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August 17, 2014

Movie Review – Noah (2014)

by Master Pillow

Director Darren Aronofsky scores extra brownie points for concocting a unique and altogether edgy vision of the classical Biblical tale of Noah, albeit one that takes extreme artist license with the original text. It takes much gumption to radically tinker with a tale of this nature especially when one considers how sacrosanct the source material is for a large portion of the global population. However, while Aronofsky deserves credit for being bold the end result is a film that feels inherently discombobulated as if it has been methodically constructed to appeal to both his devoted fanbase which expects a strong psychological component and those viewers who would be more content in watching epic action sequences more in line with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings series.

Long story short, the film takes the general plot from The Bible which showcases a man named Noah (Russell Crowe) who one day receives an enigmatic vision from The Creator that warns him of an upcoming apocalyptic flood that will simply wipe out all of mankind. Not completely understanding the vision, Noah gathers his family that includes his wife (Jennifer Connelly) and his two sons Ham (Logan Lerman) and Shem (Douglas Booth) and sets out to visit his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), with hopes that he can help him decipher the vision.

After a long trek whereby Noah manages to save Ila (Emma Watson), a young woman made barren due to unfortunate circumstances, the group arrives at Methuselah’s cave that is nestled high on top a mountain. Methuselah thereby gives Noah a hallucinatory mixture that enables him to decipher the rest of The Creator’s vision tasking him to construct a massive wooden ark that can not only save his family but also two of each species of animal so that the world can essentially repopulate itself once the flood waters recede.

To be fair to Aronofsky and his fellow screenwriter Ari Handel, the source material isn’t exactly too verbose nor is it robust enough to paint a full picture of Noah, his family or the world around them. All that is really known is that The Creator wants to hit the universal reset button because He has seen that man has become sinful to the point where redemption is not possible. Therefore, it falls upon Aronofsky to basically fill in all the details himself and he does so by taking inspiration not only from The Bible but also from other religious texts in order to weave a story of who Noah was and the psychological burden that he must have felt being the man whom the Creator has entrusted to enact his will.

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Aronofsky quickly makes this tale his own as he spins a rather compelling first act that begins with a long narration that simply needs to be understood or else viewers will quickly begin to be confused. The movie postulates a version of the world where Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden fruit and are cast out of the Garden of Eden whereby they begat three sons in Cain, Abel and Seth.

Cain kills Abel and over the coming years his line goes on the not only populate the Earth but also begins to descend into sin and debauchery. However, his line eventually spreads mankind all over the world by building huge cities and reaching what looks to be an Industrial Revolution state before essentially falling apart due to abuse of the environment. In comparison, Seth’s descendants stay true to the Creator’s word and though minute in number, live as vegetarians in a kind of hand-to-mouth lifestyle that keeps them pure.

The movie can essentially be broken down into two main parts the first of which chronicles Noah as he obtains the vision, builds the Ark and then faces off against his nemesis, Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) who arrives with a plan to commandeer the boat as his own. This second half of the film takes place nearly entirely inside the Ark after the Flood has arrived and narrows its focus to Noah’s internal psychological state and his quickly devolving bond with his family who quickly see him as a threat instead of a rock-solid paternal figure.

One of Aronofsky’s biggest changes to the tale is perhaps the most controversial and that is the addition of fantastical elements in The Watchers which are Fallen Angels who come to Earth in an attempt to help mankind without The Creator’s consent. As such, the moment they land on the ground their angelic forms of light and energy are suddenly enveloped by rock and dirt to the point where they lose their ability to fly and essentially become living rock creatures that appear as if they belong in The Hobbit rather than The Bible. If you want an even more obscure example think of good old Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and the cut sequence featuring “Rock Man” and you’ll get a much better mental picture of what Aronofsky has chosen to do here.

At the same time, Aronofsky decides to further enhance the fantastical nature of The Watchers by filming them in a technique that mimics stop-motion technology giving them an altogether herky-jerky flow whenever they attempt to speak or move. The effect is a double-edged sword as it clearly invokes the hey-day of the technique in those marvelous Ray Harryhausen films of yore but at the same time the visuals totally clash with modern CG especially during the massive battles.

The addition of clashing human armies and mythical rock monsters battling mano-a-mano is certainly a sight to be seen to be believed, yet Aronofsky doesn’t properly integrate them into the film in a meaningful manner. Additionally, though the Watchers are sentient they hardly communicate with Noah and his brood which is a giant missed opportunity as the movie takes great pains in showing that it is through their aid that Noah manages to construct the Ark in a timely manner. One would think that having Fallen Angels working for you on a construction yard would provide ample opportunity to ask about The Creator, his plans or even life in Heaven and other grander subjects but the film completely ignores this line of thought more content to turn them into giant lumbering bulldozers and forklifts.

As for the battles and CG effects while they are visually captivating they come off as completely tensionless and do nothing but bloat the already long running time. Clocking in at around 138 minutes the film is already ponderous enough and the addition of watching giant rock creatures punching away at humans clad in light armor and wielding spears and swords is amusing for a few minutes but not much more.

Aronofsky’s body of work has always centered on obsessive figures that have fragile mental states and Russell Crowe’s Noah is no exception as he struggles to obey The Creator while feeling the enormous burden of enacting a plan that kills his fellow man. Crowe is certainly up to the task in his performance as he portrays Noah as a flawed man that eventually allows himself to be  completely overwhelmed by his own obsessive behavior that eventually blinds him to all reason. Instead of feeling a strong sense of empathy for Noah and his plight the decision to devote vast tracks of the movie to his inner emotions is strongly alienating to viewers who, will undoubtedly begin to see him in less and less heroic terms but on a grander scale this decision backfires more than it should precisely because the film fails to build a strong cast of supporting characters.

At the same time, Crowe’s Noah not only struggles with his emotions but he’s also a kick-ass warrior and it is hard not to see the actor channeling his most famous role as Maximus from his breakthrough movie, Gladiator. This version of Noah isn’t simply a meek passive recipient of The Creator’s Will and goes about his business with a kind of clinical brutality where he has as much skill as a carpenter as he does burying a hatchet in someone’s cranium. While this is certainly novel and works to showcase Noah’s understanding that mankind as a whole can do acts of good or evil, the movie goes a bit overboard by making him almost God-like in skill as a warrior. It’s like watching a John Woo movie where the hero can magically shoot a revolver with an unending supply of ammunition into a horde of oncoming thugs without ever receiving as much as a scratch. It looks cool but it is nigh unbelievable.

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This is undoubtedly Russell Crowe’s movie as he dominates every scene he is in just through his physical presence but Aronofsky and his fellow screenwriter do a frustratingly poor job at fleshing out his family or the antagonist Tubal-Cain who are only defined by a single trait. Even worse, each character is given a massive short-shift in screentime to the point where some disappear for huge tracks of the film. A negative side-effect of this strong focus on Noah himself is that it provides little time for the supporting cast to interact amongst themselves in meaningful exchanges, a major point of contention especially in the film’s second half where Noah is essentially pitted against the rest of his family over the span of about nine months.

That time span is not insignificant but Aronofsky flash-forwards through it far too rapidly even though the audience understands what is at stake and how Noah’s completely obsessive mindset endangers not only familial bonds but quite frankly becomes a foreboding physical threat. The audience is meant to not only believe what changes Noah’s perception of The Creator’s Will but that his family meekly goes about their business for nine months without sufficient communication amongst each other or scenes that might at least show them grappling with their, by now, slightly deranged head of the family.

It is in moments like this that one can’t help but feel that Aronofsky is trying to have his cake and eat it too by showing Noah in a less than virtuous light while also trying to visually expand his canvas through epic special effects, large-scale battles and the Flood itself. While it is ambitious to make Noah into a tortured figure the lack of cogent communication amongst the cast really detracts from the film and it eventually turns them all into passive lemmings who are merely along for the ride and have no impact on Noah at all. His stubbornness and one-track thinking might be a unique angle to present but it really doesn’t click as it should since his eventual epiphany feels forced and unearned especially when one realizes that his family had virtually no impact on his final decision.

Due to the subject matter and Aronofsky’s focus on Noah’s psychological state the movie feels incredibly dour and is completely devoid levity. This ponderous atmosphere permeates the entire production and the film itself is awash in dirty grimly greys and blacks as all colour and life has been sucked out of the Earth. That might seem like a reasonable way to visually paint a picture of a world where mankind has fallen to unredeemable depths but it also gives the film a strong sense of foreboding, doom and a complete sense of utter hopelessness to the point where viewers might end up slitting their wrists to end the pain.

Certainly, a film about the apocalypse isn’t necessarily the place in which to feature an abundance of humour but it should at least feature humanity and that is precisely what is missing here in Noah as director Darren Aronofsky has decided to paint a decidedly mixed view of his lead character who is essentially suffering from survivor’s remorse for more than half the film. However, with no balance whatsoever in showcasing Noah’s guilt against his compassionate family the film completely derails in the second half and it never really recovers even though it attempts to jump-start the pace with a ridiculously plotted stowaway in the Ark that defies any reasonable explanation.

The additions to the tale of Noah are debatable but thankfully what isn’t is Darren Aronofsky’s keen sense of style and there are more than a few truly eye-catching moments in the movie that are incredibly effective, one of which comes late in the film when Aronofsky decides on showing a quick montage of people fighting one another but utilizes not only ancient humans but also those from varying ages donning clearly defined military garb from the Napoleonic era up to modern man. The effect isn’t exactly subtle but it works as intended as a barb against humanity’s aggressive and destructive nature and harkens back to the tale of Cain and Abel essentially repeating itself throughout human history.

Aronofsky also deserves some merit for other stylistic decisions that simply work such as deciding to garb his cast in anything not resembling a flowing robe and instead clothing them in something more akin to Medieval Europe as it adds to the film’s gritty ambiance. The rest of the production design is outstanding although some of the CG is incredibly pedestrian with some truly recognizable and downright ugly green-screen work that feels more like the film was made on a TV budget instead of a sprawling feature film epic. As usual, regular Aronofsky composer Clint Mansell turns in an excellent orchestral score that really accentuates both the mythical and foreboding nature of the narrative although it has to be said that he allows himself to be overly bombastic with more frequency than required.

Simply put, Noah is a grand re-telling of the timeless tale from The Bible but it is hard to conceive just who exactly director Darren Aronofsky intended as his target audience. Fans of his more obtuse work such as Requiem for a Dream or The Fountain might find Noah to be far too traditional in structure while those who have never seen any of his films might come away thinking that this feels inherently more like a big-budget art project. Regardless, Noah is certainly original, brash and bold but it unfortunately feels like a complete mish-mash of styles with a lead protagonist that rarely engages the heart. With a languid pace and some truly off-the-wall digressions into the fantasy film genre the movie tries far too hard to appeal to a large demographic that it comes off as altogether pandering in all the wrong ways.

*1/2 out of ****

2014, USA, 138 Minutes, Paramount Pictures, PG-13
Director Darren Aronofsky
Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel
Produced by Darren Aronofsky, Scott Franklin, Arnon Milchan, Mary Parent
Executive Producer Chris Brigham, Ari Handel
Music by Clint Mansell
Cinematography by Matthew Libatique
Film Editing by Andrew Weisblum

Russell Crowe: Noah
Jennifer Connelly: Naameh
Ray Winstone: Tubal-cain
Anthony Hopkins: Methuselah
Emma Watson: Ila
Logan Lerman: Ham
Douglas Booth: Shem
Madison Davenport: Na’el
Mark Margolis: Magog
Kevin Durand: Rameel
Leo McHugh Carroll: Japheth
Marton Csokas: Lamech

© 2014 The Galactic Pillow

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