Movies Without Pity

Noah: After the Flood

by Ethan Alter March 27, 2014 1:20 pm
<i>Noah</i>: After the Flood

Like the unseen, but omnipresent Creator referenced throughout Noah, Darren Aronofsky works in mysterious ways. Far from the $100 million art film many assumed the director of such cult fare as The Fountain and Pi might have made, this re-telling of the Great Flood myth instead turns out to be a 21st century version of one of those big-screen Bible epics from the '50s and '60s, right down to the occasionally clunky dialogue, stiff performances and dubious special effects. But -- and this is important -- in its best moments Noah also offers the same majesty and awesome sense of narrative and emotional scale present in the finest examples of that dormant genre (think perennial favorites like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments), as well as superior blockbusters in general. Along with fans of Aronofsky's edgier pictures, those expecting a literal translation of the Biblical verses may leave disappointed, as the director has produced a lavish, commercially-minded embellishment of a tale that was already quite fantastical to begin with.

Aronofsky's mainstream ambitions are obvious from the first scene, which bestows his title character with an origin story befitting a comic book superhero. Born into a prehistoric society divided into camps -- the evil (descendants of Cain a.k.a. the first murderer) and the good (descendants of Seth, the surviving brother) -- Noah is in the process of inheriting his Seth-derived birthright from his father, Lamech, when the elder man is struck down by a roving band of warrior-minded Cain disciples, led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), who will, decades later, become the now-grown boy's bane (or, to put it in comic book terms, Bane). As an adult, Noah (Russell Crowe) leads a nomadic life with his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connolly), and their three sons, Shem, Ham and Japeth (played for the bulk of the film by Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman and Leo McHugh Carroll respectively), until his Creator speaks to him in the form of an apocalyptic vision of a drowned world that sends him on a pilgrimage to his ancestral homestead, picking up a new member of his family, orphaned girl Ila (Emma Watson), along the way.

After a quick check-in with his aged grandfather (Anthony Hopkins, made up to look about 900 years old, the advanced age that Biblical characters frequently hit), the specific details of Noah's task snap into focus: he's got to, as the song goes, build an arky arky out Hickory barky, barky for the birds, beasts and assorted critters that the Creator wants to weather the storm and re-populate the world after the sinners are washed away. Armed with that divine mission, Noah throws himself into the monumental job of constructing the Ark with a zeal that borders on megalomania. Using the last surviving seed from Eden, he grows an entire forest in this desolate landscape -- picked to the bone by the greedy line of Cain -- for a steady supply of lumber and sets about his work, isolating himself and the rest of his clan from the outside world, which eventually comes calling in the form of Tubal-cain, now claiming to be King of the world that the Creator has seemingly abandoned. The only allies Noah has are the increasingly uneasy members of his family… as well as five or six massive rock monsters.

Let's pause on those rock monsters for a moment, because they're perfect representations of the way that Aronofsky's ambitions for his grand creative vision sometimes butts up against the awkward realization of that creative vision. In the context of the version of the Noah myth that Aronofsky is constructing, these creatures -- who call themselves "The Watchers" -- are an important addition, one that actually has its roots in Biblical tradition. The concept of the Watchers is derived from the Book of Enoch, an ancient Hebrew text that exists outside standard canon, which describes them as Fallen Angels who defy the will of God by descending to Earth to aid man. In Aronofsky's telling, their divine boss punishes them for this transgression by covering their angelic forms in the hard matter of the Earth, resulting in -- as previously mentioned -- rock monsters.

In addition to providing Noah with some much-needed help in constructing his massive ship, these characters effectively speak to the cruel and capricious (though, in the end, ultimately forgiving) nature of the Old Testament God who looks down on Aronofsky's creations. It's just a shame that these digitally-generated creatures are so goofy-looking -- like the nature-based Ents from The Lord of the Rings trilogy crossed with Michael Bay's blocky, bulky Transformers; and while one eventually adjusts to the poor design and stiffly-rendered movements of the Watchers, they're a constant reminder that, as talented a director as Aronofsky is, this kind of effects-heavy filmmaking doesn't comes as naturally to him as, say, Peter Jackson or even Michael Bay. That's reinforced by the Great Flood sequence, during which Noah briefly becomes a full-on action hero, leaping about the exterior of the Ark and hacking away at potential hijackers. It's almost certainly the largest, most complicated set-piece that Aronofsky has ever helmed and he has visible trouble keeping up with the the real-world and computer-world demands of the sequence.

Also goofy are some of the extrapolated subplots that Aronofsky has woven into the piece, chief among them the love story between Shem and Ilo, as well as Ham's flirtation with the dark side, motivated by what he perceives as an act of betrayal on the part of his father and encouraged by Tubal-cain, who comes to play the same role as his namesake in exposing and exploiting the evil that lurks inside the hearts of man. (More successful is a storyline that's borrowed from another bit of Biblical lore, specifically the tale of Abraham and Isaac.) It's not that this material isn't worth exploring, it's that much of it is dramatized and performed so flatly. Particularly once the floodwaters rise and the action shifts to the Ark in the film's third act, Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel allow the script to become overly literal in its presentation of the movie's larger themes, with the characters trading pointed, on-the-nose speeches about the moral worldviews they each represent. This transition also exposes the wide gulf that exists between the actors and the roles they've been handed; while Crowe hasn't delivered this dynamic and dialed-in a movie star turn in years (this is as much a comeback vehicle for him as The Wrestler was for Mickey Rourke), Connelly spends much of the final act in a perpetual state of ugly crying, while Booth and Watson can't break through their runway-ready exteriors to find their underwritten characters' inner lives. Where Aronofsky's past films have required the audience to do a lot of their own legwork, here he errs on the side of overexplaining everything, right down to a final post-Flood coda that gracelessly sums up the meaning of the movie you've been watching for two hours.

Where Aronofsky's particular genius does come into play is in the first two acts of the film, where he creates a Biblical landscape that's as unique and vibrant as the different realms glimpsed in The Fountain or the horror-tinged Upper West Side imagined in Black Swan. Shooting many of the exteriors on location in the wilds of Iceland and relying largely on natural light, the director conjures a universe that's both tactile and mythical. And in a repeated visual motif, he frames the characters in silhouette against the grand expanse of the star-filled prehistoric sky, emphasizing a direct connection between the heavens and the Earth. In fact, even in tighter shots, Aronofsky pointedly leaves room for glimpses of the ethereal world that exists above the characters heads, just out of reach, but nonetheless tangible. Far from a secularized account of this story, Aronofsky embraces Judeo-Christian spiritualism that same he threw himself full-bore into the Mayan-influenced symbolism present in The Fountain. (His one nod towards more secular affairs is a bold sequence that overlays Noah's recounting of the first few lines of Genesis on a montage that depicts the evolution of the Earth… with an emphasis on the word evolution.) It's almost appropriate that Noah slips in and out of his grasp: it's a movie about a man driven by belief rather than certainty.

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