March 28, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “Noah”


NOAH:  Worth A Ticket –The Word According to Darren Aronofsky

When Darren Aronofsky decided to follow Black Swan, the biggest hit of his career, with the story of Noah and the Ark, it seemed like a perverse choice.  Traditionally, the big-budget biblical epic has been among the blandest and most conservative of Hollywood genres, especially these days, when religious movies have to be called “faith-based” for political correctness purposes–hardly the territory for an edgy filmmaker who had just been plucked from his indie budget level.  This NOAH, though, is hardly the familiar, almost cuddly tale of a patriarch protecting the animals two by two.  The beasts of land, sea and air barely figure into the story that Aronofsky has wrestled to his own purposes, even if he had to invent much of his own cosmology to do it.  The new Noah is about the end of the world, and its main dramatic action concerns the hero’s grim determination to commit infanticide.  Aronofsky’s Noah is the Bible crossed with The Shining.

Viewed in those terms, this Noah (played by Russell Crowe) is fully in line with the protagonists of Pi, Requiem For a Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler, as well as Natalie Portman’s doomed ballerina.  Like all of them, Noah answers to voices that others can’t hear, to an extent that’s both self-destructive and harmful to others.  The fact that in this case Noah really is hearing the voice of God (despite the liberties they take, Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel never question the divine nature of Noah’s revelations) doesn’t make his life one bit easier.  In this telling, Noah and his family are the last direct descendants of Seth, the righteous son of Adam and Eve who wasn’t Cain or Abel.  The line of Seth was aided by fallen angels known as The Watchers, who for their interference in human life were confined to Earth by God and encased in the earth itself, turned into creatures of rock and mud.  (They move and sound–with the voices of Nick Nolte, Frank Langella and Kevin Durand, among others–something like the walking tree Ents in Lord of the Rings.)

The rest of humanity descends from Cain, and you know what that means–selfishness, violence and evil, represented in the film by the lord of Noah’s unnamed kingdom, Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone).  It was Tubal-Cain who murdered Noah’s father when Noah was a child.  Noah himself, at the start of the story, lives peacefully with his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), as well as the orphaned Ila (Emma Watson), whom Noah rescued as a child and who has a scar across her abdomen that Naameh instantly knows means that Ila will never be able to bear children.  Noah’s grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) resides in a nearby cave and has his own wisdom/madness/magic.

All is reasonably well until God visits Noah in his dreams, which are tinged with Terence Malick-style imagery.  (The photography is by Matthew Libatique and the powerfully discordant score is by Clint Mansell, both longtime Aronofsky collaborators.)  Noah is haunted by the visions of apocalypse, but sets out for 8 years (and with the help of The Watchers) to build the ark, which is here more of a gigantic barge, on which the animals ride in what seems more like suspended animation than hibernation.

The problems stem from mankind.  First, as the torrents begin to sweep the land, Tubal-Cain leads a battle of desperate people to fight for a place on the ark against Noah, his family and The Watchers, who fend almost all of them off to certain death.  That brings Noah the spectacle and action that Hollywood requires from a big-budget effort.  For Aronofsky, though, the true crisis is an existential one.  His Noah doesn’t just accept God’s judgment of apocalypse for the human race and consider it deserved–he believes that the sentence of death for original sin extends to his own family as well.  Far from assuming that his clan will repopulate the Earth, he’s certain that his bloodline is meant to die out, leaving the planet in the hands of the innocent animals alone.  When Ila miraculously becomes pregnant, he considers it his solemn and holy duty to murder any female baby that could bear a later generation.  (Of course, all of humanity would be the children of incest in any case, and since Ila is now fertile, shouldn’t she have to be killed too, but let’s not dwell on all that.)

The second half of Noah revolves around whether Ila will give birth to a girl, and whether Noah will murder his grandchild.  Despite the fact that–spoiler alert!–humanity has to ultimately survive, this is dark stuff, not to be found in any Sunday school teachings.  Aronofsky is fascinated by people who are compelled to take terrible actions (it often feels like the Bible story he really wanted to tell was the one about Abraham and Isaac, but it wasn’t large enough in scale), and whatever one may think of Noah as bible study, it makes for powerful drama.  Russell Crowe gives his best performance in years here, completely believable as a decent man tormented to the point of madness by messages he feels he can’t ignore.  Connelly and Watson, as the women begging for life, are piercing as well.

Not all of Noah works.  Although Aronofsky gets away with his boulder-like Watchers, the CG animals are second-rate for an epic of this caliber.  The big battle scene plays as though it’s been put together by Peter Jackson’s second-unit director.  More seriously, none of Noah’s sons register as complex characters–Shem is mostly blank, Ham is mostly sullen, and it’s easy to forget that Japheth even exists.  Although Ray Winstone gives his all to being the embodiment of all that is nasty in mankind, Tubal-Cain is ultimately a stock villain.  Whether genuine on Aronofsky’s part or imposed by a nervous studio, the film’s last few minutes are inspirational in a banal way that doesn’t suit what’s come before.

Nevertheless, much of the time this is stirring, profoundly distinctive filmmaking, a daring way of re-appropriating the original horror and devastation of a story that’s become comfort food.  Aronofsky answers to his own voices, and they’re what make him an artist.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."