It doesn’t take a theologian to figure out that Darren Aronofsky’s Noah isn’t living up to its biblical namesake. About two minutes in when some giant rock monsters show up is about all it should take for even average viewers to realize that this story of a prophet who foretold a great flood and built a giant ark to save two of every animal on Earth isn’t a word for word adaptation aimed at the religiously faithful.
And yet for the first 90 minutes or so of Noah that sort of outlandish grandeur works to the film’s advantage, with Aronofsky creating a go-for-broke fantasy epic borne from one of the greatest stories in written history. Then once the flood waters rise and the arc starts moving on its journey, it turns very awkwardly into a completely different film than the one it originally set up. It turns into precisely every other sour faced and dour film Aronofsky has made in his career. It doesn’t want to tell the story of Noah word for word, so it starts off by letting the audience have fun before turning into a bit of a schoolmarm that chastises the audience for having fun in the first place. It’s okay overall and certainly a grand spectacle, but it’s wildly uneven.
Noah (Russell Crowe), descendant of Seth and tasked with keeping creation alive, awakens one night to a vision from the creator: the world being destroyed in a flood of water from the heavens and the earth to cleanse itself of the violent and the wicked. When asked by his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, who spends most of the film on a strange quest for berries that makes little sense) if the storm can be survived, Noah envisions the building of a ship to contain two of every animal (still pure because they act as they did in the Garden of Eden) and his family. He’s aided in the construction of his ark by an orphan rescued from a mining colony slaughter named Ila (Emma Watson), his sons Ham (Logan Lerman) and Shem (Douglas Booth), his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and a group of hulking monsters known as The Watchers: fallen angels doomed to roam the Earth with solidified rock as bodies. They are opposed by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), descendant of Cain, who wishes to rush the ark with his wicked people to help sustain the very life that made God want to wipe out the whole lot of them in the first place.
There’s an impressionistic way about telling the story here that feels a bit like Mad Max if Max had been ahead of the curve and predicted the apocalypse and nothing bad ever happened to him. He’s tough, resourceful, logical, and a true believer that his system will be the one to ultimately work. It’s definitely not a particularly religious work (aside from some passing nods to Old Testament Judaism for “consistency” sake). It’s fun to watch Aronofsky create this grand sandbox to play in and portray everything happening with a sense of urgency and a knowing sense of humour that none of this actually happened. It helps to both make the story pretty badass to watch (it’s hard not to get amped up like a little kid watching the arc/ark come together or having the main hero and villain deliver their points of view via well delivered speeches), but it also gives a reason to feel invested in a story pretty much everyone knows the outcome to. It’s never in doubt that the ark will take off, but how it gets there is consistently surprising and fun to watch.
It’s also a gorgeously mounted production. Aronofsky has proven quite adept at the art of the dramatic montage, so it should come as no surprise that Noah’s visions or a lengthy telling of the origin of the universe and the human race (one that contains A LOT of strobing and seems to advocate for evolution over creationism) look wonderful. But working on a bigger canvas, Aronofsky learns a few new tricks. He’s able to adequately integrate large scale CGI effects into his film by filming them in broad daylight most of the time instead of in the rain or darkness like most films of this nature would probably attempt. The almost Harryhausen-looking Watchers are marvelous. The violent protecting of the ark and the fiery destruction of Tubal-cain’s shantytown are stunning in terms of scope and sheer brutality. It’s definitely not a soft film to watch, and the epicness and stakes of the story are better for it.
It’s also worth nothing that Crowe and Winstone are fantastic, even when the material will eventually both let them down. Crowe hasn’t really had a role this good since The Insider and he makes the most of it, portraying Noah as a hard, task driven man who seems to believe that more than anything else his kindness will be put to the greatest test. It’s a quiet, reserved performance, but one coming from a place of great strength and conviction. As for his ideological counterpart, Winstone is suitably nasty, villainous, and selfish, at many points feeling exactly like the bad guy from most 1980s and 90s post-apocalyptic action films.
So while it all works quite well up to a point, there will come a moment when that grandeur and fun stops almost dead shortly into the ark’s actual voyage, and the story gives into almost painful contrivance, forced dramatics, and it becomes a depressing, leaden paced morality tale in spite of the film that proceeds it. Whereas the rest of the film focused on Noah’s task and encroaching forces, Aronofsky decides to hamfistedly look at the character’s crooked sense of morality and how all the humans on the boat (including a stowed away Tubal-cain) are sinners unworthy of travelling to New Eden.
The previously barren Ila finds herself with child courtesy of Noah’s eldest and some divine mystical intervention from his grandfather, but instead of being overjoyed, Noah goes ballistic insisting he will kill the child if it’s a girl because they will no longer be “the last man” alive on Earth. This also drives a wedge further between Noah and Ham, who has aligned himself with Tubal-cain after Noah ignored the cries of help form a woman he wanted to take for his own wife.
With the exception of Lerman, who rises to the occasion quite well in the final act, and Crowe who can only act more or less like the same level headed guy throughout even when going stir crazy (in a choice most likely made by Aronofsky), everyone’s performance suffers. It becomes a film where previously underutilized actresses Watson and Connelly can only cry and shout at Noah for being an admittedly awful person all of a sudden. It isn’t flattering to either of them, but at least Watson has better dialogue than the words Connelly has to trip over during her big speech, the most cringe worthy scene in the film.
Feasibly, this is a story that would have made the most sense had Aronofsky simply cut from the ark taking off to them landing at Mount Ararat. Instead, it becomes the same kind of “man driven mad by a feeling of power and purpose” film that he has made with literally every other film in his career without deviation. It’s Aronofsky sabotaging what could have actually been the best film of his career simply by being Aronofsky. He’s a talented technician, but a marginal storyteller at the best of times, and his late film thesis about all of humanity being horrid and worthy of extinction doesn’t hold water with what he spent most of his time trying to prove: that humanity at its best is worth saving.
It all leads to an oddly truncated and weak climax considering an entirely different film started 40 minutes before it arrives. Still, I’m inclined to give Noah a passing recommendation because those first 90 minutes are unquestionably great. It’s been widely known that Aronofsky has wanted to make a comic book themed film for over a decade now, and those first 90 minutes follow through on that promise spectacularly. Then once Aronofsky “The Auteur” takes over, the ship nearly sinks before the flood can end.