While trying to sort out how I felt about Darren Aronofsky’s ambitious new film “Noah”, I came across one article from the Hollywood Reporter. At the world premiere held in Mexico City on last Monday evening, Darren Aronofsky forthrightly warned to his audiences about what they should not expect from his movie before watching it. “It’s a very, very different movie. Anything you’re expecting, you’re f—ing wrong.”
He was not kidding at all, for he surely made a very different movie some of you may not like. Relentlessly gritty, brooding, and ponderous with its grim spirit, this is not a comfortable Sunday bible movie at all. Its harsh world looks so stark and ugly that the end of the world feels like an acceptable option for the Earth if not for the humanity, and even its hero finds himself driven to an extreme point for what he has believed for years. I was initially intrigued by its attempt to tell its own dark story rather than being a typical biblical epic, and the movie has several good visual moments along with some though-provoking story elements to muse on after watching it, but, strangely, I remained rather unenthusiastic about all these things unfolded on the screen during my viewing.
The story begins with the prologue familiar to most of us. After Adam and Eve were expelled from their paradise on the Earth after eating that forbidden fruit, they had three sons: Cain, Abel, and Seth. There is a brief, stylish depiction of Cain killing Abel, and then we see how Cain’s descendants have spread their civilization all over the Earth with the help of the fallen angels, who fell to the Earth with a good intention but were ultimately betrayed by the corruption of humanity. The movie never shows the creator, but he is mostly regarded by the characters in the film as some dude of higher existence who has overseen everything from the Big Bang to the evolution of species on the Earth. As far as I remember, this is the first biblical epic film decorated with the Big Bang theory and the evolution theory, and I must confess that its rapid montage sequence telling the history of the universe and the Earth is one of few amusing moments in the film.
While Cain’s descendants have become corrupted beyond redemption in the ruthless advancement of their exploitative civilization and the world has been turned into a little more realistic version of Mordor as a result, Seth’s descendants have been faithfully devoted to their belief and their creator. Although he unfortunately lost his father when he was very young, Noah(Russell Crowe) grows up to be a good, faithful man with loving wife Naameh(Jennifer Connelly) and his three sons. Considering how barren their world looks with no edible animal or plant on the screen, I wonder about how they get their nutrition source, but I guess that is not the question I can ask while watching a fantasy film based on a biblical myth which is actually one of countless tales about deluge from ancient civilizations.
During one night, Noah gets a message from the sky above through his disturbing dream, and he and his family immediately start their journey to the holy mountain where his legendary grandfather Methuselah(Anthony Hopkins) lives. Methuselah is not as old as the Bible says, but it seems that he has some supernatural power. When he was younger, he simply wiped out his enemies with his fiery sword. Don’t ask me how he could do that.
We are also introduced to more supporting characters. Noah and his family came upon an injured little girl who managed to survive from a slaughter, and the girl, named Ila, soon becomes their daughter as being taken care of by Noah and Naameh. After meeting Methuselah, Noah begins to build the Ark, and the surviving fallen angels, who look a lot like the rocky version of Transformer robots, are willing to help Noah once they see that he is following the message of the creator. Although they were rather mistreated just because of their disobedience, they are still loyal to their former boss with no ill feeling, and they become Noah’s workers and protectors.
Several years go by, and Noah’s sons and Ila grow up to be played by Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, Leo McHugh Carroll, and Emma Watson. While that fateful moment is approaching, the Ark is nearly completed, and we see many kinds of animals go aboard the ship in pairs(the movie does not care much about plants, by the way). Not so surprisingly, other men see that the end is near, and Noah and his mission is soon threatened by Tubal Cain(Ray Winstone) and his army.
The middle part of the film has gritty action scenes peppered with big CGI effects, and that was the part I began to lose my interest during my viewing. Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone convincingly bring tough stubbornness into their respective characters as going through these action scenes, but their battle of will is overshadowed by the CGI effects which feel bland and uninspired under gloomy and rainy ambience. The movie delivers the flood as promised in the end, but I have seen better ones, and its third act after the flood, which is supposed to generate a powerful psychological drama revolving around the extreme conflict between belief and love, feels stuffy and unconvincing because of the weak story and its half-baked characterization.
Besides Crowe and Winston, the other actors in the movie get the thankless job of playing underdeveloped characters, though they did their job as much as they could. Jennifer Connelly brings some warmth into her role although her character’s function is mostly 1) dutifully following her husband or 2) tearfully protesting against her husband’s fanatic decisions, and Emma Watson shows again that she is a good actress who can easily separate herself from Harry Potter movies. Compared to his co-actors Douglas Booth and Leo McHugh Carroll, Logan Lerman has more things to do as the son with growing conflicted feelings toward his father, and that leads to another interesting moment around the ending, though it is not as effective as it intends to be.
The director/co-writer Darren Aronofsky has made a number of interesting films about characters driven to extremes such as “Requiem for a Dream”(2000), “The Wrestler”(2008), and “Black Swan”(2010), and I understand more about his intention behind “Noah” as more musing on its disappointing third act. While watching Noah becoming more harsh, extreme, and single-minded for his holy mission, I was reminded of the obsessed hero of Aronofsky’s first feature film “Pi”(1998), who, like Noah, is driven to do something grand while pushing himself into a dark pit of madness. At one point, Noah is so driven by his belief and his disgust with humanity that he is ready to kill his latest family member for completing his mission, but I seriously want to ask him whether that is reasonable, considering that 1) there seems to be no human being alive outside the Ark and 2) his family will probably not welcome inbreeding.
I heard about how much Aronofsky defended his own vision from Paramount studio people during the post-production period, who even made three alternative versions to draw potential Christian audiences and then eventually gave them up after getting the lukewarm reactions at several test screenings. Although I think “Noah” is a misfire as a SF fantasy film like his another failure “The Fountain”(2006), I admire Aronofsky’s integrity, and this movie does not change my opinion on him at all. He is a brave, ambitious, and talented director who takes chances as he wants, and even his disappointing work like this is glimmering with ambition and challenge. Sure, there were many moments too tedious and solemn for me, but I must point out that I was rather amazed that his Ark did not sink to the bottom even when I got bored.