NOAH Movie Review – The Wrath of God
Few, if any, contemporary filmmakers deserve to be called “visionary,” but if any filmmaker does, it’s Darren Aronofsky. His output has been relatively small, a direct consequence of Aronofsky’s desire to make films on his own terms, and not the terms of studio executives. The vision thing can often lead to ambitious, masterpiece-level filmmaking. A filmmaker’s ambition can extend to visual style, narrative construction, thematic depth, and interpretative ambiguity. Even visionary filmmakers, however, stumble on occasion. The reasons range from studio interference, the confining demands between art and commerce, to the hubris and pretension that can afflict the most talented and skillful of filmmakers. More often than not, it’s hubris that can trip up a filmmaker. Cinephiles, cineastes, and other self-described film lovers, however, wouldn’t want it any other way.
Aronofsky’s films singularly focus on obsessive loners and disconnected outcasts, characters affected by transformative experiences or life-altering visions. Whether it’s the perfect mathematical formula to predict stock market patterns (Pi, Aronofsky’s first film), the transcendental euphoria heroin offers (Requiem for a Dream), a seemingly impossible, centuries-spanning search for lost love (The Fountain), a fading wrestling star’s life-threatening, narcissistic pursuit of adulation (The Wrestler), or a ballet dancer’s elusive search for an idealized combination of dance and performance (Black Swan), Aronofsky’s characters operate in the interior realm of compulsion and monomania. Individually, each character can be viewed as a stand-in for a filmmaker’s potentially self-destructive quest for expressive perfection, like Noah, the title character of Aronofsky’s sixth feature-length film.
Noah (Russell Crowe) lives apart from the rest of humanity, a vegan, environmentalist, and survivalist living off whatever he and his family can gather from the nearly barren wasteland around him. More importantly, he’s a visionary. Perplexed, perturbed by apocalyptic dreams, Noah sees them at indirect messages from the god he calls the “Creator.” Gathering up his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and his three sons, Noah journeys to the mountain home of his shamanistic grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Methuselah interprets Noah’s dreams not figuratively, but literally. The Creator will drown the world and begun anew, with Noah chosen to build an ark, not to save humanity, but to save every non-human species possible.
With the Creator speaking in signs and portents – and, on occasion indirectly intervening by allowing a wood-supplying forest to sprout from seemingly barren ground and a single seed – Noah begins the twenty year task to build the ark. In what literalists will surely decry, Aronofsky adds Watchers – stone-encased fallen angels – into his interpretation of the Biblical story. The Watchers, resembling the Lord of the Rings’ Ents in calculating distrust of humanity and speech patterns, help Noah build the ark. They’re motivated less by compassion than hope, hope for redemption from the silent god who exiled them for the Prometheus-like desire to help humanity raise themselves from savagery and barbarism. Just as importantly, the Watchers reinforce Noah’s view of his god, a distant, unforgiving, authoritarian parental figure. Noah’s god is a wrathful, vengeful god, a god familiar to anyone even vaguely conversant with the Old Testament.
To his three sons, Ham (Logan Lerman), Shem (Douglas Booth), Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), and an adopted daughter, Ila (Emma Watson), Noah is just as distant, unforgiving, and authoritarian as the Creator he worships without doubt or question. He leaves mercy and compassion to Naameh, but even Naameh can’t break through the certainty and rigidity of his beliefs. Despite their chosen status, Noah doesn’t see his family as the last hope for a reborn humanity, but simply caretakers of the ark’s cargo. When they die – presumably from natural causes – so will humanity. Given what Aronofsky shows of humanity outside of Noah’s family, despoilers of land, violent, lawless war-makers, the Creator’s judgment seems just, especially when their predatory, rapacious king (and Noah’s obligatory villain), Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), repeatedly validates that position through his brutal, merciless actions.
Tubal-cain eventually attempts to seize the ark, setting up the obligatory set-piece battle between the Watchers and Tubal-cain’s army outside the ark as the rain begin to fall. While expertly, inventively staged by Arronofsky and his longtime cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, the battle suffers from the same problem that afflicts fantasy epics: an overabundance of CG at the expense of human interaction, creating an unfortunate distancing effect between the film and the audience just when moviegoers should be completely invested in the survival of Noah and his family. It’s hard to blame Aronofsky, however. He’s just delivering what his financiers wanted, a Lord of the Rings-inspired sequence, ostensibly to make Noah commercially viable or at minimum assuage the concerns of the jittery studio executives who financed Noah.
It’s more than obvious, though, that Aronofsky has far more interest in Noah’s burgeoning crisis of faith and the increasing tension and conflict between Noah and his family than any set-piece battle. That’s evident not just in the two-hour and 20-minute running time, but when the deluge lifts the ark, with roughly 30-40 minutes inside the ark. The central conflict changes from building the ark and saving non-human species to Noah’s seemingly resolute belief that humanity should end with his family. That conflict runs throughout the film, only crystallizing once Noah and his family are alone in the ark, but once it does, Noah becomes an intense character study, an unlikely result for a Biblical epic sold on the promise of spectacle, but unsurprising for anyone familiar with Aronofsky’s work as a filmmaker. It’s there, in the final scenes, that Noah finally escapes big-budget bloat to become a film about mercy, compassion, and love.