There’s an irony to the fact that big-screen efforts based on Bible stories have marched two-by-two into theaters during 2014’s first quarter. Unlike the animals rescued on Noah’s Ark, however, these pictures couldn’t be more different – and audiences who prefer one likely will reject the other.
Earlier this year, I noted that the faithful-to-a-fault production Son of God lacked dramatic impact because it adhered too religiously to its sacred source material. I begged for the film to take chances, which is exactly what Darren Aronofsky ends up doing with Noah. His bold interpretation of an overly familiar Biblical passage is every bit as daring, unpredictable and insane as Son of God was tame, staid and, ultimately, dull.
In other words, this is not your father’s version of the Noah tale -- and certainly not the Holy Father’s version. That’s the reason why I appreciate Noah as much as I do… and also the reason why you might despise it.
Only the skeletal frame of Noah’s Old Testament story remains; the parts you could recite from memory, even if you hadn’t read Genesis in decades (if ever, at all). There’s 40 days of rain, a planet-consuming flood, an ark that houses two of every animal, and the decimation of a wayward civilization by a disappointed god. (Oh, the term “God” is never uttered here. “Creator” is Aronofsky’s substitute, one of many decisions that could alienate potential Catholic supporters.)
Russell Crowe assumes superior Movie Star mode to play Noah, a humble husband and father who experiences visions that his Creator is displeased with the debauchery consuming society. Noah believes that water will wash away mankind’s collective sins, so he sets out to construct an ark that will keep the chosen safe. So far, so good. From there, however, Aronofsky opts to dwell in the grey areas of Noah’s tale, elaborating on this story in unexpected, often mystical ways. Spirituality creates narrative wiggle room, and it’s those unusual decision that often keep this boat afloat (or sinks it, depending on your Biblical adaptation tastes).
Ask yourself, before heading into Noah, how much of the Ark story you actually believe. Do you accept the entirety of the story on faith? That a 600-year-old man used timber to construct a vessel large enough to protect his family, as well as two of every “clean” species, then endured more than 150 days at sea while the disgusting descendents of the murderous Cain drowned? If that’s you, avoid Noah. You won’t care for how far Aronofsky’s willing to push your acceptance of Biblical fact. Like, for example, the Rock Monsters who help Noah on his quest.
It feels like I should explain, but that takes away some of the visceral thrill of watching Noah unfold. Like all agenda films, it will speak to a specific demographic, but has very little shot at reaching an audience that has dismissed it sight unseen. (As Pope Francis has done, on numerous occasions, despite Crowe’s persistence.) Aronofsky has earned a significant fan base of his own thanks to unnerving, uncomfortable but hugely rewarding films like Black Swan, The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream, and those who appreciate his left-field instincts are the ones who’ll best accept his bizarre interpretation.
You did hear me say Rock Monsters, right?
It shouldn’t matter that I was raised Catholic, but letting you know that gives this review some context. In my opinion, Old Testament stories offered themselves up to unusual analysis because their specifics had to be taken on faith. How did Moses divide the Red Sea so that his congregation could safely cross? Don’t know, just believe it. Noah asks real questions that could be raised by anyone who has read the Genesis chapters detailing the Great Flood. Then Aronofsky answers them, with rich symbols that are intriguing, inspiring, laughable and – at times – all three.
Spiritual preferences aside, Noah has so much going for it, creatively. Virtually everyone is perfectly cast. Only Jennifer Connelly, playing Noah’s wife Naameh, relies on stilted line deliveries that would fit better in Cecil B. DeMille’s overstated The Ten Commandments. Aronofsky, for his part, uses CGI to enhance the story, blending computer assistance with remarkably impressive practical effects – from the hundreds of extras employed for battle sequences to the actual Ark, itself. Choices made in the final act – many involving Ray Winstone’s comically evil antagonist, Tubal-cain – bloat the unnecessarily long Noah, but the film’s overall impact softens these mistakes in direction.
Overall, Noah is exactly the type of large-scale, ambitious, challenging, flawed, provocative and button-pushing type of cinematic experience we should hope to get when a strong-willed auteur like Aronofsky is given an exceedingly large budget. It’s a familiar story, spiced up by unconventional choices. You might not agree with everything you see. But you’d be crazy not to appreciate the fact that Aronofsky – or anyone, for that matter – earned the right to attempt to show it to us in this fashion.