Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is a biblical epic. You may be familiar with the story of Noah’s ark and the animals escaping a world gone bad. From childhood, a religious literacy class, or through the myriad of cultural allusions, most people have some familiarity with the larger plot points and it’s worth noting that there actually are not that many of them. Aronofsky uses his freedom within the confines of these few necessary points to develop realized characters and tell a thoughtful dramatic story within the unique frame this apocalypse affords.
Aronofsky’s narrative will probably get a share of attention because of the controversial nature of religious themes, beliefs and their portrayal to this capacity. Hopefully this will not be at the cost of acknowledging just how beautiful this movie is.
There is a flood in Noah and it is massive. All the people in the entire world outside of the ark are killed. We witness the peak of a mountain as a huddled mass gets battered by the storm. This devastation, along with a separate vision of a similar worldwide judgment by fire, brings to mind medieval paintings of damnation, judgment and purgatory. Of course, this is all firmly within the confines of a PG-13 rating.
As the movie touches on and borrows from other biblical stories, we are treated to a beautiful sequence of creation and man’s eventual spiral into murderous violence. Cutting from Cain with his rock committing the first murder to many other equivalent acts in other time periods all with the parallel actions in silhouette is a visual standout.
This sequence, especially when viewed on the IMAX, is totally worth it.
The trouble with big box tent poles is that they can stop after this. The plot can hit its three or four points and leave its actors without any red meat.
Luckily in Noah, everybody owns the scenes they’re in. Russell Crowe plays our ship building patriarch of which the film finds its name. With a troubled confusion over The Creator’s choices for the world matched only by his devotion, Crowe’s Noah provides a heavy grounding and counterpoint to the more fantastical elements. Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson are Noah’s wife and adopted daughter, respectively. They both bring so much strength and poise to their characters that I almost forgot the dis-empowerment and opportunities for abuse that a prehistoric “might makes right” society creates.
When we get to the plotting of Noah and the actual drama, we need to choose our point of reference carefully. As a recreation of the biblical text, this movie falls short. I went back and read the bible story (Genesis 5-9). It comes in at just over 2000 words. If you take away all the Old Testament-y language charting time like “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day” what we’re left with is mostly God telling Noah what to do and then him doing it. In terms of character, that’s not much to go on. It’s actually nothing. The movie is called Noah after all, not Noah does what God says and it all works out. No one would watch that.
Aronofsky has said that he connects Noah’s character arc in the film to God’s arc in the bible. Noah’s psychology and his interactions suddenly become an examination of an Old Testament God and the conflicts that bubble to the surface when you try to square infinite perfection and beauty with human fallibility and worldwide destruction. Putting aside that literally representing God in cinema is hard to impossible to do and probably against a commandment or something, this makes it easier to accept that God, otherwise referred to as The Creator, never makes an appearance in the movie and we never really get more than to sit in on Noah’s visions a few times as a baseline to understand their communication.
All this to say, somehow Aronofsky got a whole lot of thoughtfulness into what could have been a big budget waste. Thankfully, the visual craft and the story are equally excellent.
Noah is now showing at the Landmark Downer Theatre and in IMAX at AMC Mayfair Mall 18.