Having made movies about obsessive characters looking for God — or something like Him — in the numerology of the Kabbalah (“Pi”), at the end of a heroin needle (“Requiem for a Dream”), and in the outer reaches of the galaxy (“The Fountain”), surely it was only a matter of time before Darren Aronofsky got to making one about a man with a direct line to the Creator. And so we have “Noah,” in which the world’s most famous shipwright becomes neither the Marvel-sized savior suggested by the posters nor the “environmentalist wacko” prophesied by some test-screening Cassandras, but rather a humble servant driven to the edge of madness in his effort to do the Lord’s bidding. Counterintuitive, perhaps, but by no means sacrilegious, Aronofsky’s uneven but undeniably bold, personal, visually extravagant take on the Old Testament tale will surely polarize critics and audiences while riding a high sea of curiosity to strong initial worldwide B.O. Only time — and word of mouth — will tell if it can stay the course for anywhere near 40 days and nights (and top “Black Swan’”s $329 million global cume).
Whatever comes of “Noah” (which opens this weekend in several foreign markets, including Mexico, a week ahead of its March 28 domestic launch), the film certainly ranks alongside “The Great Gatsby” and “Gravity” as one of the riskiest director-driven passion projects to be gambled on by today’s ever more cautious major studios. And if Aronofsky’s $130 million, 137-minute movie ultimately feels compromised at all, it’s less by studio interference than by its director’s own desire to make a metaphysical head movie that is also an accessible action blockbuster (where “The Fountain” tilted heavily toward the former). “Noah” does not always sit easily astride those competing impulses, but it is never less than fascinating — and sometimes dazzling — in its ambitions. Once upon a time, the famously austere French director Robert Bresson was enlisted by Dino De Laurentiis to film the Noah story for his planned “The Bible … In the Beginning,” only to be fired when he told the producer he didn’t intend to film any of the animals, just their tracks upon the sand. And there may be no better description of Aronofsky’s film than to say that it has one foot in the world of Bresson and the other in that of Jerry Bruckheimer.
For starters, “Noah” doesn’t look like any biblical epic we’ve ever seen before, with the verdant hillsides and ashen volcanic flatlands of Iceland standing in for the deserts of the Middle East, photographed with rugged grandeur by Aronofsky’s longtime d.p. Matthew Libatique. Likewise, the costumes (by “American Hustle” Oscar nominee Michael Wilkinson) eschew robes and sandals in favor of heartier attire that might best be described as proto-army surplus. As for the supposed “liberties” Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel have taken with their sacrosanct source, they aren’t boldfaced transgressions so much as interpretations, additions and embellishments designed to flesh out the spare Noah narrative to feature length. This includes making the characters far younger than those described in the Good Book — which, if followed to the letter, would have yielded an antediluvian “Amour” (another movie, one should note, with a role for a symbolical white dove).
Aronofksy’s Noah (superbly played by Russell Crowe) doesn’t hear God’s voice booming down from the heavens like in Bill Cosby’s celebrated standup routine, or sit on the stoop shooting the breeze with the Creator like Steve Carell in “Evan Almighty.” Rather, the looming flood and the mission of the ark come to him in the course of two vividly rendered hallucinogenic dreams — one natural, the other induced by some special “tea” served up by Noah’s grandpa, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, leaving no bit of scenery unchewed). And because the story lacks a natural antagonist, the film corrals one from elsewhere in Genesis in the form of Tubal-cain (played as a youth by Finn Wittrock), a descendant of the Abel-slaying Cain first seen in a brief prologue delivering a fatal blow to Noah’s father, Lamech (Marton Csokas) — a scene that, like much of “Noah,” feels straight out of a 1940s frontier western. Later, as a full-blown supervillain (Ray Winstone) hip to Noah’s survivalist scheme, Tubal-cain and his rogue army vow to hitch a ride on the ark or else die trying. (This leads to a large-scale battle sequence which, while impressively staged, is easily the film’s most conventional passage — an extended outtake from Middle-earth.)
Here is where you feel Aronofsky and Handel laboring intensely, with only partial success, to turn what has traditionally been something of a one-man show into more of an ensemble affair. Where Noah is the model locavore, who takes from the land only as much as he needs and strives to be at one with his surroundings (but who, being Russell Crowe, can also kick serious butt when need be), Tubal-cain personifies the debauched, resource-plundering wastrels God seeks to smite from the universe. And though Winstone plays the part with sinister flair, the character never becomes much more than a stock bad guy, on hand to pop up like a jack-in-the-box at the least convenient moments, and to try wooing Noah’s petulant, Skywalker-ish son, Ham (Logan Lerman), over to the dark side. Ham, meanwhile, may be patient zero for middle-child syndrome, spending most of the movie sulking about wondering when he’s going to become a man, and staring dolefully at the beautiful Ila (Emma Watson), an orphan girl who was adopted as a child by Noah and his wife, Naameh (a solid but underused Jennifer Connelly), and who becomes betrothed to their eldest son, Shem (Douglas Booth). Even Ila gets her own inner conflict in the form of a barren womb that makes her feel like an unworthy bride — especially, you know, given the pressure of repopulating the earth.
But if the interpersonal dramas don’t quite fully engage, as spectacle “Noah” rarely disappoints, commencing with the building of the ark itself. Designed by production designer Mark Friedberg (and built, to the actual dimensions specified by the Bible, on a New York soundstage), it is an awesome thing — not the traditional sailing vessel of many an artist’s interpretation, but rather an enormous wooden warehouse that makes the Maersk Alabama look like a lifeboat. In its construction, Noah is lent several (huge) helping hands by the Watchers (the film’s version of the biblical Nephilim), fallen angels exiled to earth for their loyalty to mankind and imprisoned inside towering granite bodies that they lug about like walking mountains. Intricately designed and voiced by the likes of Frank Langella, Nick Nolte and regular Aronofsky featured player Mark Margolis, these weary witnesses to all the wonders and horrors of creation are skeptical at first of Noah’s intentions, but eventually rally to his aid, and they become the most special (and emotionally resonant) of the movie’s many elaborate special effects.
The arrival of the animals, which appear to self-organize by phylum, is a similarly marvelous sight (even if the creatures retain a conspicuous CGI appearance). Then comes the Frankenstorm, in which the waters of the earth quite literally rise up to meet those of the heavens — a suitably Dramamine-worthy sequence, expertly rendered by Aronofsky and all his technicians. Not soon to be forgotten: the image of humanity’s last dregs clambering for a foothold on a lone rocky outcropping as it, too, is finally swallowed by the sea.
Yet it is only after the tide has ebbed and a new day has dawned that “Noah” seems to come to its real place of purpose. Taking inspiration from a line in Genesis about Noah’s post-flood descent into drunkenness, Aronofsky and Handel imagine an exhausted hero who can’t understand why, if all mankind was meant to perish, he and his family should be saved. And since that telephone to the heavens only receives calls, Noah has no one to ask. Crowe is incredibly good in these scenes — you feel his torment as if it were a fire burning him from the inside out — culminating in a terrifying moment of near-infanticide that, intentionally or not, recalls James Mason’s explosive lament from Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life”: “God was wrong!”
The purists will blanche — injections of existential angst and self-doubt into Scripture are always guaranteed to rankle (as “The Last Temptation of Christ” proved). But it’s here that one feels fully why Aronofsky wanted to make this movie in the first place, as Noah’s own age of anxiety seems to echo directly into our own. The movie leaves us with a crystalline image of a man who feels most adrift when he is finally standing on dry land — and who, regardless of what faith one subscribes to, cannot relate to that?
For all its visual flourishes, “Noah” offers an equally dynamic sonic experience, with immersive, multilayered effects designed to take full advantage of the new Dolby Atmos sound system, and a richly orchestrated score by regular Aronofsky music man Clint Mansell that alternates thunderous percussive beats with New Age-y twangs and hums.
Reviewed at Paramount screening room, New York, March 10, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 137 MIN.