Noah

March 29, 2014

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One would be tempted to ascribe the various factors that got Darren Aronofsky’s Noah made a quality of the miraculous, and they wouldn’t be far off.  A long-time passion project for the director, who’s last one, The Fountain, was a spectacular financial failure at less than a third of the budget for his latest, it’s existence owes to the phenomenal profitability (and awards fervour) that came with Black Swan as well as the studios ever-desperate attempts to tap into the Christian market, partly as a hangover from the seemingly-decades ago The Passion of the Christ as well as the organizing power of fundamentalist churches to bus their flocks in to see whatever Kirk Cameron-starring pabulum somebody patched together for the budget of a Hallmark Channel original.  The success of the History Channel’s series The Bible and its recent cynical theatrical cash-in, Son of God, might seem to bear the studios hopes out, but only if looked at from the perspective of someone who sees “Christianity” as a singular totality.  Of course, that last example had no real bearing on Noah getting made or its 100 million dollar price tag, but it’s probably instructive to understand the differences.  This is not to say that Noah will flop or become a failure – it’s big budget disaster fare with big name stars – but it’s hard not to get the feeling that Aronofsky pulled a fast one.

Noah is a film of two halves.  In the first part, you have the build-up to disaster and the numerous tropes that come along with it, but you also have a film more interested in the mythos and mysticism of the ancient Old Testament world.  Proper functioning cities and states don’t really come along until after the flood in the Bible, when recognizable placenames and peoples are often warring and eventually traditional monarchies and governmental systems take shape.  In that sense, Noah was living in a truly lost world, and this frees up Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel to imagine Noah’s time as closer to Middle Earth than a typical Biblical sword-and-sandals epic.  This world is populated by animals that seem to crossbreed dogs with dinosaurs, and of course the Watchers, who were fallen angels cursed to earth by God (always called The Creator here) and given the form of 6-armed rock monsters.  They initially help the humans – or rather, the descendents of Cain – to take advantage of the earth but are eventually cast out by the greedy humans.  This pre-apocalyptic world is a barren wasteland of scavengers more fitting for Mad Max then Methuselah, who turns up here played by Anthony Hopkins as an aging sage who can summon mystical powers to cure the barren or just provide a seed from Eden to instantly create a forest for the Ark to be made from, the rest of the plants having been killed by man’s dominating abuse of nature.  These “men”, the descendants of Cain, or led by Ray Winstone and are given to eating animals (a big no-no in this Morrissey-friendly moral universe), murder for greed, and rape.

The second half is post-flood and it switches gears to become an intimate investigation of the limits of faith and its ties to justice and morals.  Noah is now convinced that his family wasn’t chosen to survive to keep the humans going, but rather simply to save the animals who hadn’t despoiled Eden the way people had, and that his family’s lot was simply to die out and end humanity.  When Elah (Emma Watson) becomes pregnant, he’s determined to kill the child if it happens to be a girl, and the Creator is nowhere to be found to give an easy interpretation of what he has to do.  It’s a startling takedown of fundamentalist dogmatism as well as something of a joke on the interpretation of believers.  Signs can mean whatever people want them to, and that lack of clarity brings startlingly different view between Noah and the rest of his family.  It’s an intriguing argument, of course, because we all know how the world turned out (and Aronofsky does, too, especially with his sequence of silhouetted warring soldiers from ancient times to modern militaries).   The trauma of hearing all those people dying horrible deaths outside of the ark is not ignored, and if Noah’s family begets a world that repeats the same mistake, what was all that suffering for?

Despite the intelligence on display, the film only marginally works, and even then only because it explores interesting territory.  One problem is that the two halves don’t fit together as seamlessly as they should, especially because the second part involves a plot device that stretches credulity, even if it does lead to the only sort-of gag in the entire solemn affair.  It’s intriguing, and perhaps this is because of the more Jewish perspective of the creators, to treat the Bible as mythic rather than something based in a reality we can understand.  It understands the power and allure of the old religions.  This is where the studio gets hoodwinked, I think:  those modern Christian dollars they’re after are far more interested in a literal and relatable interpretation than a fantastical one.  Their interest is in a affirmation of their belief system, whereas other strands of Christianity as well as Judaism seek to interrogate.  Kierkegaard was one of the most devout Christians ever to put pen to paper, and the basis for a lot of his philosophy comes from a deep and fascinating investigation into the morality and ethics of Abraham being forced to sacrifice his son.  This consideration is the bulk of the second half, but again, it doesn’t seamlessly fit with the first half, and it might be reductive to say so, but aspects of it reek of a long-gestating project where it was perhaps over-thought.  There is a desire on display to put every interesting concept they had into motion, all while couching it in the trappings of a disaster film.  Aronofsky’s rejuvenation with the (not-liked by me) The Wrestler and (much loved by me) Black Swan saw him using his diminished budgets to exciting aesthetic effect – grainy film stock and digital paired with intimate following shots and, in the case of the latter, an expert dive into paranoid horror genre filmmaking.  Here he reverts to his approximation of a standard Hollywood style, albeit a rather muddy and dark one.  I don’t believe he’s mastered the use of digital effects to marry his particular style often enough to let his strengths as a visual artist play out.  There are a number of extraordinary and evocative shots here – the big battle sequence where The Watchers’ souls soar to heaven and the desperate, dying humans clinging to a rock like damned souls in the pit of hell of a Renaissance panting stand out – but the rest of it is a bit grit-by-numbers.  Performance-wise, Crowe is the only one given anything serious to work with.  Winstone is a fine scene-chewer, and Hopkins works pretty well in his wise old-man autopilot mode.  The second half works better in theory than it does as emotionally effective cinema, as though the ideas were there but the actors weren’t given enough to invest it with what it needed to be to hit on a gut-level.

All-in-all it’s an intriguing watch, and certainly not the self-indulgent misfire a passion project such as this might often descend into, as Aronofsky’s own The Fountain did.  It’s an intelligent interpretation of an absurd story, but one that is central to the mythos of human culture.  It treats it fittingly, and it respects that mythic aspect where the temptation might have been to play it as close to realism as possible.  It’s not what fundamentalist Christian groups would want, but it’s only so because of the hypocrisy of their approach to the material.  It’s a pretty on-the-nose environmental movie, for instance, but it is specifically so because modern Christianity has somehow found a way to collude with capitalism and imperialism to justify man’s “dominion” over the earth and subsequent abuse of it.  It’s a massive rebuke to flawed, self-interested thinking.  If this movie offends American Christian groups, it won’t be because it’s playing fast and loose with the Biblical source – it’s because it’s treating it seriously.

-M

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