From the moment an army of angels crashes to Earth from heaven, only to emerge from the loam as stone-clad giants, it’s clear that Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is no ordinary Hollywood epic. This is a Biblical film for the Game Of Thrones generation, a myth for viewers more familiar with the books of Tolkien than the Book of Genesis.
Russell Crowe stars as a battle-ready Noah, who scratches out a grim existence in a pre-flood world that’s part Sunday school story, part Mad Max; the soil is barren, food is scarce, and humanity has descended into feral madness. The planet is overrun by the sons of Cain, the first murderer, and his descendants – led by a seething Ray Winstone as Tubal-Cain – have stripped the landscape of its resources.
Noah is all that remains of the family of Seth, a bloodline blessed by God. Having experienced a series of troubling visions – and visited his mountain-dwelling grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, here rambling about berries in his Welsh accent) – Noah discovers his God-given mission: to build an Ark, put his family and two examples of every animal on Earth inside it, and wait for the flood that will cleanse the planet of evil.
With the assistance of the stone-clad angels-turned-giants mentioned above, Noah begins crafting his huge vessel. But as the Ark is built and the animals gather two by two, Tubal-Cain draws his army of heathens together, and plans to take the craft by force. Meanwhile, Noah’s family – his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) and sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) have worries of their own – not least an increasing fear of their father and his apocalyptic rants.
If director Darren Aronofsky’s films have one uniting theme, it’s that of the tortured protagonist. His debut feature, Pi, was about a mathematician driven mad by his discovery of a seemingly divine series of numbers. His second, Requiem For A Dream, concerned a group of interconnected people whose lives are torn apart by drugs. The Fountain was about a man willing to travel through time and space in search of transcendence. The Wrestler and Black Swan saw their characters suffer physically and psychologically in pursuit of their art.
Noah is another character in that tradition. He wrestles inwardly with the burden God has given him. He rages at the blackening clouds rolling overhead. He sits sullenly as the rising tide laps at his Ark. Crowe brings every milligram of his surly charisma to the part, his eyes darting and froth building at the corners of his bearded mouth, yet Aronofsky gives us few reasons to admire or particularly trust this man, whose grip on sanity seems even less certain than that of his nemesis, Tubal-Cain.
Then again, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel don’t give the rest of Noah’s family much light and shade, either. Emma Watson puts the work in as a woman grieving over her inability to bear children. Jennifer Connelly strains every sinew as a wife growing increasingly fearful of her husband and his righteous fervour. But Douglas Booth’s Shem is little more than beautiful, doe-eyed window-dressing with little to do; Logan Lerman is the only male cast member who has the space to make an impression.
In the place of character development, Aronofsky goes for grandstanding speeches or fearsome confrontations; Noah the movie is high on melodrama yet low on empathy for the main players. Noah the hero is high on resolve yet low on depth. Who are these people when they’re not shouting at each other, or lugubriously hacking at the soil with hoes? Aronofsky never tells us.
Instead, he bombards the screen with furious displays of sound and vision almost as overwhelming as the deluge itself. Armies surge in a great grey mass as creatures straight out of Lord Of The Rings pound the earth or explode in blinding shafts of light. Clint Mansell’s orchestra parps and bellows to Aronofsky’s trudging march, as though the aim is to shock us into unthinking acceptance at all the chaos unfolding across the screen.
For all its spittle-flecked seriousness, Noah is a bewildering film. This is, after all, an Old Testament interpretation which happens to contain armadillo-dog hybrids, a glowing unobtanium-like fossil fuel, magical pregnancy test kits or the sight of Ray Winstone ranting while wearing a welding hat. Are we meant to giggle behind our hands at these moments? If we’re to believe the steely stare that Crowe gives us in scene after scene, the answer seems to be no.
Some sequences, on the other hand, are quite haunting. The moment of the flood and its resulting chaos is extremely effective. Others are simply kitsch, like a pair of doves that drink from divine waters, look at each other, then flap awkwardly away. The CGI animals, it has to be said, are a bit of a mixed bag in the final cut; they look good in long shots, but move less convincingly than in, say, Ang Lee’s simlarly effects-heavy Life Of Pi.
Aronofsky is seemingly more interested in exploring clashing ideologies than animals in any case. Noah and Tubal-Cain are as flawed as each other, with the former dangerously consumed by religious fervour while the latter is in thrall to his own selfishness and lust for power. Their common failing, Aronofsky seems to be telling us, is that they both lack compassion.
Noah is a wild, swooning film that is as likely to infuriate as many viewers as it enthrals. But for better or worse, Aronofsky’s made the movie he wanted to make, which is a rare thing in post-1980s Hollywood. Noah is a Biblical epic with little interest in Biblical accuracy; a cautionary environmental fable that is both extraordinarily serious and jaw-droppingly ridiculous. It’s seemingly made without demographics, religious groups or any particular cinemagoer in mind. For sheer audacity alone, then, Aronofsky deserves to be applauded.
Noah is out on the 4th April in the UK.
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