Given the amount of discussion it has heralded, the talk of how it is difficult, how it doesn’t take the course of your average Hollywood blockbuster, and how it may offend those of a Biblical persuasion (no small deal when the mighty dollar is at stake and this group is surely envisaged as the film’s bread-and-butter audience), I expected Noah to be a much more interesting film than it is. Particularly given director Darren Aronofsky’s previous pictures, not all of them masterpieces but everyone thought provoking and resonant. Here he takes a couple of chapters of The Bible and expands them with scant regard for whether there is sufficient material to justify his action. The result? He is unable to populate his film with sufficiently interesting or multi-dimensional characters to sustain its scale and scope. Additionally, the attempts to imbue Noah with “challenging” ideas and pose pertinent questions about how we are treating our world carries more wisdom than if, say, Michael Bay was at the helm of the ship but not that much more. Given Aronofsky’s inventiveness and elaboration on The Bible, you come away wishing his invention had been more inventive. Or, and this is the crunch, wondering how much more stimulating Noah would have been if he’d tackled the warts-and-all implications of Genesis.
Treating a text such as this with overt earnestness, and then labouring all your themes, you’re ripe for the kind of mockery that was second nature to Monty Python (or even Mel Brooks). If you go this route you absolutely need to imbue your material with dramatic heft for it to work. If you leave your audience the space to idly ponder the daftness of the scenario, that’s when you’ve entirely lost them. Aronofsky needed to foster pace and incident, John Cusack in a limo out-pacing the encroaching flood waters, rather than the one-note, going through the motions, relationships between Noah and his kin. The only other way I could see Aronofsky’s sceptical approach to Noah (the character) working is if he had fully embraced a Terrence Malick-esque subjectivity, that interior voice wondering and debating whether the Creator (Aronofosky doesn’t refer to God; the director’s Biblical literalism is cherry-picked, as God never has a voice in the story, despite there being most definite supernatural/miraculous acts) really has a plan. Such fractured perceptions might have been a way of fleshing out a bare-bones narrative in a semi-compelling manner. But Aronofosky’s film is so much filler. At two-and-a-quarter hours it feels much much longer, and it only occasionally sparks into life with a compelling set piece or moral debate.
The director’s whole approach is curious. As an atheist, he has taken the interesting choice of embracing many of the fundamentalist and less easy to swallow aspects, at times elaborating and pushing further in that direction. The rock monster Watchers, for example, are one of the more fascinating peeks into a semi-hidden history in The Bible; a mere few lines referencing the Nephilim, the (offspring of) the fallen angels. But he chooses to render them in Lord of the Rings CGI fashion, a decision that robs them of the myth and majesty of the concept, and the most resonant idea of the temptations of the flesh (and the fall); the idea that these angels stumbled when they slept with women and fostered a race of giants is surely more coherent with Aronofsky’s themes than the noble version shown here (they were embroiled in the physical world when they came down to help mankind). Their big moment of “clobbering time”, as Tubal-Cain’s band of bastardly humans attempt to get aboard the Ark, recalls nothing so much as the Ents storming Isengard, taking out multitudes of Orcs as they do so. While Aronofosky visualises their entanglement in matter in an interesting way, turning them into semi-cute sloppy-moving creatures, it is perhaps the least fascinating thing he could have done with them. Particularly when they set to work building the ark (very usefully for Noah that, puts paid to a lot of heavy lifting). As for their eventual escape from their physical bonds… if they could have done that all along why didn’t they do it earlier?
Aronofsky also wants to treat his humans in a realistic, hard-edged manner. His depiction of the antediluvian Earth finds an unarresting semi-barren terrain we’ve seen in many a post-apocalyptic movie (and there are enough cues to suggest Noah could, at a pinch, be set in the future, which ties in neatly with the environmental theme). This should be a world we’re sorry to lose, not one that’s already been lost. I did a double take at the last scene, at what looked a little like the stretch of beach from the end of Planet of the Apes. Aronofsky’s one nod to the idea that the pre-Flood environment was different is the visible stars in daytime; there’s certainly nothing exotic here (the occasional invented species aside; maybe he should have shown Noah flipping out with dinosaurs). Of course, to have a lush environment would rather defeat the goal of presenting man as the ruination of the Earth. Which means Aronofsky has to bend and fit it every which way to tend his vision. Noah is a vegan too (as is the director), which tallies with The Bible, the preservation theme and the idea of his being a keeper of the memory of Eden.
This unkempt fusion of hard-edged grimness with Peter Jackson fantasy (except without Jackson’s energy) continues through to the depiction of the Ark. It’s a J J Abrams mystery box devoid of mystery. The animals succumb to a magic sleeping draught, which presumably preserves them in a kind of hypersleep until Noah awakes them with his special medicare kit (they have to be aroused in the correct manner, mind). So the two-by-two approach is retained (just two woozy mosquitos?) and the general unlikeness and enormity of the task, but the difficult logic of how to feed them and clean up after them requires attention? Yeah, because people would totally buy into it otherwise. This comes after Gandalf, I mean Methuselah, and his magic beans, I mean seed from Eden, sprouts a forest in seconds. There’s also the magic skin of the Serpent; I don’t know what fascinating nook of Aronofsky’s mind this comes from but it doesn’t have much power even as the symbol of returned heritage. It looks silly, because it we aren’t invested in its meaning.
Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, of course, as he actually is that old now) potters about with some very Gandalf-like magic tricks up his sleeve and a quest for berries. Methuselah curiously buys the farm as the floodwaters rush in, such his fruit obsession. Noah doesn’t offer to bring his 969-year-old grandpappy along (I think it’s generally considered that Methuselah dies pre-Flood), whose genuine magic (re-fertilising Emma Watson’s Ila) is supplemented by your common or garden shamanism (drugging Noah to induce more visions of disaster; also in support of this all arising from Noah’s self-induced divinatory skills rather than at the Creator’s behest). Noah doesn’t hear God, certainly not in any empirical sense; he has prophetic dreams, just like any modern doomsayer who is invariably proven wrong.
While I’m critical of the push-pull between Aronofsky’s opposing inclinations in making the film, he occasionally produces something winning or drops in a reference without making a meal of it. How Enoch walked on with God was always a particularly evocative in Genesis, and it crops up casually in conversation between Noah and gramps. I really liked the visualisation of the waters rising from the Earth. Noah’s light source is a bit too much like magic fairy dust, but on the other hand Tubal-Cain’s rocket launcher is random enough to be quite groovy. There was a chance here to go for it with the idea of pre-historic technology (see also Edgar Cayce and Atlantis), but for all the talk of how much he goes off the beaten track, it’s repeatedly disappointing to discover how much Aronofsky has reined himself in. How mundane the results are.
Yet, when it comes to Noah telling a story – be it the Watchers’ descent into matter, or the account of the seven days of Creation – Aronofsky excels. The latter is a magnificent sequence, as God and evolution merge together to make everyone happy. Or, more probably, unhappy. There are intimations of the kind of gnostic ideas explored in Jonathan Black’s The Secret History of the World, with Adam and Eve depicted as shining beings not yet sealed into matter. Or maybe he’s just shouting out to Kubrick’s glowing Star Child.
Elsewhere, Noah’s journey into the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is man’s encampment has a palpably bestial horror. It’s the confirmation of everything he fears about the evils of humanity, and the moment we can best comprehend his decision. Later, we hear the sounds and screams of those clinging to yet-to-be-submerged outcrops (Aronofsky appears to be inspired by Doré’s The Deluge) above the wind and rain, as Noah sits impassively over his family while they plead with him to show mercy.
Visually Noah is quite dour. I like much of regular Aronofsky cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s work, but here he merely contributes to a generally derivative and unengaging visual style. the unadorned Ark is symptomatic of Aronofsky’s what-if aesthetic; there’s something deeply at-odds with itself in having a functional container fashioned by Rock Monsters. Everyone is adorned with the kind of designer duds we’re used to from the likes of Jack the Giant Slayer and Clash of the Titans (reboots) and that’s not meant as a compliment. No matter what purported era of history or fantasy you’re transported to, if it’s Hollywood there’ll be a young hero in a hoody. Guaranteed. Clint Mansell’s score is solid, but too reminiscent of The Fountain in places; not a good thing, since that film is superior in every conceivable way to Noah.
In the end, the absence of the Old Testament God is as problematic as the removal of the Olympians from Troy; there’s nothing especially gripping about a nutter obsessed with the end of the world that we haven’t seen many times before. If this is actually at the behest of a belligerent Creator, isn’t that a more interesting and difficult premise to explore? Doesn’t it get to the root of His less-than-benevolent depiction in Genesis? Aronofsky plunges into fantasy but lets God off the hook. Perhaps because his fascination only extends so far; I’d argue that the idea that God regrets the creation of man is the most interesting part of the tale. If Aronofosky was making the story of Abraham (which he actually seems much more attuned to, if Noah’s tests of faith are anything to go by), he’d be seized by a furious headache and drag his son off to the slaughter; it’s no good psychologising a story with 21st century insights if you lose what makes it so powerful in the first place.
If you’re going to muster the mythic for a Biblical epic, at least attempt to make it enthralling. Aronofsky seems to have perversely fixated on neither side. There’s too much fantasy to embrace the horror/wonder of the end of the world, and he’s too down-to-earth to really go for broke with his visualisation. The battle for the soul of man has no import when Aronofsky can muster only stereotypes not archetypes. This doesn’t look so much different to any gritty version of an epic myth we’ve seen since in the near-15 years since Gladiator, but it has no engine to keep it going. We are not entertained. It takes enough time to get to the Flood, but at least there’s a modicum of momentum there. The manufactured crisis of faith never grips, despite Crowe giving it his all (and a number of daft haircuts).
With God exiting stage left, Aronofsky needs his antagonist. Other than the duelling Noahs, that is (another nice moment, of Luke on Dagobah proportions, has Noah seeing himself in the pit of iniquity that is the human encampment). Tubal-Cain is Hollywood villainy at its most banal. I’ve seen it said his character has a point. If so, it only ever rings true when Noah’s gone right off the deep end, as Tubal is only ever a nasty piece of work. Obviously, since he’s played by Ray Fackin’ Winstone. Or rather, Ray Winstone with a natty two-pronged beard. Since The Bible doesn’t mention that Ray Winstone didn’t stowaway aboard the Ark, Aronofsky quite reasonably assumes he might have done.
Any valid sentiments Tubal-Cain has about Noah’s behaviour and dooming mankind to a watery grave are thus nullifed. But this goes back to the idea of leaving out God as the bad guy (or Bad Guy). We have no sympathy for Tubal-Cain as soon as we see him killing Noah’s pops (ain’t that symmetrical?), and because Winstone plays him in fackin’ cant mode (does he ever play anyone in any other?) it’s going to be an uphill struggle to accept his point of view. His surrogate play for Ham’s allegiance is fairly weak stuff, weakly argued, and when it comes to the big confrontation, which plays out in a four-way encounter lacking any tension, we can only conclude that, if Ray had absented himself, the picture might at least have ended fifteen minutes earlier (not enough of an excision, but a start). As with the big G, if Aronofsky had taken a different tack, casting someone urbane as a counterpoint to Noah, so the reason in his words had a chance to shine through, he might have created a genuine tension between ethoses (blubbery Val Kilmer was considered, and he’d have been a much better choice, as would Liev Schrieber so long as he wasn’t in Sabretooth mode). Instead Tubal-Cain disgusts everyone by extinguishing a species every time he gets peckish.
It’s been said that the Noah of The Bible is something of a blank slate; he “listens and acts”. Which most certainly isn’t the interpretation of Aronofsky and Crowe. Here, Noah has visions and gets tough (and, as noted, the Watchers do all the building while Noah props up a shovel). Crowe is strong and intense as only he can be, and on the few occasions he’s allowed to show softness the realisation of Noah as a fully embodied character peeps through the rain clouds (these occur mostly during the first half; his dissolution into acceptance when he’s about to off his grandkids has been so over-egged it completely flounders). Unfortunately, the character is mostly one-note, and his obsessiveness quickly becomes tiresome.
There’s a fantastic scene where Noah goes out to find Ham (Logan Lerman, whose performance might be the strongest in the film, certainly the one that makes the most out of fairly little) as the rains lash down and the rush of Tubal-Cain’s forces arrives. Ham, rather obsessed with finding a home for Mr Perky, has ventured into the world of men to find a wife. He finds Na’el (Madison Davenport) and as he leads her back to safety she gets caught in a bear trap (damn things get everywhere). Noah looms out of the woods and pulls Ham to safety as Na’el gets trodden into the ground by the onslaught. This moment encapsulates why Noah is wrong; we really don’t need another hour of Winstone fackin’ cursing him or Noah getting all infanticidal at the prospect of Ila giving birth to a girl. Noah’s struggle should engage on some level, but it ends up beating you into semi-oblivion.
If Ham is relatively well drawn, Aronofsky leaves out the character’s most famous moment; Noah cursing him and his line on discovering dad pissed out of his gourd and in the nuddy: as any good father would. The extremity of Noah’s response has given rise to speculation that Ham got up to other terrible things on discovering a bladdered daddy but, as Mel Gibson knows well, people will talk any old shit when they’re pissed. There’s also a whole distasteful racial interpretation to Ham’s cursed lineage that has gained cachet at various points (particularly since it presented a handy convenience to justify slavery), most recently by Mormons. Aronofsky’s makes a curious break with Genesis here by sending Ham off alone. Maybe he’ll return at some point after Noah has expired, and marry one of his twin sisters. Incest is left as the elephant in the room in the Noah story, and Aronofsky manages to both leave it unsaid and emphasise it with Ila’s twin daughters. Perhaps genes were much more resilient back then.
The rest of the family are complete non-entities. Understandably since Mrs Noah doesn’t even merit a name in The Bible, Aronofsky tries to give her some form. He does a lousy job, is all. Jennifer Connelly is forgettable in her second (well, third with Crowe if you count Winter’s Tale) teaming with Crow and Aronofsky. She made much more of an impression in both those previous roles (the lousy A Beautiful Mind and the overwrought Requiem for a Dream respectively. Emma Watson, on the other hand, is outright terrible as Ila. And she’s the one given the big emotional scenes, blubbing over her new-borns and delivering a “Duh, really?” speech at the end that only stands out for being a complete clock-watcher. Still, at least you couldn’t call her forgettable. Unlike pretty boy Douglas Booth, whose utter lack of presence as Shem guarantees a big future as a vacant teen heartthrob.
I hoped Noah would be a provocative film, conceptually and philosophically. I didn’t expect it to be a boring one. Unfortunately, it just hangs there, its director hoping the occasional extreme act or extreme acting will do the business. This isn’t, as some have suggested a piece of work with the insight or thoughtfulness of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (surely an influence on Aronofosky, since Noah’s reading of God’s will is interiorised; but it just underlines that the “eye of the beholder” reading of faith has been done to death at this point). There’s a kind of poverty to Noah’s ability to muster strength enough to hit only the most obvious of targets, and the manner in which it looks like every fantasy movie that surrounds it (only more austere, if that’s possible). Intermittently we are offered glimpses of greatness, and those moments mean the film isn’t a total bust, but coming from someone with such previous form as Aronofsky this is a massive disappointment.