Friday, March 28, 2014

Review: Noah (2014)

Noah (2014)

Full disclosure: I am an agnostic. I have little time for religious fundamentalism of any stripe, and therefore, had little interest in the controversy surrounding whether or not this film was letter-accurate to the Biblical tale of Noah's Ark. All I cared about going in was that it was made by Darren Aronofsky, the maker of The Wrestler and Black Swan, two of the greatest films of the last ten years. More than that, it was Aronofsky being allowed to go hog-wild and make a religious epic in the tradition of Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, with an all-star cast and an eye for some of the weirder elements of the Bible that often don't show up in the movies -- and more than that, it would be his final cut, not the one that the studio tried to enforce, that would see distribution. The trailers did nothing but give me faith (pardon the pun) that Aronofsky wouldn't be lost making such a big film after spending his career making lower-budget dramas, with this film looking and feeling every bit as epic as the story of God drowning the world to purge it of sin should.

Stepping out of the theater two hours later, I can't say I was disappointed. Noah is a new twist on a classic tale, one that takes liberties (after all, the Bible doesn't give much detail on the story of Noah's Ark) but otherwise sticks to the core of the source material where it counts. Aronofsky seemed to be having the time of his life making this film, as while it doesn't quite approach the sheer level of mind-screw that Black Swan ran on, it's still a gorgeous and vivid spectacle that hits the jackpot on some big stylistic gambles. It does occasionally drown (again, pardon the pun) under its own weight, but Noah skillfully avoids the trap of becoming a checklist of events that too many works of Biblical or historical fiction fall into, rising above the tide (damn it) and emerging as one of the better movies of 2014.

If you've been to church or read the Bible, you probably know the basics, so I won't recap them here. What this film does differently is incorporate two new elements: fallen angels, and a bad guy trying to claim the Ark for his own people. The angels, known here as Watchers, were cast out of Heaven for trying to help humanity after the Fall of Man, going on to assist Cain (killer of Abel) in building a great civilization. The Cainites, in turn, repaid the Watchers by turning against them, hunting most of them to extinction. Now, the remaining Watchers seek to redeem themselves by helping Noah and his family build the Ark. When I first saw the Watchers, I knew that this was going to be something special, because the ugly monsters that they are portrayed as were far closer to what's actually written in Scripture than the image of little babies with harps and chiseled ubermenschen with great wings (that stuff dates back to Renaissance painters). The angels, as they're actually described, resemble something out of an H. P. Lovecraft cosmic horror story, with multiple arms, legs, and eyes that should not be, capable of driving people mad just by looking at them. Aronofsky doesn't quite go that far, but his angels are definitely freaky-looking, made of stone with three or four arms and moving in a jerky manner that resembles stop-motion effects, which I am still convinced that Aronofsky employed to get that look. Bravo. Moreover, the angels don't just look good; their presence in the story, and their quest for redemption, adds a new wrinkle and some surprises to a story that is as old as civilization itself. Having Nick Nolte and Frank Langella lend their voices to some of them certainly helps bring some gravitas to characters that easily could've been technical gimmicks.

The second new element of Aronofsky's take is the villains. Tubal-cain, a minor figure in Genesis, is upgraded into the leader of a once-great industrial civilization. Tubal-cain and his ancestors (going back to Cain himself) have stripped God's green Earth of resources to power their cities and factories, leaving much of the world barren and desolate, and once they started to run out of their magic unobtainium they turned against each other. And then God decides to destroy the world and start anew, as punishment for violating His creation, causing Tubal-cain and his people to come to Noah demanding seats on the ark, unwilling to take no for an answer. It is with Tubal-cain and his people and motives that much of the controversy surrounding this film has emerged, with some accusing Aronofsky of trying to push an environmentalist message -- accusations that I doubt Aronofsky disagrees with. Between the multiple shots of the barren world and the abandoned mines and cities, to Tubal-cain's speeches outlining his motives and belief in man's dominion over the world, to the fact that the great disaster God sends to the world is rising sea levels, to the fact that the film's setting could just as easily be interpreted as post-apocalyptic as it could Biblical, Aronofsky knew what he was doing. And you know what? I liked it. Despite permeating the film from beginning to end, the environmentalist message is rarely overbearing, instead adding a modern-day subtext to the film while going out of its way in the third act to prevent itself from devolving into an Earth First! rant.

That comes when Noah, as the savior of the beasts, decides that the flood is punishment against all humanity for destroying the world, and concludes that man must be wiped out entirely if God's creation is to recover and survive. Upon finding out that his adoptive daughter Ila has had her infertility miraculously cured, and that she is bearing his son Shem's child, he explodes, feeling that allowing humanity to repopulate would start the cycle anew. Noah in the third act is almost an anti-villain, and the counterpoint to Tubal-cain. If Tubal-cain represents the greedy industrialists and consumers that see the world as existing to serve humanity, Noah represents an environmental extremist who views mankind itself as inherently evil. And furthermore, they both have their reasons for their extreme positions; Tubal-cain wants to save his people from the flood, while Noah wants to save the animals and fulfill what he sees as his divinely-mandated task. For all its epic spectacle, this film manages to remain nuanced on an issue as sensitive as environmentalism. Again: bravo.

All this talk, and I've barely gotten into the technical side of the film. What more can I say: it's big. Really big. The entire cast hams it up to some degree or another, from Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly as Noah and his wife, to Emma Watson, Douglas Booth, and Logan Lerman as their children, to Ray Winstone as Tubal-cain and Anthony Hopkins as Noah's grandfather Methuselah. On top of that, Aronofsky shoots the shit out of this film; any concern that he'd be trapped by the big budget and the accompanying studio meddling should be swept away in ten minutes. The whole film is not only beautifully shot, but downright evocative, two standout scenes being when Noah infiltrates Tubal-cain's camp and sees his people's vividly-depicted barbarity (a scene almost as scary as anything in Black Swan) and a retelling of the Genesis creation story that beautifully uses it as metaphor for the evolution of life on Earth. Occasionally, the film has too many subplots going at once, particularly in the third act with one character who didn't really seem to have much of a purpose anymore. There were also some occasions where the epic feel of the film was hard to take seriously, treading dangerously close to the line of turning into narm. Overall, however, these moments are few and far enough between that they barely hurt the flow of the film.

Score: 4 out of 5

It's not Aronofsky's masterpiece, but it's easily one of the best-realized Biblical epics in a very long time. Whether or not you're a Christian, you'll find a great deal to appreciate about this film.

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