To attempt to turn the story of Noah’s Ark into a blood-soaked blockbuster is insane. To do it in a way that alters the story to fit the filmmaker’s intent rather than cater to Christian audiences is certifiable. To do it all while spending mucho Hollywood dollaros is downright diabolical. Yet, somehow that’s exactly what director Darren Aronofsky has managed to do with Noah on the back of the unexpected box office success of Black Swan. He’s been down this road before of course, using the cult success of Requiem For A Dream to talk a studio into financing a philosophical blockbuster in The Fountain. That project was marred by budget cuts and confused conception, but this time Aronofsky has somehow managed to get a full-on idiosyncratic personal project shoved out as a popcorn munching mass entertainment. The final result is far from perfect, but it is undeniably fascinating and unique. Such a thing is not supposed to come out of the studio system on this scale and for that alone, Noah is something to be admired.
Aronofsky’s film follows the most basic beats of the traditional Noah’s Ark fable. Noah is once again called on by his creator to build a massive ark that will house two of every living species during an apocalyptic rainstorm. However, beyond that logline, the film confounds and challenges expectations at every turn. Rather than having a cloud-couched old man with a wizard’s beard appoint Noah his task, this time Noah learns of his future through a dream and special tea-enhanced hallucination. He’s also played by Russell Crowe, which means that when an army of humans led by burly Cockney special Ray Winstone turn up to demand seat on the ark, good old Noah can throw down a big, muddy, medieval fantasy battle straight out of a weary-eyed Dungeons & Dragons marathon. To help him lay on some biblical beat downs, Noah even has a handful of fallen-angels-turned-hulking-rock-monsters. So, now the humanity-crushing storm comes along with thrilling battle royale… and yet, that’s not even the biggest diversion that Aronofsky takes from the source material.
More than anything else, Noah is a study of a psychologically marred antihero suited to Russell Crowe’s unique set of skills (and thankfully he actually bothers to show up and act for the first time in a few years as well). Crowe’s Noah is no evangelical icon, but a tortured man unsure of himself and his sanity. He has a family of course in his wife played by Jennifer Connelly, two sons (Logan Lerman and Douglas Booth), and an adopted daughter in the form of Emma Watson. Secretly, he believes they will be the last humans to ever live. Watson has partnered off with one of his boys, yet is barren. The other boy hopes to find a wife before their jaunt on the sea, but Noah forbids it and even lets an innocent suitor die during the rush to the boat. Then when Watson becomes miraculously pregnant, Noah insists that he will murder the infants at birth if they are female to fulfill what he is convinced is God’s will to slay all of humanity. So, a squeaky clean Christian icon this Noah is not, which has already stirred up plenty of controversy in the religious right before the film’s release. However, he is a fascinatingly complex hero, the likes of which are rarely seen in a film of this scale. That was a ballsy risk Aronofsky took while conceiving the project that pays off.
While one might assume that any film about a Sunday school favorite would be a cheery affair, that is far from Darren Aronofsky’s goal with this biblical dream project. The film is dark, violent, vicious, disturbing, thrilling, and action-packed. It’s also ultimately quite a spiritual movie in a way that hopefully intelligent religious folks will notice. The ultimate message of the film is positive, there’s just a whole lot of entrails and tragedy slopped on the screen before we get there (true to the Old Testament, just not squeaky clean sermons outside of extremists). Removed from that inevitable controversy, the film is an emotional and visceral thrill ride filled with intriguing ideas. Aronofsky’s primary strength as a filmmaker is his ability to create evocative cinematic imagery that sears its way into the brain and makes a devastating emotional impact. Noah is filled with these moments, and they make it clear why the filmmaker was so determined to launch this specific project. In particular, there’s a time lapse telling of the history of the creation from the big bang to the evolution of man that is possibly the most singularly stunning sequence that the filmmaker has ever mounted. The movie will leave audiences feeling drained and as usual, Aronofsky coaxes exhausting and impressive performances out of all his actors that leaves them in a pile on the floor in the film’s wake along with the audience.
Sadly, despite all the deserved praise that I’ve slathered all over the movie and its maker, Noah is far from perfect. The film has many faults that all Aronofsky movies share. The man knows no sense of subtlety and hammers his ideas into viewer’s skull as gently as a kick to the nethers. He also has trouble writing naturalistic dialogue and hampers actors with distractingly stylized speech that almost kills their performances. Then there’s the issue of length because this film is an epic in every possible sense and will force viewers to limp out of the theater as much due to their numb posteriors as the material’s emotional impact. So, it’s definitely a flawed piece of work, just one so audacious that the flaws can be overlooked. It’s difficult to predict how Noah will perform at the box office and certainly any controversy it faces will play a role for good or ill. However, the movie deserves to be a success, not just for its merits but also because this is exactly the type of ambitiously unique blockbuster that studios should allow filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky to make on their dime. In a perfect world, the summer movie season could alternate between wild-eyed experiments like Noah and the latest Marvel or Hasbro production. We’re still quite a ways off from that happening, of course. Yet, if Aronofsky can use a few hundred million to make Noah at the same time Alfonso Cuaron could find financing for Gravity, that beautiful blockbuster dream might not be as far off as it seems.