Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel
U.S. box office: $101.2 million (32nd best of 2014)
Worldwide box office: $362.6 million
Days in U.S. theatrical release: 84
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 77
Metacritic score: 68
Letterboxd average grade: 3/5
“It isn’t that Aronofsky, who co-wrote the film with Ari Handel, has changed the text so much as he’s fleshed it out, filling in blanks that others might not have considered blanks at all, and shading in the existing details. In the process, he reshapes it into a story of faith and its limitations, concerned with fundamental questions about humanity’s role on Earth—and reaching conclusions that teeter on the edge of despair. It’s an unwieldy, sometimes overreaching effort, but the laudable ambition makes it easy to forgive some rough patches.” —Keith Phipps
“As Noah threatens to go off the rails, so does Noah. But that’s inspiring too: proof of a grownup artist struggling with big issues, and then resolving them to create a crazy-great statement that is also a superb entertainment.” —Richard Corliss, Time
“In his ambitious fusion of Old Testament awe with modern blockbuster spectacle, [Aronofsky] dwells on the dark and troubling implications of Noah’s experience. [His] earnest, uneven, intermittently powerful film is both a psychological case study and a parable of hubris and humility. At its best, it shares some its namesake’s ferocious conviction, and not a little of his madness.” —A.O. Scott, The New York Times
“Aronofsky is an uncompromising director: He wants everything just so, and he knows what he’s doing, to the extent that audiences always do, too—you can feel the gears behind it all noisily grinding. The Wrestler, for my money his finest movie, at least had a noble, battered heart, which made his overbearing mannerisms tolerable. But generally, there’s no spontaneity in an Aronofsky movie and no real sense of risk. If Noah, his costliest and splashiest film, has any splendor at all, it’s the business-as-usual CGI spectacle kind.” —Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice
In the lead-up to Noah, there was only one species of animal lining up two-by-two on the good ship media: The vulture. Paramount’s $125 million gamble on Aronofsky’s Biblical epic appeared to be coming up snake eyes. Aronofsky’s reputation as a tough, uncompromising visionary seemed to be bearing out in a series of highly publicized spats. All parties involved were trying to thread a very thin needle: A spectacle that could be embraced by the secular masses and attract the busloads of Christian ticket-holders that made The Passion Of The Christ a box-office phenomenon. To get everyone under the same umbrella, in a manner of speaking, seemed at the time (and now) to be the very definition of hubris, because it’s so hard to appeal to one camp without alienating the other. And given that Christians are nearly as demanding of faithful adaptations as Fifty Shades Of Grey fans, any expansion of the “Noah’s Ark” story, which occupies a thin sliver of the Book of Genesis, would be greeted with skepticism—especially coming from the modern-day Gomorrah that is Hollywood, U.S.A.
As early as mid-October of 2013, Kim Masters of The Hollywood Reporter revealed signs of trouble behind the scenes. In this and a follow-up story in February 2014, Masters wrote that Paramount’s eagerness to court a Christian audience had run aground on reports that Aronofsky’s embellishments had strayed too far from biblical text; his Noah was a deeply conflicted character who, in keeping with God’s will, “considers drastic measures to eradicate mankind from the planet.” The studio tested the film over Aronofsky’s fervent objections while it was still a work-in-progress. It had also assembled and tested “as many as half-a-dozen of its own cuts” of the movie, though the February THR piece found the studio ultimately standing behind Aronofsky’s version of the film and anticipating (a.k.a. hoping against hope) that Christians would recognize the positive biblical themes and understand it as “inspired by” the story of Noah, rather than a more literally minded adaptation. Later that month, Paramount went a step further in trying to tamp down controversy by adding a disclaimer to marketing materials. To wit:
“The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.”
By the time March 28 rolled around, the dream of shuffling audiences from the mega-church to the multiplex was more or less dead, and Paramount’s best hope at mollifying Christians was to keep them from stirring up protests and burying the film like The Last Temptation Of Christ. They succeeded in that, despite harsh assessments from the faithful, but a second gauntlet remained in the press, which could not miss all that blood in the rising waters. Noah could be a fiasco for the ages.
For all the compromises necessary to open up a biblical fable into a blockbuster entertainment—some of which are embarrassingly apparent (see: “What doesn’t hold up”)—it’s remarkable the degree to which Noah is a Darren Aronofsky film, barely departing from a filmography that’s insistently explored the outer limits of human obsession. Like the protagonists of Pi, Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, and Black Swan, Aronofsky’s Noah (Russell Crowe) pursues his mission down an increasingly narrow path, with terrible physical and psychological consequences. And also like most of those protagonists, there’s a measure of transcendence that awaits, a reward for the ascetic madness that engulfs him and nearly dooms humankind. Inner turmoil is the engine that powers Aronofsky’s work and propels his characters through a story, not the other way around. It’s accurate to describe his films as visceral experiences, but that doesn’t go far enough; he excels at imprisoning viewers within one person’s warped perspective. Nine-figure blockbusters are often oppressive; Noah is suffocating. There’s a qualitative difference.
Take away all the digital noise around Noah and it’s more intimate than it seems—and nearly as bold as The Last Temptation Of Christ in challenging biblical precepts that have been softened by Sunday school. There’s a distance between the cute tale of giraffes and lambs sailing on the ark-y ark-y and the Old Testament punishment God is entrusting Noah to help carry out. Noah (and Noah) asks, in real terms, “What does it really mean to flood the world and everything in it? Who or what dies and who or what gets to survive? And if mankind in particular is getting wiped out for its wickedness, why should that make Noah and his family exempt from punishment?” That last question gives the film its considerable edge, because it puts Noah in a torturous position of having to carry out a perceived mission from God over the pleas of his family members and the pacifist tug of his conscience.
Aronofsky and his co-screenwriter, Ari Handel, whip up an excess of melodrama around Noah, his wife (Jennifer Connelly), his three sons (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Leo McHugh Carroll), his daughter-in-law (Emma Watson), and his chief nemesis, Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), whose foul empire has metastasized like a malignant cancer swallowing the Earth. Some of those subplots are more compelling than others, but Noah really finds its dramatic focus when its hero starts to realize—or starts to convince himself, anyway—that the new beginning God is promising after the flood is not going to include humans, who proved themselves a corrupt species the moment they got themselves booted from the Garden Of Eden. The conclusion hardens his resolve, but it doesn’t drain him of compassion, much to his awful torment.
The most affecting scenes in Noah happen once the ark is afloat and the film’s focus shifts mainly (though not entirely) to the exceptionally grim question of what will happen to Noah’s family—specifically a grandchild yet to be born. Aronofsky isn’t the sort to offer relief—he concedes to the blockbuster model in spectacle, not tone; without doing any research, I’d guess that Noah is the only nine-figure production to ever include infanticide as a dramatic consideration. When he at last concedes and refuses to go through with the killing, it’s both an act of compassion and an act of weakness and apostasy. He affirms that he’s a human being after all, but that also means he’s not strong enough to carry out God’s will as he understands it. We know that he’s done the right thing, but he doesn’t know that yet, so this extraordinarily powerful moment is bundled up in failure as well as decency. The dove with the olive branch, the rainbow, the “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the Earth” line—none of that has happened quite yet. Noah and his family are adrift on the ark, and God may not be with them anymore.
As for Aronofsky’s feats of style, the score by Clint Mansell, his regular composer, has a fevered intensity that escalates the drama just as Mansell’s scores generally do for all of his films. But the least-expensive special effects are the ones that make the greatest impact, specifically two stop-motion sequences: One where water springs miraculously through the barren ground and streaks across the landscape, transforming a dusty no-man’s-land into verdant riverbed, and a longer, even more astonishing one that accounts for the seven days when God created the heavens and earth. These are old cinema techniques, not that distant from the homemade magic of Aronofsky’s micro-budgeted Pi, but they work beautifully, particularly in contrast to...
... the CGI monstrosities that seem present entirely to appease mass audiences looking for the next great marvel, like the Ents in The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers or the latest Transformers movie. The rock creatures that protect Noah and his family and help build the Ark are called “Watchers,” fallen angels who have been condemned for helping humans after their exile from the Garden Of Eden. Aiding Noah in his mission is their quest for redemption, but where the Ents (and even the Transformers, as well as Guardians Of The Galaxy’s Groot later in 2014) emerged as real characters, the Watchers stand here as cynical concessions to a studio that needed something spectacular and action-oriented to justify a staging on this scale.
It’s generous to talk about Noah as “threading the needle,” as I do above, but it’s also a project born of compromise on all sides: Aronofsky concedes to Paramount’s need for blockbuster spectacle while Paramount allows room for Aronofsky’s idiosyncratic obsessions; the Bible concedes to a secular interpretation while the spiritual infiltrates mass entertainment. This is the rare production where everyone had to know—or should have known—that they wouldn’t come away entirely satisfied. The best they could hope for was to be happy enough with the aggregate. There are words to described inherently wounded films like Noah: “Messy” is one, “fiasco” is another.
The list of minor and major flaws in Noah is a long one: The “Watchers,” who wind up disappearing in a gesture that recalls a suicide bomber opening his vest; the petulant pretty boys cast as Noah’s sons, none of whom make a fraction of the impression left by Watson’s galvanic turn as his daughter-in-law; an unbearably hammy Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s ailing grandfather Methuselah; the leaden conception of Winstone’s Tubal-cain as the avatar of human wickedness, which ruins the character’s last-ditch effort to stand up for mankind in the moment of its near-extinction. Aronofsky isn’t always subtle in speaking to the now, either: Though he’s sneakily turned this fable into a commentary on the environment and our failure to sustain God’s natural gifts, the message sometimes drifts into the distinctly non-biblical. Among other things, it’s a full-throated and anachronistic argument for vegetarianism.
On balance, there’s more to like about Noah than not, partly because it ends so forcefully and partly because the conception of Noah as a tortured Aronofsky hero cuts boldly against the grain while making perfect sense. Noah’s Ark has been handled so gingerly over the years that children and adults alike can skip the grim, tragic implications of the story and get right to the part where the Ark hits land, the animals march two-by-two onto the lush green grass, and a rainbow streaks the sky. Aronofsky taps into the Old Testament fury that informs the story, with its premise that humanity has veered beyond redemption and the entire earth must be cleansed by floodwater in order to get a fresh start.
Noah also stands as a fascinating case study in 21st-century studio filmmaking, both as a genuine (and anomalous) leap of faith in a risk-averse system and an awkward attempt to makes concessions to that system while trying to achieve something personal and profound. The struggle between Aronofsky and Paramount is as evident on the screen as Noah’s struggle to suppress his humanity in order to adhere to God’s will. Those struggles may be raw and ugly to witness at times, but they’re productive.
Next time: Captain America: The Winter Soldier