The latest film by director Darren Aronofsky (director of the mind-bending sci-fi cult classic “Pi”, the disturbing, emotional sucker punch of a drama “Requiem for a Dream”, the visually-dazzling but still head-scratching sci-fi /fantasy “The Fountain”, the I-made-a-grown-man-cry drama “The Wrestler”, and the ballet-themed psychological thriller that earned actress Natalie Portman her first Academy Award “Black Swan”, “Noah” is a effects-laden INTERPRETATION of the famous Biblical story of Noah’s Ark. Notice that I used the word “interpretation” and not “adaptation”. This is Darren’s version…or should I say vision…..of the story that almost everyone and their great grandparents should be familiar with.
From the moment I heard the names “Noah”, “Russell Crowe” (who plays the lead character) and “Darren Aronofsky” in the same sentence, I knew this film would be misinterpreted and misunderstood by the masses. I imagined churchgoers from far and wide expressing their admiration for Hollywood for FINALLY doing a big-budget ADAPTATION of the Noah’s Ark story for the new generation of moviegoers, posting the trailers for the film on their Facebook walls, and encouraging their Brothers and Sisters in the Church to spend their money (not the money collected during Sunday service, mind you – Just kidding) on this Biblical EPIC! Sure enough, the reviews came out, which were surprisingly positive. But with it came a FLOOD (Hah! Get it?) of controversy due to the “creative decisions” applied to the source material, as well as a slew of negative reviews (some of which you can find on the IMDB page for “Noah”) condemning the film for diluting the original story into a bizarre, nonsensical popcorn movie. The mere fact that this film was released 10 years after the extremely controversial, numbingly violent yet commercially-successful and critically-praised (especially by Christians, which I personally think is quite ironic) Mel Gibson film “The Passion of the Christ” makes this situation an interesting one.
Y’see, “Noah” is a radical departure from the story read to kids in Sunday School every year in churches around the world. This is a dark, grim and apocalyptic film that presents Noah as a morally and spiritually-conflicted individual. Noah is “told” through nightmares and hallucinations (one of which involves himself being completely immersed in flood water in one of the film’s standout scenes) that a great flood will wipe out humanity. He must build an ark for himself, his family (wife Nameeh played by Crowe’s co-star from the Oscar-winning “A Beautiful Mind” Jennifer Connelly, sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), stepdaughter (and Shem’s wife) Ila (Emma Watson) and two of each species of animal (male and female) to stay inside until the flood waters subside. However, in true Hollywood epic fashion, there is an antagonist – in this case, Tubal-Cain (played by Ray Winstone) – originally mentioned in the Book of Genesis as a descendant of Cain, the man who killed his brother Abel out of jealousy – a marauder who, along with his army of savages, will stop at nothing to survive the flood. Morally guiding Noah on his journey is his grandfather Methuselah (played to a gleefully Obi-Wan Kenobi-like degree by the scene-stealing Anthony Hopkins) and assisting Noah in the construction of the ark are the Watchers, a group of fallen angels forced to live out their existence on Earth as gargantuan rock creatures.
But wait a minute, you’re probably thinking to yourself. Army of savages? A conflicted Noah?! Methuselah?! ROCK CREATURES?! OBI-WAN KENOBI?!! That wasn’t in the original story! Why are all these things in this movie?! What the hell kind of Bible movie is this?! And who’s Ila?!! Like I mentioned earlier, this is Darren’s VERSION – and VISION – of the source material. It was never intended to follow every word in every passage of the Biblical story. “Noah” is Aronofsky’s first attempt at both the Biblical epic and the blockbuster epic fantasy. However, coming from a film history of thought-provoking features, Aronofsky uses his film to challenge the expectations of the audience with regards to both genres. Many fans of the Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings books (or any other fantasy novel turned into a movie), for example, complain that certain ‘important’ elements of the stories are altered, merely stated or removed altogether. But does the overall theme of the story remain, or is it forgotten amidst the flashy visual effects, bankable actors and rousing music? So how should viewers react if the story of Noah, which they may have read about for years, was boldly revised on-screen? Will they dismiss the film as cinematic garbage or grab their torches and pitchforks and attempt to burn the movie theater down? Or will they watch the film, examine it afterwards, and ask themselves if the overall theme of the story is still there?
As for the rock creatures and villain respectively, I believe that Aronofsky and screenwriter/producer Ari Handel (who also helped out on “The Wrestler”, “The Fountain” and “Black Swan”) are borrowing elements (and subtly poking fun at them for entertainment sake) from popular fantasy films like “The Lord of the Rings” (the creatures are eerily similar to the talking trees in “The Two Towers”) and celebrated Biblical epics like “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur”. Even the dialogue, acting and story plausibility in “Noah”, at times, feel over-the-top and theatrical like the bombastic, and admittedly cheesy, dialogue, acting and story plausibility presented in “The Ten Commandments”. It is a film experience, after all, and with the film’s budget of $125 million, Aronofsky and Handel set out to give viewers their money’s worth. There’s danger, wonder, love, death, darkness, light, action (Yes, ACTION. Noah brings the pain in this movie. Search the scriptures if you want to), hopelessness and hope. All the things one comes to expect in a modern film epic.
Despite the radical changes made in its narrative, “Noah” is still, in essence, the SAME story. And no, these aren’t spoilers. Noah is warned about flood, Noah builds ark for his family and the animals, storm comes, flood cleanses the world, Noah and the others are safe in the ark until they discover land. You KNOW this is what happens. But what I truly appreciated the film for, and what sparked a lot of negative feedback, was the courageous depiction of the protagonist. As I mentioned earlier, Noah, played convincingly as a Biblical action hero of sorts by Russell Crowe, is conflicted – both morally and spiritually. He has an idea of why God had to literally wipe the world’s slate clean. Humanity had succumbed to wickedness and decadence. However, the film presents Noah as not fully understanding the significance of his and his family’s survival. If humanity was supposed to be eliminated, then why were Noah and his family meant to survive this ordeal? And why was he told NOT to save anyone else from the flood? It’s these questions that challenge both Crowe’s character and the audience. The film intentionally places you in the shoes (which are most likely waterlogged) of Noah. If you were given this incredible responsibility, how would you feel? How would you react? Will you perform the task that was given to you without a moment’s notice, will you think it through and try to understand what your role REALLY IS, or will you abandon it altogether? Even Ray Winstone’s (who plays a great antagonist for Noah, by the way) Tubal-Cain is conflicted. He wonders why God wishes for ALL of humanity to be wiped out, and he chooses to survive by his own terms, by any means necessary. And it’s these clashes of beliefs and misunderstandings between the protagonist and other characters in the film that makes this film so profound and intriguing.
So did I enjoy the film? Once I was able to accept the creative decisions made in “Noah”, and I got into the moral and spiritual dilemma it presented, I ultimately enjoyed the film for what it was. Aronofsky and his team set out to make a Biblical film – or should I say, Biblical-themed film unlike any ever put to screen, and they succeeded. The performances were great, the visual effects were pretty decent and the direction, cinematography and music were all fantastic. It’s as thematically provocative as “The Passion of the Christ” – and even Martin Scorsese’s less violent, but also extremely controversial film “The Last Temptation of Christ”, but WAY more entertaining. It is indeed a film for a new generation of moviegoers, and one in which the viewer is required to think about the images and themes shown on-screen, and form his or her own viewpoint about the film’s message. Not everyone will enjoy this film for sure. Some will complain that the film is too weird and abstract, and doesn’t deliver the “blockbuster” thrills that they paid their money for. Others will argue that the film is blatantly blasphemous. And a select few won’t give a goddamn. It may appear on critics’ best or worst movies lists by the end of the year. But for me, “Noah” is a rare exception of a famous story being retold in such a unique, original and fascinating way that you really have to sit back, put on your thinking cap, and ask yourself “Is that what the point of the story is? And if so, what do I gain from it? And how can I apply what Ive learned to my life?” Then ask yourself, “When was the last time a big-budget, effects-laden epic blockbuster forced me to dust off the old thinking cap?”
MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars (“See this movie”)