DIR: Darren Aronofsky • WRI: Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel • PRO: Darren Aronofsky , Scott Franklin, Arnon Milchan, Mary Parent • DOP: Matthew Libatique • ED: Andrew Weisblum • MUS: Clint Mansell • DES: Mark Friedberg • CAST: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson
If ten years ago you said that the director responsible for Pi and Requiem for a Dream would be making $125 million biblical epics you would have been… remarkably prescient. So, eh, well done, I guess!
Yes, surely thanks to the remarkable performance of Black Swan at the global box office, Darren Aronofksy has been granted a budget and canvas rarely afforded to arthouse darlings. With those resources, he has opted to put his own unique slant on one of the most famous stories of them all – that of Noah and his apocalypse-proof ark. It could have gone either way – a triumph or a massive disaster. Actually, it’s neither, but it’s absolutely fascinating to watch.
Do I need to go into a synopsis? The core story – divine vision, two of every animal, apocalyptic flood – is roughly intact, so many of the key story beats are obvious. What is interesting, however, is how unusual Aronofsky’s telling of the story is. He picks and chooses elements from the various versions and interpretations, as well as adding details of his own. Structurally, it’s far removed from your typical Hollywood blockbuster – most of the spectacle is spent in the film’s first half – which is perhaps perhaps best described as a ‘fantasy epic’ – and a majority of the second is devoted to a pretty intense family melodrama.
Noah, it should be said, is rather ‘Old Testament’ in its storytelling. It manages to get across the horror, violence, ancient morality and – yes – moments of beauty that are contained in those early volumes. It makes a valiant attempt at both critiquing and respecting the religious aspects of the story. There’s a truly stunning ‘creation’ sequence, for example, that recounts the biblical story while also allowing an evolutionary reading – a wonderful and provocative discourse realised with Aronofsky’s visceral visual storytelling (here using rapid montage editing). ‘The Creator’ (no mention the G-word here), meanwhile, mostly remains an elusive, mysterious presence throughout, despite being integral to the story. Aronofsky brings a welcome degree of scepticism while staying generally loyal to many of the myth’s themes and ideas: likely to alienate many viewers in the process, but resulting in a richer film. There’s also a contemporary environmentalist message mixed in, although it gels into the story’s themes relatively nicely and only rarely feels preachy.
The production values to the film are predictably impressive throughout – iffy CGI aside, but more on that anon – although the film inevitably sings during the scenes where Aronofsky indulges his wilder stylistic urges. There are several seriously spectacular moments, including a recurring dream / vision sequence that adds some welcome aesthetic oomph to that hoary cinematic tradition. The spectacle, when it comes, is intense and epic. Clint Mansell again proves himself a valuable asset, with his bold score embracing both subtlety and bombast when required. The music is overblown at times, but no more so than the story itself. Generally, there’s a welcome eccentric unpredictability to the film – despite tackling one of the best known stories from history, it’s the rare film of this scale that is happy to embark on stylistic flights of fancy or explore the underexplored thematic resonances inherent in Noah’s plight.
Actually, the single-most interesting aspect of Noah is the characterisation of the man himself. Crowe, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel collaborate to put him on-screen as someone driven to obsession and near-madness by the challenge handed to him. He’s far from a traditional screen hero, particularly in the film’s latter half when he becomes almost completely delusional and manages to violently alienate his family in the process. It’s certainly a bold take on the character. Other members of Noah’s family do get the screentime necessary to explore their own stories, however. Jennifer Connelly plays his initially supportive wife, Naameh, with real passion, while Anthony Hopkins’ cameo adds some welcome colour – and the film’s only thing resembling humour – as Noah’s ancient grandfather Methuselah. One of the meatiest supporting roles is reserved for Emma Watson as Ila, the ‘barren’ partner of Noah’s eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth, who has comparatively little to do). Much time is also devoted to the increasingly strained relationship between Noah and middle-son Ham (Logan Lerman), who understandably is a little depressed about the possibility of a new world without the fairer sex. Ray Winstone appears as Tubal-cain, the cruel leader determined to procure the ark for himself. Alas, his extended appearance is one of the film’s less interesting features.
Which naturally leads on to the observation that the film is pretty wildly uneven. As soon as the CGI rock monsters / fallen angels appear in the opening minutes, it’s pretty obvious that certain aspects of the film ask a lot from the viewer, even if you’re willing to accept the more fantastical elements. Said ‘Watchers’ don’t become any less odd as they play a more integral part in the film’s second act. The whole thing is earnest and self-serious: rightly so at times, but to the point of parody at others. As alluded to above, plenty of it is completely overblown, especially some of the farcically melodramatic turns towards the film’s end. Surprisingly, apart from two scenes, the animals themselves are underused, although that might be down to the fact the CGI teams are clearly struggling to believably render thousands of different species at the same time. And the ending feels far too neat and tidy, as well as tonally inconsistent with what came before.
Yet, for all its imperfections – and it is, no mistake, a wildly mixed bag – there’s something ultimately admirable about its devil-may-care ambition. Aronofsky throws everything he has at the screen, and while much of it fails to stick, a lot of it does. It is a brave, auteristic blockbuster in an era when blandness and safety have become the standards. There’s something refreshing about that. It’s a reminder how rarely directors like Darren Aronofsky are gifted an opportunity to craft something on this scale, and how strange it is to see a fresh interpretation of such an iconic story. When Noah is at its visceral best, it’s something to be truly savoured, even if it can be just as maddening as endearing.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Noah is released on 4th April 2014