Darren Aronofsky is one of my favorite directors of all time (if not my #1). He’s known for creating dark, art-house dramas (“Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fountain,” “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan”) that are characterized by their focus on obsessive pursuit of perfection as an absolute ideal. This makes for gripping, if bleak, character studies. Needless to say, I was thrilled to learn he’d been tapped for a big-budget adaptation of the biblical story of Noah…although such a film would be a vast departure from his past oeuvre.
This movie has gotten a lot of bad press in some circles, and is already polarizing audiences (most critics liked it). I’m going to go so far as to say that those who really, really hated it didn’t fully understand what Aronofsky was trying to do with this film. (Disclaimer up front: I tend to interpret much of early Genesis as allegorical literature rather than historical fact, so recasting the Noah story as a mythic epic didn’t bother me at all from a spiritual standpoint. Your sentiments may differ.)
Here’s a quick synopsis (the skeleton of the biblical story is there, but it’s definitely gotten the Hollywood treatment): sometime in mythic prehistory, Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family are dwelling in an apocalyptic wilderness laid bare by the brutish strip-mining of Cain’s descendants under evil Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone). Eventually, Noah begins to receive cryptic visions of a global deluge to come…visions which clearly come from the Creator himself. After an attack by Tubal-Cain’s men, Noah and his family flee into uncharted territory and are rescued by the enigmatic, rock-monster-like Watchers (disobedient but repentant angels, fallen to earth after attempting to interfere with the affairs of men).
Crucially, Noah believes that his task is to save the animals – the “innocents” – from the coming destruction…and that after the storm, mankind, in all its fallen condition, will die off and be replaced by morally purer organisms lacking the capacity for destruction. This, Noah has decided, is the unquestionable will of the Creator…even if it results in him threatening his own newborn grandchildren.
(Because I keep hearing criticism along these lines, I’m going to digress momentarily to observe that the movie, while slathered in eco-speak on the surface, never at any point actually endorses any environmental philosophy other than “good stewardship.” The tension between the uniqueness of man and his fallen condition is integral to the film’s themes. Also, in the interests of debunking at least one more misconception I’ve seen floating around, Aronofsky isn’t an atheist. He comes from a Jewish background and probably falls into the category “spiritual but not religious,” if recent interviews are to be believed.)
There is a tendency in popular culture to treat the Noahic story as a moral binary: persons of faith point to the mercy of God in sparing Noah and his family from a society torn apart by evil, while opponents highlight the cruelty of God in committing a mass global genocide. Neither side will be happy with what Aronofsky has presented here: “Noah” is bound together by a tangled web of intellectual and ethical ideas that raise atypical questions and demand thoughtful reflection. Here are just a handful, though there are many more:
– What value is to be found in the capacity for moral reasoning and choice which distinguishes humans from animals? (and make no mistake, this distinction is made crystal-clear)
– How does mankind’s being “made in the image of God” confer unique privileges and obligations?
– Is free will important enough to make terrible sacrifices for?
– At what point, and for what reasons, are human beings likely to fill gaps in their spiritual understanding with pieces of a narrative they themselves have constructed?
– How does this extrapolative tendency implicate the decisions humans make?
– In such decisions, when should a more holistic understanding of the divine nature be valued over uniquely circumstantial considerations?
– What does true “moral evil” look like?
– When (if ever) is harsh punishment an appropriate response to this?
– What does “mercy” look like in the face of absolute divine judgment?
– Or…taking a step back even further, to what extent could the judgment suffered by individuals be mitigated by alternative choices on the parts of the individuals themselves or other actors?
– What is a suitable expression of faith while one suffers in a condition of salvific uncertainty?
These are grand, sweeping, soul-stirring questions that big-budget blockbusters never dare to ask – yet in “Noah,” Aronofsky thrusts them into the forefront of the viewer’s consciousness. By recasting Noah as a deeply flawed protagonist, a decision which is already proving unpalatable to many, Aronofsky forces his audience to grapple with moral questions more sophisticated than “could God have been right to destroy the world”?
This philosophical richness makes for intensely compelling viewing. Indeed, “Noah” never drags – I would’ve been fine with even slower pacing, given how fast Aronofsky’s clearly trying to cover all his story bases. Buoyed by generally strong performances (particularly from Crowe), and some spectacular action scenes, “Noah” works as both mass-consumption entertainment and probing character study. That said, it’s probably worth noting that this movie is very, very dark (although Aronofsky’s clearly holding back in order to obtain the box-office-friendlier PG-13 rating). Outbreaks of brutal violence are frequent, and, unsurprisingly, a generally gloomy tone pervades the whole film.
“Noah” is by no means a perfect film. It’s uneven in spots, particularly in the first half as the movie struggles to find its narrative footing. Some of the CGI work is patchy, and a few key players (particularly Emma Watson, playing the wife of Noah’s son Shem) demonstrate a tendency to overact their parts. More frustratingly, Anthony Hopkins’ mystical Methuselah, who serves as something of a Yoda-figure throughout, is deployed for purposes of plot advancement but accomplishes little else.
That said, “Noah” is well worth watching for most audiences. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s liking, and those expecting a more straightforward biblical interpretation (a la “The Ten Commandments”) are likely to be seriously disappointed. But for those viewers interested in a literary challenge, “Noah” is genuinely outstanding entertainment.
Hollywood needs more movies like this.
An imperfect but ultimately compelling reinterpretation of the Noah account. Provocative and challenging, yet also deeply redemptive.
Normalized Score: 6.9