When we listen to the story of the Noah and the flood we tend to imagine ourselves safely on the Ark with the animals and not outside drowning with the masses. The odds clearly suggest the opposite would be the case, but this optimistic framing is understandable. Previous film versions have made no effort to shatter this comforting interpretation, choosing to focus on the grand spectacle of the animal parade and omitting the panicked mothers clutching their babies to their chest as the waters rise.
Now we have Darren Aronofsky epic new film version of Noah, which forces the viewer to grapple with the tale’s troubling implications by placing them right there on the surface. Floating face down on the surface, to be exact.
Aronofsky’s choice to imbue Noah with a level of psychological realism causes all manner of unexpected dimensions to reveal themselves, the most glaring of these being that Russell Crowe’s Noah comes off as an absolute barking lunatic. Not since Willy Wonka has a boat ride been captained by such a complete nutter. I sincerely feel for the Christian fundamentalists who buy tickets for Noah to enjoy the sight of, say, a pair of kangaroos walking hand in hand up a ramp, but are instead treated to the sight of Noah skulking around the storm-tossed Ark, his eyes ablaze with madness, threatening to personally murder any newborn babies that conflict with his interpretation of God’s will.
It makes no difference that in this case we know that his ravings are true, that Noah really is communicating with the Almighty. We reflexively recognize this behavior as that of the unhinged leader of a doomsday cult. And yet, as unsettling as he is, in context one can’t help but feel a strange sympathy for the man. When God asks a peaceful, unassuming man to assist in genocide, would it not be more disturbing if it didn’t have some kind of detrimental effect on his sanity?
Watching Noah one gets the feeling that Aronofsky wants to break free from plot altogether and let the poetry of his imagery carry the film to the heights of other grand cinematic gestures like Tree of Life or 2001 or the director’s own The Fountain. It is held Earthbound by the demands of its budget and the need to produce a film that is at least somewhat digestible by mass audiences. So instead of the sustained ambition of Aronofsky’s earlier work the director’s trademark fevered filmmaking zeal arrives in small doses like when the camera pulls back to see the entire globe engulfed in hurricanes, or when the creation myth is combined with the history of evolution in one stunning montage that zips breathlessly through the birth of life. Between these epiphanies we get padding and pandering for action audiences like battles scenes between an army of invaders and 50-foot rock monsters.
Oh, did I forget to mention the 50-foot rock monsters? They are called "watchers" and they are eventually persuaded by divine intervention to help our hero build the Ark. It’s a bold flourish, but not an entirely successful one. They often come across as CGI distractions that wandered in from Michael Bay’s version of the Bible: “The Exploding-est Story Ever Told”. It’s worth noting that Aronofsky and cowriter Ari Handel have Biblical precedent for these creatures. Genesis 6:4: “There were giants in the earth in those days”. So Aronofsky is open to charges of going over-the-top, but not of inaccuracy to the source material. And I say if you are going to do giants, why settle for half-measures?
Even if I question how successful Noah is in cramming a Biblical story into the Blockbuster template I can’t deny he has engaged in a sincere attempt to grapple with a cultural touchstone that most everyone else is satisfied to regard with either blind acceptance or glib mockery. (For the record, that grappling does not extend to the film’s unavoidable implications of incest, which it would be grateful if the audience politely ignored) That Noah has upset a number of religious groups is predictable news. Isn’t always the thoughtful takes on religion that draw the protesters? Just once I’d like to see a religious film picketed for being too trite or insipid or intellectually lazy.