Admittedly, this writer attended a viewing of Noah last week with trepidation. A March 17 New Yorker profile on director Darren Aronofsky gave good cause for suspicion the film would be yet another Hollywood environmentalist screed wherein humanity is depicted as a cancer on God’s creation. Instead, the film (largely) avoids such proclamations in favor of some pretty intense – make that very intense – family psychodrama and a spun-from-whole-cloth story involving Watchers, clan rivalry and allusions to other Old Testament stories.
Before the first fistful of popcorn, Aronofsky provides a decent CliffsNotes version of Genesis. The filmmaker deftly avoids religious controversy until depicting Cain’s wickedness as not only manifested by the slaying of his brother Abel but — much worse by Hollywood standards — his subsequent career as an “industrialist.” About here I’m thinking, “Oh, boy, we’re in for a slog.”
Described by Aronofsky as “a fantasy film taking place in a mythical quasi-Biblical world” and “the least Biblical Biblical film ever made,” Noah takes great liberties in its re-imagining of the Great Flood and the eventual reboot of humanity. Whereas other artists focused on Noah obsessing over the building of the Ark, Aronofsky depicts Noah (Russell Crowe) as a man clearly in communication with the “Creator” but – just as clearly – somehow getting his prophetic lines crossed as to what exactly his mission entails after the deluge.
But it gets better despite several miscues, telegraphed by the director in the New Yorker piece: “There is a huge statement in the film, a strong message about the coming flood from global warming. Noah has been a silly-old-guy-with-a-white-beard story, but really it’s the first apocalypse,” he told writer Tad Friend. Friend summarized: “His Noah, believing that God’s message privileges animals over men, becomes a scourging Earth First! Activist.”
In Aronofsky’s realization of the Noah story, the title character witnesses his father’s death at the hands of Tubal-Cain, descendant of you-know-who and sworn enemy of the lineage of Seth, the good son of Adam and Eve. Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) brutishly asserts his God-given dominion over lesser species, flagrantly grabbing and eating animal flesh tartare. Members of Tubal-Cain’s tribe aren’t above trading their daughters for meat, either.
Thankfully, without divulging any spoilers, the film eventually jettisons its rejection of the innate goodness of humankind. However, it’s not Noah but his daughter-in-law Ila (Emma Watson) who explains to Noah the essence of God’s gift of free will in the final reel. Getting to this point, however, requires tenacity as viewers are navigated through themes of genocide, patricide, and infanticide. This ain’t a Sunday school rendering of an-always-benevolent Noah, and Crowe’s portrayal is equal parts obsessive madman, raging psychopath and nurturing naturalist and family man. Noah, according to Crowe and Aronofsky, will cry over a killed animal but turn into an accomplished warrior – handy with knife- and spear-throwing and hand-to-hand combat – when the occasion arises.
If you can manage it, understand Noah as a $125 million Hollywood blockbuster incorporating dark themes prevalent throughout its director’s body of work (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, Pi, The Wrestler, The Fountain), featuring some intense action sequences, wonderful Icelandic scenery, incredible computer-generated graphics of the animals boarding the Ark, and marquee acting talent. This last includes Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah (who, like the Watchers – giant rock beings that got on the Creator’s bad side somewhere East of Eden and wind up performing the lions’ share of ark construction – seems to have wandered into Noah from a Peter Jackson adaptation of a J.R.R. Tolkien story). I wouldn’t mind declaring a moratorium on future cinematic pairings of Crowe and Jennifer Connelly as their two collaborations (A Beautiful Mind being the first) featured more than a modicum of mental instability.
Taken as a whole, Noah is a ripping good yarn if not taken as a literal interpretation of the Old Testament story. Yet, it too easily defaults to blaming industrialization and hubris for all the planet’s ills both before and after the Flood. It’s unfortunate that industry’s net benefits for the good of all humankind couldn’t have found a way into the script along with Ila’s revelation that humanity is worth saving despite Noah’s doubts.