Noah: Aronofsky’s earnest folly

March 28, 2014

Cast:Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Logan Lerman,Emma Watson, Douglas Booth
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Rating: PG-13, for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content
Running time:138 minutes

By Piers Marchant for blood, dirt & angels and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Darren Aronofsky is a consummate indie director. That is to say, he’s very, very good at making small, indelible personal visions and turning them into cinematic art. In such challenging films as Pi, Requiem For a Dream, and Black Swan, he was able to take such delicate stories and make them resonate like some kind of atonal tuning fork. It can be said that sometimes an artist’s vision is perfectly suited to their financial circumstance.

In retrospect, giving such a director $130 million as Paramount did, to make a biblical epic about God’s wiping man off the face of the earth in a giant flood, might have not been the most prudent decision.

For Aronofsky, it’s like the difference between creating an intimate dinner for two in your own kitchen, and having to cater a massive wedding for 400 eager guests. He’s still made a film recognizably his own, at least by my reckoning, but the result is an unholy mishmash of big budget CGI action flick, deep-seated character study and metaphysical treatise that will likely not satisfy any of its potential audiences.

Noah_IntlWhat we have is the basic story of Noah — righteous man is informed by God that the Earth will be flooded until the wicked have all perished, and that he must then build an ark to house his immediate family and two of every sort of animal so they may survive the deluge and begin anew in better harmony —wedded to a kind of genre action-flick skeleton involving giant rock creatures, an impending army of beleaguered humans descending upon Noah’s clearing, and various familial disagreements between Noah and his sons about what God’s purpose in wiping everything out truly was in the first place.

Noah (Russell Crowe) is a weary and haggard man, especially when the weight of God’s intention is made clear to him. He informs his family, including wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), sons Shem (Douglas Booth), disobedient Ham (Logan Lerman), innocent Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), and Shem’s would-be wife, Ila (Emma Watson) of his plan, makes peace with the giant rock creatures — Watchers, fallen angels of heaven burdened with helping mankind — and begins the process of building his ark. Unfortunately, word eventually gets to King Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), a raging royal of the Cain lineage, who demands Noah allow him and his army on board in order to propagate his own race of further wickedness.

Naturally, every plot point comes together precisely as the flood waters hit, with a cataclysmic showdown between Noah, the unrighteous men who seek safety, and his own sons, who defy their father in their disbelief of God’s true intention.

It might sound a neat and pat action formula, but Aronofsky has never been a director to play it safe. He adds metaphysical elements — including Noah’s frequent horrific dreamscapes, and various psychedelic encounters with his grandfather, the venerable Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), even as he keeps pumping up the action sequences for maximum bloody carnage. It is not surprising that Aronofsky saw fit to make a film of such faith — it could certainly be argued that his other large-budget experimental film, The Fountain, was also faith-yearning — but it is a bit of a shock that he would make a film so amalgamated, and hastily sewn together. It suffers from both the largeness of its grandiosity — where scenes have to hurtle past so quickly in order to get to their point they have little space with which to breathe — and the quirkily minute nature of its creator’s vision (ever the innovative technician, he takes to using time-lapse and photo animation frames to transpose the animals’ migration). It still might have worked had he not also tried so hard to meld it with the guideposts of a standard action flick (Noah, it turns out, is quite skilled in the ways of the bostaff).

It’s difficult to come down on an artist who is, after all, trying their damndest to stay true to themselves, no matter the swollen size of their budget, but I fear Aronofsky will never again have this sort of big budget opportunity. Paramount, who has employed a peculiarly paranoid publicity outreach with the film, only showing it to select critics and faith leaders, is likely terrified of what they’ve unwittingly begotten. And it says here, that might not be the worst possible outcome for a director so unique and visionary. He might not get to make a film like this again, but what he’ll make instead might very well have more impact anyway. If you can’t be a tree, be a (burning) bush.

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