Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is a study of contradictions. It’s a big-budgeted biblical epic that retains the idiosyncratic vision of the filmmaker without any concessions to four-quadrant blockbusters. Its subject is nothing less than all of humanity and the world, and yet it focuses on a very small cast. The film uses some pretty silly imagery in delivering a fairly ridiculous story, but always approaches it in a very serious manner. There is a large Lord of the Rings-like battle, yet the most stirring scenes involve a few people talking. When it recounts the story of Eden, the dialogue is the literal text from Genesis, but it is depicted using the imagery of evolution. Aronofsky’s film is a bit hammy and overwrought, yet also incredibly stirring and provocative.
Most everyone knows this story; but where Aronofsky deviates and breathes new life is not in the broad strokes of the biblical tale, but in showing that it’s not as black and white as the pages on which it was printed. This isn’t a tale of submission as the path to righteousness, but instead the large swath of gray that exists in between devotion and destruction. “Gray” being the operative word. The antediluvian world is an ashen wasteland, barren except for the wreckage and debris of a ruthless civilization that has used everything up in it. It’s the world of the sons of Cain, marauding men that scavenge and kill in an industrial age that retains its savagery. Noah (Russell Crowe), a descendant of Cain’s brother Seth, is the patriarch of a vegan family that eschews the cruel and venal ways of the wicked world around him. When God begins speaking to him about the impending apocalypse, Noah begins his quest to build his ark and preserve that which he thinks God judges fit to survive. When the end times quickly approach, so too do the rest of the world, desperate people led by their king, Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), who wish to survive as well. Once the flood does hit, the movie doesn’t focus on Noah being rewarded for his supplication, but instead Noah turns from the hero of his family into the stalking terror that has no use for reason or even love. Aronofsky uses the titular character as a question of where we draw the line between faith and fanaticism, and how can we ever be sure that what we’re doing is the right thing?
Noah is a beautiful film with some incredibly powerful imagery delivered by Aronofsky’s longtime cinematographer, Matthew Libatique. He often places Noah and his family in the midst of a wide span of barren worlds, or else clustered together in the impenetrable darkness of the ark, revealing how isolated they really are. The film is the logical extension of Aronofsky’s quick-cut montage technique, depicting the history of the world as an almost time-lapse presentation in a clever and moving sequence. In fact, the montage technique is so powerful that it’s the way God speaks — through evocative dream sequences presented as smash cuts that succinctly inform Noah of what he must do and why he must do it. All of these powerful visuals are aided by Clint Mansell’s stellar score (working with Kronos Quartet once again), alternating between sounding respectfully mournful or reluctantly optimistic while echoing some notes from his career-best work in The Fountain.
While shot on locations and inside a massive practical set of the ark, Aronofsky also uses a lot of CGI. The best use of it is the Watchers, a group of fallen angels who assist in building the ark and later protect the last humans from the madding crowd. The Watchers are represented as large, misshapen rock monsters that appear to have been stop-motion animated, making them seem awkward and crudely assembled yet possessing a tactile element to their appearance. The worst use of this rendering technique, unfortunately, is with the vast grouping of animals, coming in to the ark and slumbering during the ordeal — none of them look quite real and it underlines the silliness of the story when you see them gathering together.
However, the special effects are just tools for helping what is really a story about these few characters; I’m sure that Paramount executives bought into the movie for the spectacle, but that becomes less important as the film moves along. Crowe delivers one of his best performances as he gradually goes from spiritual warrior to terrifying doomsday cult leader with such a natural progression that it never feels like a tonal leap. In many ways, Emma Watson carries the heart of the film as Ila, Noah’s daughter-in-law, who is struggling to understand what is going on and wrestling with her own doubts. Jennifer Connelly mostly acquits herself well, playing Noah’s wife Naameh — though her weaknesses as an actress completely undercut what should be a very powerful scene when she begs her husband to show mercy. The other characters are somewhat underwritten, as they are all satellites to Noah’s vision and his drive, but shine best when faced with the implications of the Flood. Hearing the screams of the drowning, they ask their leader why would God drown everyone — could every one of those dying be wicked?
Noah is a film that dwells on opposing forces, both outside and within us. The film, like faith, is not black and white, but instead this muted gray seascape on which we navigate and occasionally run aground. It’s reminiscent of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, as it is a mostly faithful retelling of Scripture while infusing the film with the auteur’s own doubts and questions about religion. Those questions may make it troubling for religious audiences, and the subject matter may be too hokey for secular viewers. But if you are willing to overcome those reservations, you will find a film that is sincerely concerned with telling a universal tale while remaining deeply personal, and utterly affecting.