Saturday, March 29, 2014

Noah


Grade: 67/B

There’s an extraordinary sequence about halfway through Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s megabudget Biblical adaptation, that’s indicative of both the film’s grand ambition and beauty and of why it’s so often at odds with its director’s talents. Aboard the Ark, Noah (Russell Crowe) tells his children the story of how the Creator (as he’s referred to in the film) made the universe, earth, animals and man, told in a stunning time lapse that wouldn’t be out of place in Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. It’s a well-known story, but its connection to Noah’s conviction that humanity must die out with his family gives it a new context, a mixture of wonder and fatalism that Aronofsky renders with supreme artistry (not to mention visual affirmation of evolution, just in case this film wasn’t going to vex the religious right already).

It’s one of the most stunning sequences in the film precisely because it’s so different from most of the special effects on display, and it only goes to show that perhaps blockbusters aren’t Aronofsky’s forte. The whole film has the same incredible scale, but this moment is closer to the Aronofsky who brought such thrilling (if upsetting) juxtapositions at the end of Requiem for a Dream, or the one who made the ballet of Swan Lake into a daring horror set-piece in Black Swan. Much of the rest of Noah sees the director wrestling between the impressionism of Reggio and the spectacle of De Mille, the thoughtfulness of Terrence Malick and elephantism of late-period Peter Jackson. The results are uneven, but never less than fascinating.

The film mixes the traditional story of Noah from the Book of Genesis with Apocryphal texts like the Book of Enoch. Noah is the last good descendent of Seth (brother of Cain and Abel), living a removed life from the hedonist descendants of Cain with his wife Naahmeh (Jennifer Connelly), his sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), and his adopted daughter/Shem’s beloved Ila (Emma Watson). When Noah has visions of a great flood that destroys the earth, he interprets it as a call to build a great Ark, large enough for two of every animal to survive.

With the advice of his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) and the help of the Watchers (CGI rock giants voiced by Frank Langella, Nick Nolte, Kevin Durand and Mark Margolis), a group of fallen angels turned protectors of Methuselah, Noah builds the Ark. But as the Creator does not provide a wife for his other two sons and Ila is barren from a wound when she was young, Noah believes that his family must be the last. Things grow more complicated with the arrival of Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a descendant of Cain who murdered Noah’s father and who wants on the Ark.

Of all of Aronofsky’s previous works, Noah most closely resembles The Fountain, another wildly ambitious project that veered inelegantly back and forth between profundity and goofiness. Never the strongest writer of dialogue, Aronofsky hampered The Fountain with exchanges that sounded as if its characters were talking to deities rather than human beings, something that played like a bad parody of Malick’s voiceovers (which are only in voiceovers because they’re prayers, as the human dialogue takes on a different tone). That approach is more palatable in Noah, given that it’s set in an archaic period and the characters frequently are speaking to God.

Here, Aronofsky captures the frustrations of the faithful and nonbelievers and apparent fickleness (and possible cruelty) of the Creator that’s heavily featured in the writings but often glided over in biblical films. Without ever speaking, the voice  still thunders (pardon the pun) as the rain falls, a cleansing of the earth of those who didn’t follow and salvation for those who did. But in a characteristically smart bit of sound design, Aronofsky lets Noah’s family hear the screams of those left underwater outside the Ark. Were these people not worthy of forgiveness, and were there not innocents killed with them? And what of the times where there’s no answer to humanity’s call, whether it’s Tubal-cain looking for any sign of a higher power or Noah begging for guidance, for any sign that he doesn’t have to do the unthinkable to make sure his family is the last of man. It’s less a moment of judgment on either side than a question, one without an obvious answer for the faithful or the faithless.

Noah’s story fits nicely into Aronofsky’s tales of conviction and compulsion, of the clash between human feeling and a greater force, be it drugs, career, or a higher power. Aronofsky is lucky to have a strong center for that story in Crowe, who comes closer to the brutish sensitivity and intelligence he displayed in Gladiator than he has in some time. Noah is both a warm and protective father and a true believer, and the film’s greatest crisis comes from pitting those two aspects of the character against each other. Emma Watson is also strong as Ila, a woman in love but guilty over what she can’t provide for Shem. Her father-figure/daughter-figure relationship with Noah provides a much-needed emotional ballast for the film’s second half.

Pity that most of the other supporting characters aren’t nearly as strong. Connelly has one big emotional scene that doesn’t quite cover up that her character isn’t well-defined beyond “maternal,” while Lerman’s conflict between his love for his father and his desire for a wife is more interesting than the doe-eyed performance he turns in and the other sons barely register. Winstone, meanwhile, is typecast as a standard gruff villain that feels more at home in a Ridley Scott knock-off than here, and the film keeps him in the picture far too long for wholly contrived and unnecessary reasons.

That’s not the only part that feels poorly considered. While the character material and theological questions of the first half keep it engaging, Aronofksy’s handling of the “epic” part of the religious epic sees him struggling under the weight of heavy special effects and battle sequences. It isn’t as if he’s incapable of staging a battle sequence or realizing a fantastical creature (though they’re hardly exciting), but he can’t keep it from seeming like something out of a handsomely produced Lord of the Rings knockoff. Noah is never less interesting than when it temporarily drops most of the headier questions for a lengthy set-piece involving a battle between Tubal-cain’s men and the rock giants as Noah and company board the ark during the torrential downpour. And even when that section passes and Noah’s moral conundrum takes over, Aronofsky’s bombastic side gets the best of him in places where quiet might be better (we don’t need Clint Mansell’s score to go BWAAAAAM every time something happens) and as the level of dramatic convergence reaches ridiculous levels.

Yet even as the spectacle gets tiresome and the plot overheated, Aronofsky’s religious and moral inquisitiveness and his formal chops keep it from losing control. For every overlong battle, there’s a thrilling edit (Noah going out cold faster than we can realize what’s happened). For every moment of VFX overload, there’s a gorgeous tableau (Naahmeh approaching Noah against a sunset after his first vision). For every story misstep, there are two or three lasting emotional moments to make up for them. Aronofsky should probably stick to the art house after Noah, but I can’t help but be thrilled that a blockbuster this weird and this singular got made.

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