Monday, March 31, 2014

Movie Review: Noah

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky.
Written by: Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel.
Starring: Russell Crowe (Noah), Jennifer Connelly (Naameh), Ray Winstone (Tubal-cain), Anthony Hopkins (Methuselah), Emma Watson (Ila), Logan Lerman (Ham), Douglas Booth (Shem), Nick Nolte (Samyaza), Mark Margolis (Magog), Kevin Durand (Rameel), Leo McHugh Carroll (Japheth), Marton Csokas (Lamech), Finn Wittrock (Young Tubal-cain), Madison Davenport (Na'el), Gavin Casalegno (Young Shem), Nolan Gross (Young Ham), Skylar Burke (Young Ila), Dakota Goyo (Young Noah).

It should not have been a surprise to anyone who has followed his career that Darren Aronofsky would tackle a Biblical epic like Noah. All of his films – Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2010) – have been about obsessive characters – characters who push themselves to their absolute physical and/or mental limits in search of some sort of transcendence – something greater than themselves. His version of Noah really is no different than many of his characters, in that he is obsessed to the point of madness to accomplish his goals. It is a different sort of Biblical epic than the classic, more straight forward interpretations – as Aronofsky pushes Noah further than most would. His Noah has more than a little in common with the Jesus Christ portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ – in that both are human who have been given a task by God, and struggle, not knowing whether they can finish their task, or if they are even worthy of being asked.

Russell Crowe plays Noah, the last in the line of Seth in a world otherwise dominated by the descendants of Cain. He lives with his wife, Naameh (Jennifer) and three sons – Shem (played as an adult by Douglas Booth), Ham (played as a young adult by Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) – living apart from society, and subsisting on what they can gather. The Creator gives Noah a vision of death by water, and then the sprouting of new life. He does not know how to interpret this vision, so he sets out, along with his family, on a dangerous journey to find his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) – picking up an abandoned girl, Ila (later played by Emma Watson). Along the way, they meet The Watchers – fallen angels who went to help humanity after they were expelled from the Garden – and have been cast out of God, their form merging with the Earth, so that now they basically look like giant rock monsters, with glowing eyes. They do not want to help Noah – having given up everything for humanity, only to be betrayed by them – but one of their ranks sees a little of Adam in Noah – and so he does guide them to Methuselah. His advice to Noah is simple – He speaks to Noah, and Noah has to trust that he speaks in a way he understands. Aided by Methuselah, Noah has another vision – this time of an Arc. He is even able to convince The Watchers to help him. Flash forward 10 years – they Arc is nearly complete, his children have grown – Ham has become rebellious and questioning. And the line of Cain does not like the signs they are seeing. Led by their King, Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) – they want to survive. Noah on the other hand sees them as the violent, wicked people they are – and is determined to help The Creator wipe humanity off the face of the Earth. He and his family will be the last people alive – and when they die, the animals will be alone to live as The Creator intended.

Noah is at once Aronofsky’s largest film, one of his most ambitious (after only The Fountain) and his most flawed. Working with a larger budget than ever before, there are times when Aronofsky seems to be somewhat compromising to give the studio the big budget, action packed epic they paid for. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Watchers – who are rendered rather well in CGI as Rock Monsters, but whose appearance and presence seems to be mainly so Aronofsky can stage an epic battle between them and Tubal-cain’s army as they try and storm the Arc. This sequence, though well handled, does seem to be more out of a Lord of the Rings movie than the Biblical epic Aronofsky is making. The special effects in general are top notch throughout – there are no real animals in the film (which makes sense, because realistically, you couldn’t herd them all onto an Arc without God’s help) and the flood scene is thrilling – meaning I don’t really think having giant rock monsters in the film was necessary. The presence of Tubal-cain at all – especially as the film goes along – seems to be more because they wanted to have a flesh and blood villain, someone for the audience to hate, than for any real relevance to the plot. As the film progresses, Noah discovers that his adopted daughter is not barren as he thought, and is pregnant – ruining what he sees as God’s plan to end humanity – and he tells his family that if the child is a girl than he will kill it. This leads to perhaps a few too many scenes of Noah stalking around the Arc like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, terrorizing his family as he comes to the brink of insanity. Noah is a complex character, but the rest of the cast is basically given one note to play – and while actors like Connelly, Winstone, Lerman and Watson (not to mention the voices of Nick Nolte and Frank Langella as The Watchers) add something to their one note characters, I do wish they were given more to do than sit back and let Crowe overtake them.

Yet for all the flaws in Noah, I couldn’t help but be drawn into the film than Aronofsky was making – and his vision of Noah as a man striving to be worthy of The Creator and the task he has been given, even as it drives him insane. His Noah, in Crowe’s best performance in quite some time, is more human than most figures at the heart of biblical epics. Aronofsky takes the implications of what Noah is asked to do seriously – and takes the effect that such a burden would take on Noah seriously. Like The Last Temptation of Christ, it does not question whether there is a God, or even God’s wisdom – but it does look at the gravity of what is being asked of its protagonist and how such a task will affect him. For people who take the Old Testament as literal truth, Noah will probably offend – but for most religious people, I think Noah asks tough questions in a thoughtful and intelligent way. I am agnostic, and am not going to try and tell people how they should feel about Noah – but I don’t see any way a reasonable person can be all that offended by the film.

There are stunning sequences throughout Noah – Noah’s walk through the Tubal-cain camp when he thinks he’s going to find wives for his sons, that turns into a spectacular vision of hell may be my favorite. But also quieter moments – the climax, where Noah finds he cannot make the sacrifice he felt The Creator wanted him to make – and his quiet conversation with Ila later are genuinely, emotionally moving.

Aronofsky can be an easy director to mock – in an age of cynicism, he’s films by comparison are often quite earnest – he takes the questions he raises seriously, and see them through to the end. It’s this quality I admire about him as a director – that and his ambition. At times, he makes big, messy films – that can be quite flawed. Yet there is not a film of his that lacks for ambition or where he doesn’t push himself. The Fountain is certainly a flawed film – yet there are moments as great as anything we’ve seen in American film in the past 10 years. Noah isn’t that good. It’s a more straight forward, studio epic – made with Aronofsky’s typical seriousness, where I think he made a few concessions to up the thrill factor. But at its heart, this is another ambitious film for Aronofsky. I don’t think he pulls everything off in Noah – but I admire him for trying.

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