Here’s what Noah is not: it is not a pious retelling of the brief story of the Great Flood as recounted in one particularly famous book of fables and myths, even though it is deeply reverent and spiritual. It is also not an empty CG spectacle, even though it features giant creatures made of rock and the Earth’s surface being scoured clean by the world’s biggest tsunami. It is not a typical bloated Hollywood blockbuster from a filmmaker given too much free rein, even though it cost an estimated $125 million and its director has never made a movie for more than $35 million before.
In other words, Noah could have easily fallen into any of the above categories and been doomed to artistic failure (box office is another story that is yet to be told). But while the film is flawed in many ways, Noah is also a unique, entertaining and at times profoundly moving experience. There has been no Biblical Epic like this before, and very few studio tentpoles like it either. Director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), while submerging some of his stylistic trademarks in the service of this story, has nevertheless applied his uncanny ability to create fresh takes on genre films to both the religious saga and the fantasy blockbuster in one fell swoop.
We are all familiar with the basics of the story, which Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel flesh out with research from the Book of Enoch and other scholarly texts and studies. A brief recap of Biblical myth brings us up to speed on the fall of Adam and Eve and the murder of Abel by Cain. Cain’s descendants go off and, with the help of fallen angels known as Watchers, create an industrial civilization that is slowly poisoning the Earth. The descendents of the third brother, Seth, become simple folk who live off the land and take care of it.
When we meet Seth’s descendant Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family – wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and young sons Shem, Ham and Japheth – they are trying to live up to those ideals, even though the land is desolate, food is scarce and marauders from the city roam the region. But then Noah gets a vision that the Creator (who is never referred to as “God”) has had enough of humankind’s evil ways and wants to wipe the Earth clean with water. His vision is confirmed by his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who helps Noah retrieve the rest of the message: he is to build a vast ark and save two of every animal in order to start over once the human race has been eradicated from creation.
Noah sets about the task at once and spends years building the ship with the help of his now grown sons, his adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) – who the family saved as a child from the site of a massacre – and the Watchers, who see this as their way to redeem themselves in the eyes of the Creator for their sin of introducing knowledge to humankind. Noah never questions the job he has been tasked with. But there are many obstacles in his path, not the least of which are the city dwellers, led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), who would like to reserve some rooms on the ark as well and are ready to do anything to get onboard.
To me, the most interesting films based on religious stories have been the ones made by those who have stepped outside the organization. Martin Scorsese, a lapsed Catholic, was able to beautifully show us the humanity of Jesus and the stakes of the sacrifice he makes in The Last Temptation of Christ, and here Aronofsky, who was raised around Judaism but is now reportedly an atheist, understands that the story of Noah is a pure fable, with no basis in reality at all, and that allows him to envision the story the way he wants to see it without denying any of its spiritual power. In fact, the basic themes of Noah – our relationship with nature, our relationships to ourselves and our family, whether humankind is essentially wicked, and the qualities of mercy and faith – are intensely relevant to the modern world. To say, as some of the film’s detractors (most of whom haven’t seen it) have, that the movie has a pro-environmental message is reductive and lazy: who doesn’t want to protect and preserve the environment? Who doesn’t want to live in a beautiful, unspoiled world? (How we get there is another discussion for another place.)
And to say that the movie paints Noah as a bad man himself – well, no, it just portrays him as human, with the same flaws and weaknesses as any other man or woman. There’s a great scene in which Noah tells Naameh that their family wasn’t given the task of building the ark because they’re such great people, and he proceeds to list each family members’ issues. By the time the ark has been in the water for months and Noah faces another grave decision regarding the fate of his family, he has been driven nearly insane by the burden – and what normal person wouldn’t? Make him some sort of perfect, saintly superhero and the story loses all of its emotional strength.
While the themes and subtexts are eloquent and forceful, the execution is ultimately a mixed bag. Crowe is outstanding as Noah, delivering what is easily one of the most complex and deeply felt performances of his life, but the supporting players around him seem smaller in comparison. Part of the problem is the way they are written: Connelly’s Naameh just stands around looking concerned for the first half of the movie, only getting her chance to shine with her actions later in the film, while Hopkins is tonally quirky and Winstone plays the big bad with little nuance. Shem (Douglas Booth) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) get little to do. But the biggest problem character is Ham. While Shem and Ila fall in love, Ham is denied the chance to take a woman on the ark with him – a point driven home brutally when Noah forces him to abandon one potential bride to her death — and spends the rest of the movie as first a pouting and then vengeful brat. Lerman doesn’t have the range yet to portray him as much more than that.
On the production side, Aronofsky’s vision of the pre-Flood world is beautifully, eerily realized. This is our world, but not: it’s a strange, ancient time that feels as remote to us as our civilization will feel to those who follow us thousands of years from now (assuming we’re still around). The stars are hanging differently in the sky and the air feels charged with the supernatural. The stone-encrusted Watchers, when we first see them, fit well into this design and their “origin” story is one of the film’s most striking sequences, but the more I watched, the more they reminded me of the Ents from The Lord of the Rings.
The whole first half of the film, in fact, feels more like Peter Jackson’s trilogy than anything Cecil B. DeMille ever dreamed up; it’s only in the second half that the film’s core spirituality, humanism and compassion surface. They do have to battle for screen time with more conventional melodramatics — including the standoff between Noah and Ham and the discovery of a lethal stowaway on the ark — and the film’s climax feels as frenzied as any standard blockbuster ending. But the more profound moments – such as Noah’s recounting of the story of Creation, which neatly encompasses the theory of evolution, and the arrival of the animals – stand out more starkly in comparison.
In the end, Aronofsky is committed to his vision even though it seems as if he barely has it under control at times, and while the film stumbles it is never boring and always fascinating. Kudos must go to cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell for making Noah a visual and musical feast. Cinematic spectacle, cautionary fable and, if you’re so inclined, religious text – Noah is all these things in some way, and while the parts don’t always work together smoothly, the fact that the filmmaker even tried makes this powerful and even must-see viewing.