Critics have used a lot of words to describe Darren Aronofsky, predictable is never one of them. Since his feature debut with Pi, a thriller centred on a mathematician searching for a number to unlock patterns in the world around him, Aronfosky has gone on to make films about drug addiction (Requiem for a Dream), love in a spiritual and philosophical sense (The Fountain), struggling to accept your place in the world (The Wrestler), and the fragile line between obsession and madness (Black Swan). This is a director who, when interviewed at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, revealed that before Christopher Nolan was given the job of dusting off Warner Brothers’ Batman franchise, toyed with the idea of making a Batman film, but set it in the everyday world; an ordinary man, not a billionaire, fighting crime. Now Aronofsky takes his CV in another, totally different direction: the biblical epic as a summer blockbuster.
When the announcement came that Aronofsky’s next project was to bring Noah to the big screen, I was keen to find out how he would manage it. When you stop and think about it, Noah isn’t the most sympathetic of heroes; he lets billions of people drown. Aronofsky’s films, no matter how obscure, all have protagonists that you either care about, or at the very least you want to find out what happens to them. All I remember of the story is what was taught in primary school, but I couldn’t imagine Noah being the most likeable of leads.
Aronofsky wisely does not comment on whether God or religion is good or bad; he avoids this discussion. Instead, his vision of Noah is to ask the question, what would you do if faced with the task of wiping out mankind for the greater good? Could you do it, and could you deal with the consequences? This is not the story of Noah that you sang about in school, where the man who built the ark is described as a hero. Aronofsky’s Noah portrays him as a flawed man, sometimes bordering on fanatic.
Russell Crowe has given some excellent performances during his career, and as Noah he gives one of his best. There are times where Crowe looks weary, struggling with the burden he has been given. Audiences will find it hard to sympathise with Noah; for the majority of the film he is unwavering, never doubting what has been asked of him, pointing out that God did not choose him because he is a good man, but because he will do what needs to be done. It is in the occasional calm moments later on, when Noah stops and realises what he has done, that Crowe really excels. If you root for Crowe it is because he is so determined, the responsibility all on him; you find yourself begrudgingly respecting Noah.
Jennifer Connelly, as Noah’s wife Naameh, is the film’s heart; she is who you empathise with. Naameh loves her husband, but she is constantly questioning him, pleading with him, even going behind his back to do what she feels is right. Connelly asks many of the questions that audiences will have, some of Noah’s most powerful scenes being when Connelly is close to breaking point, distraught, pointing out to her husband how much of a hypocrite he is.
Ray Winstone once again gets the bad guy role, but at least his character - Tubal-Cain, ruler of the remaining humans – has some complexity to him. When the rain begins to fall, Winstone looks up at the sky and asks what gives God the right to wipe out so many people. In one of Crowe and Winstone’s many stand offs, Winstone asks what the point is of praying to a God who has turned his back on them. Winstone’s career may involve him playing tiny variations of the same role, but the memorable villains are always the ones you find yourself strangely relating to, which is what Winstone succeeds in doing with Tubal-Cain.
Noah is very much a film of two halves: flashy CGI in the first hour, then downbeat introspection for the remainder. The first half is very much about spectacle; the building of the ark and the floods that devastate the world. Much of the CGI is up there with the best summer blockbusters, with the exception of the stone giants, the Watchers; fallen angels who help Noah build the arc. While the scene depicting their fall is beautiful, dramatic stuff, the Watchers themselves are shoddy-looking. How I judge CGI is if I stop and think, “That was done on a computer,” then the special effects haven’t done their job. CGI should be a method to tell a story, but if the animation is not up to scratch, then you distance your audience. Considering Black Swan has one of the best examples of CGI in recent years, when Nina’s madness takes hold and she sprouts feathers, literally transforming into the Black Swan on stage, the Watchers are nowhere near as impressive. When these creatures are talking to Noah, or are surrounded by forest or desert, you can clearly tell they are not part of the same scene, that they were added later on.
The rest of Noah is dotted with visual effects and set-pieces that, while the film is one of the first blockbusters to be released this year, it is difficult to imagine how other big name releases will match it, both in terms of scale and imagination. No one who watches Noah will fail to be wowed by Crowe’s retelling of the seven days of creation. Using still frame animation, we are shown the universe coming together, cells dividing, fish sprouting legs and crawling onto land, before finally arriving at the first man and woman. It is easily as spectacular as the animation used in James Cameron’s Avatar.
For me, Noah is at its most impressive when it gets the build-up to the flood out of the way and it is Noah and his family alone on the ark. You have Noah listening to the screams of the survivors outside. Crowe, hard faced and resolute up until this point, flinches for a moment, before telling his family that they must stick with the task they have been given. Later on, Noah uncomfortably resembles the leaders of religious cults when he decides that all mankind should die out, including his wife and children. It’s psychological, morally complex stuff, the likes of which you don’t see in a Hollywood blockbuster.
Like Aronofsky’s previous films, Noah won’t be for everyone. It is overlong, takes itself ridiculously seriously, and about as subtle as having a brick thrown through your window. Unless you were looking at your phone during the film’s two-and-a-half-hours, you can’t fail to have noticed one of Noah’s main themes, environmentalism, which Aronfsky insists on hitting audiences over the head with. Comparing the world of Noah to our world today is a smart move, though Aronfsky didn’t have to keep reminding us.
A large number of critics have described Noah as Aronofsky’s weakest film. They’re probably right, but that’s like saying Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is nowhere near as good as Psycho. Noah proves that you don’t have to have a summer film featuring giant robots and little else; a big budget event film can be intelligent, have scene after scene of original ideas, take risks, be controversial, and engage an audience. Noah is far from perfect, but Aronofsky deserves praise for successfully transferring one of the Bible’s most famous stories to the big screen at a time when, if you watch the news, it feels like religion is frowned upon more than ever. When we look back at Aronofsky’s work, if Noah ends up being the director’s worst film, he will have had an impressive, unmatched career.
3 out of 5