If anyone remembers it correctly, the story of Noah is a pretty brief one. For one, a lot gets packed into the section of Genesis, all leading up to the mother of all Old Testament climaxes: the flood. Still, there’s hardly enough material there to keep going for a little over two hours. So going in to Darren Aronofsky‘s Noah, the idea of certain storytelling embellishments being made was a given. Not speaking for the audiences as to whether they will be happy with those changes, but that is another story.
In an unpredictable career that’s alternated between telling stories on a small canvas (Pi, Requiem For a Dream, The Wrestler) and a larger one (The Fountain, Black Swan), Aronofsky has always been an audacious and idiosyncratic filmmaker. With all the past ones, Noah is his broadest canvas yet. And it ends up being a schizophrenic experience. On one hand, it’s a remarkably earnest and heartfelt Bible parable, not unlike Martin Scorsese’s darkly pieces. It contains a handful of gut-wrenching small-scale moments, like Noah’s decision to spare his grandchildren from sacrifice, that are so powerful they’ll make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and salute. On the other, though, it’s an excessively flashy Tinseltown spectacle tarted up with all the eye candy that a nine-figure price tag can buy. It’s as if Aronofsky had so many resources at his disposal, he couldn’t help but give in to the sin of cinematic gluttony. These two competing impulses seem to be battling for Aronofsky’s filmmaking soul. And the result is a disappointing draw.
Aronofsky’s wisest move was casting Russell Crowe as Noah. As one of the last descendants of the peaceful line of Seth, Noah is a faithful husband to Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and a loving father of Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), and the adopted Ila (Emma Watson). He’s the rare pious man in a god-forsaken world of wickedness lorded over by the evil offspring of Cain (led by Ray Winstone). And Crowe plays this virtuous ascetic with a fiery, half-mad intensity and moral weight he hasn’t shown in a very long time — maybe since Gladiator. The problem is that Aronofsky seems to be less interested in his flesh-and-blood characters than the fantastical CGI ones, such as, a strange, trippy race of fallen-angel stone creatures called Watchers who look like gigantic piles of smoldering charcoal Transformers and speak with the growly voices of Frank Langella and Nick Nolte. Plainly ridiculous.
As the film begins, Noah has a vision of a serpent and an apple and humanity drowning in a watery death. He senses that this is a prophecy. That the Creator is going to destroy the world and wash away all of the wicked. Before that hard rain comes, though, Noah and his righteous family must prepare. So the ark is built with the help of the Watchers, and the animals are gathered in a computer-generated sequence. Meanwhile, Shem couples off with Ila, the devilish Ham is seduced by Tubal-Cain, and Jopheth…well, it’s Jopheth.
It’s difficult to reduce the fire-and-brimstone wrath of God to a third-act Hollywood money shot, but when the flood comes it’s an event of haunting beauty. The family holes up inside the ark that’s being tossed like a cork, while the heathens outside howl and scream in anguish. Such is the price to cleanse humanity of its trespasses and start over. Noah is a movie about big ideas (environmentalism, heavenly obedience versus earthly love) and even bigger directorial ambitions. But, in the end, it was also a disappointment. Maybe not one of Biblical proportions, but a disappointment nonetheless.