Movie Review: Noah- Darren Aronofsky’s Updated Environmental Biblical Epic Finds Strength in Visual Metaphor but Loses Itself in an Uneven and Preachy Presentation

Russell Crowe as NoahDarren Aronofsky is arguably a working, living, and breathing auteur who invokes deeply personal viewpoints and a stylistic hue towards reinforcing that perception who consistently challenges our pristine comfort levels and our fairly conventional perceptions with edgy, moody, and darkly meditative material. So it came as an oddly intriguing surprise to hear that he would be tackling the biblical epic of Noah and the title character’s daunting task of building an expansive Arc to hold two of every kind of animal in order to replenish the Earth after it has been cleansed of the relentless wickedness of men. It’s a dark tale to be sure and knowing Aronofsky’s previous filmography there was no doubt he could potentially deliver a spiritually enticing and thought provokingly dark film if his philosophically powerful The Fountain and his deeply humanist downward spiral tale Requiem for a Dream were anything to go by. Unfortunately potential doesn’t always guarantee a solid cinema experience and in the case of Noah the film becomes a rather muddy and disengaged Biblical farce where moments of visionary genius are trapped in a rather mundane and ridiculous script that only seems to get interesting in the latter mentally challenging half of the film when it’s already too late. Perhaps a Hollywood blockbuster wasn’t ready for Aronofsky’s enlarged conceptual mind because in the film’s exaggerated, action focused first half the beauty in the horrific prophetic dream sequences and the challenges of a good man in a world of evil get sort of diminished because a dumbed down spectacle is all that wide audiences require for their viewing. However, there is another message that is conceptually driven and one that hammers audiences like a plank of wood on the Arc itself which is the unrelenting environmentalism message that humans are a blight on nature’s existence and not part of it who also require serious change or else a tragedy of natural proportions will pass judgment on them. The film is a bit preachy which wouldn’t be such a weight on the experience had everything else worked immaculately but unfortunately Noah becomes Darren Aronofsky’s weakest film to date as it sacrifices conceptual integrity and spiritual curiosity for an amplified and simplistic environmental soap box deserving the title of the layman’s The Fountain. Overall it’s a clunky, uninspired, and often times ridiculous film that only gets personably interesting for those willing to endure the first half and get to venture into the darker more natural Aronofsky territory in the second half where a man’s judgmental attitude and pioneering struggle against human nature takes center stage.

What’s the purpose of revisiting a tale that has been passed down for thousands of years and is a staple of Biblical reflection on the nature of man and its covenant relationship with a creator? Well in atheist Darren Aronofsky’s point of view, alongside fellow screenwriter Ari Handel, the goal seems to relate the spreading of wickedness and apathetic actions of man in Noah’s time to our modern, technologically driven world of today where rampant industrialization has now been equated with a fall from grace. It was writer Michael Crichton who penned an essay commenting on environmentalism embodying the familiar origins of a religion where there once was an Eden (pre-industrialization), then the temptation (modernization, technology), and then a fall from grace (industrialization) and Aronofsky’s Noah becomes the symbolic trumpeting of that very mindset. Putting aside whether this viewpoint is credible it is arguably reinforced artistically throughout Aronofsky and Handel’s script but unfortunately doesn’t relate to audiences in a sincere, humanist understanding. The structure of the script will be familiar to most who have either been exposed to the story of Noah (which should be everyone) but has some addendums to the familiar tale that are a combination of commentary on the Talmud, the book of Enoch, and pure made up fabrication (though Aronofsky might argue the latter to be true of the entire film itself). Perhaps it’s the weight of familiarity in the first half of the script that suffers the story to the process of getting to the point of building the Arc instead of focusing on the purpose, which is what inevitably drives audiences to care about what’s happening. Once all the Hollywood focused spectacle of giant rock monsters known as The Watchers and a special effects heavy action sequence outside the Arc passes by the cleansing waters of destruction the script is able to refocus its energy into an intimate, claustrophobic, and mentally challenging environment where the darkness of the tale comes to fruition and presents Noah (Russell Crowe) with a self-given test of will, morality, and judgment. This all comes a bit too late for our viewing patience and unfortunately most movie going audiences today will prefer the clunky, spectacle driven first half reminding us how sad entertainment standards have fallen. Aronofsky and Handel’s script attempts to bring the tale of human stewardship of the Earth and of each other to 21st Century relevance with a hint of balance where goodness lives once we choose to embrace it but this admirable message gets diminished in the special effects heavy and humanist light presentation.

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However weak the scripted material might have been, either due to preachy self-righteousness on the environment or a lack of humanist understanding within the characters purposes and choices, there is no doubt that Darren Aronofsky’s strength as a filmmaker comes in his metaphorical visuals and capability to make the aesthetic experience an involving one. Teaming with longtime collaborator Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Arofonfsky has gone out of his way to provide ample visual expression in his tale of a man’s epic task to ensure the fate of a new Eden once the Earth has been cleansed from the follies of human nature. In the prologue it goes quickly through the book of Genesis depicting the creation, temptation, fall of Adam and Eve, and the killing of Abel by Cain through an intriguing visual tapestry that gives his presentation a personal stamp and carries it mostly throughout the film. Where the film finds its true strength is in the subjective dream sequences of Noah himself where the Earth bleeds, the waters rise, the people die, and an Arc reveals itself. The evolution of these segments increase in vivid detail and change in thematic orientation based on Noah’s personal feelings at that given point in time changing with his own erratic feelings towards the fate of mankind. Where there is detail beyond special effects there is strength to be found in atmospheric credibility which increases once the intimate human drama unfolds within the Arc and the challenges Noah has with his family. However, a personal visual touch is hard to maintain in special effects heavy films and in the presentation of large rock monsters (apparently fallen angels) and towering water floods it is reminiscent of every large scale Hollywood production that comes out weekly in the theaters. Fortunately Aronofsky is able to preserve that penchant for visual metaphor and use it to its full effectiveness in creating prophetic dreams and a moody, dark visual tint that reflects the increasingly darkened perception of Noah himself. It should be noted that fans of Aronofsky’s will definitely be excited about his visual presentation from a silhouetted prologue to a dazzling evolution creation sequence to the greyish tone that lingers throughout the film even if they might not be fully fulfilled by his occasionally thought provoking but ultimately inundated script.

Mostly because the script takes the purpose of the Arc and the relationships connected to it for granted the film sort of loses that touch of involving sympathy with the characters due to the fact that the entire first half generates a procedural to building the Arc instead of a relevant purpose towards it. However, the actors in their roles to a major catch up job in giving us a dramatic reason to follow the newly envisioned environmental cleansing and how it relates to their experience as fully formed developed characters. At the head of the film is Russell Crowe as Noah and being the credible actor he is he generates a deeply psychological and intimately moral performance that makes his challenge of principle and duty a real felt struggle that is all the more grand when he has a final choice and revelation. Noah is a man chosen to harbor the innocent from the wicked and that sort of judgment has a crippling cost that is explored in Arnofsky’s film and through Russell Crowe’s performance making it a unique interpretation of Noah as a man who forgets to see the possibility of good in his fellow man and family. At Noah’s side is his wife Naameh played emotionally well by Jennifer Connelly who remains steadfastly vigilant to her husband’s wishes and task until his persistence and blinded judgment might inevitably lead to the destruction of their love. And of course Ray Winstone as the villainous embodiment of gluttony, power, and destruction, or rather all of the follies of mankind, performs well despite that his character is a bit clichéd in purpose for the story and carries on way too long for the sake of eating up screen time. Besides these notable three the rest of the cast performs to an admirable degree with Emma Watson branching off from her Harry Potter typecasting (though not as good as her performances in Perks of Being a Wallflower or The Bling Ring) and Logan Lerman also deviating from his fantasy driven career in Percy Jackson (though also not as good as his performances in 3:10 to Yuma and Perks of Being a Wallflower). Without this strong core cast the movie would have drowned in its own monstrous weight of metaphor, message, and spectacle and luckily the all fought valiantly to keep the story Arc afloat.

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Unfortunately Noah can’t compare to the high expectations fans of Aronofsky have of his work based on his standard of challenging quality he has had ever since his debut with the mathematical thriller Pi to the Repulsion influenced psychological horror in Black Swan and everything including The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream in between. His latest is a dumbed down version of The Fountain that has visual flair, ecological messaging, and subjective drama all of which doesn’t reach the potential we know Aronofsky to possess in his thought provoking films. As it stands Noah is an oddly disjointed and dramatically inconsistent Biblical epic that finds occasional moments of strength in its focus on the lead character’s psychological state and how the burden of his task carries into the dramatic deconstruction of his own life and home, which unfortunately comes too late for a proper impact based on the ridiculous presentation and exaggerations in the first half of the film. If Aronofsky’s goal was to translate the modern environmentalism fall from grace into a relatable Biblical tale then he arguably has succeeded but at the sack of sacrificing a true thoughtfulness on human nature, human stewardship, and spiritual contemplation which would have made this a stronger and more lasting film to add to his challenging filmography. Instead Aronofsky’s artistic sensibilities have been neutered in the Hollywood blockbuster process where an overt message that has some occasional intriguing visual metaphors becomes a preachy soap box that finds its balance of human goodness way too late in the film’s presentation leaving us with an average cinema experience with the hints that something far grander could have been achieved.

Grade: C+

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