ruler of said town who wants a spot on Noah’s ‘stronghold’, and while it’s easy to mark him as the villain early on, Noah is never as simplistic as that with its morals. Tubal-cain’s primary motivation is his own survival, but he accosts Noah for allowing children to die when he could save them. After the flood comes, Noah’s internal struggle becomes considerably more intense. Rather than simply believing his family’s purpose is to ensure the survival of the human race, he thinks they are to be the last of them, and are there to protect the ‘innocent’ animals. Mankind is the source of the earth’s problems, right and wrong in Noah are not black and white, even ‘the creator’ isn’t off-limits (the word ‘God’ is never uttered).
The acting from Russell Crowe is top-notch as he has to display a wide variety of conflicting emotions, most of the adult performers are up to the mark too but unfortunately the teen actors just aren’t, particularly Noah’s elder sons (Logan Lerman and Douglas Booth). The accents on display are inconsistent too, with the American and British actors sounding more like their real selves while Crowe opts for a more nondescript dialect and Anthony Hopkins, as Noah’s grandfather, has rarely sounded more Welsh.
Aronofsky’s demonstrated he’s just as comfortable making technically-challenging, grand visual feasts (The Fountain) as he is stripped down realistic dramas (The Wrestler), and armed with his biggest budget yet, he doesn’t disappoint on the spectacle. He packs in a great deal of striking images, both grandiose and intimate, and the effects-filled deluge itself is realised with frightening intensity. There’s nothing here quite as impressive as what he achieved in The Fountain but a montage accompanying Noah’s recount of the beginning, which depicts an ‘old-Earth creation’ approach via fast cutting to show the start of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth is hugely impressive. Aronofsky also manages to fit in a thrilling, epic battle sequence as the flood begins, and yes, it involves the ‘rock monsters’. Also, the score from Clint Mansell (whose done all of Aronofsky’s films) is solid but sadly not as great as some of their prior collaborations.
Noah is a flawed epic that skirts over some of the more troublesome aspects of its narrative, like the amount of incest the ending necessitates, but is overall a highly unusual and fascinating film to come from mainstream Hollywood. It’s thought provoking in its morals and poses a relevant contemporary environmental question regarding humankind’s place in nature. It’s undoubtedly the rare vision of an immensely talented director in the guise of a studio blockbuster, I’m curious to see what the world will make of it. I still can’t quite see what fascinated Aronofsky so much about the Noah story (he’s been working on this for years) but I should have curbed my scepticism a little. I’d still rather he take on less familiar material, and this is far from his best, but any new film from Darren Aronofsky is going to be more than worthwhile.