The big budget Bible epic Noah seems on its face to be such an odd choice for a director like Darren Aronofsky to follow up 2010’s Black Swan, his most successful feature. He has flirted with the mainstream before, nearly becoming the man who would reboot Batman before Warner Brothers went with Christopher Nolan, and actually becoming the man who would reboot The Wolverine before bowing out due to scheduling concerns. But he had never actually completed a film with a budget higher than $35 million (2006’s The Fountain). With Paramount opening their wallet for a $100+ million biblical epic of old, putting a man with the film sensibilities (and lack of religion) of an Aronofsky in the director’s chair is a huge risk. Aronofsky’s visual flair and penchant for stories with obsessive lead characters could definitely play in his favor for a story like Noah’s, but his particular brand of existential psychological horror is a tough sell to the type of crowd who usually come out in droves for Biblical stories (the folks who have made Son of God or God’s Not Dead into surprisingly modest successes). The choice seems to indicate that Paramount was legitimately interested in a making a good film instead of simply a successful one, but it remains to be seen whether their choice will pay off in the long run.
The film opens on a quick recap of the big early events of Genesis through the fall of Man, leading into a quick prologue wherein Noah as a young man sees his father murdered by descendants of Cain. Rejoining Noah in the present day, he (now a staunch Russell Crowe) and his wife (Jennifer Connelly, her second project with Aronofsky after Requiem for a Dream) live off the land like nomads, farming and scavenging for vegetables as the humans under the flag of Cain continue to ravage the Earth and pillage the world, their depravity reaching enough of a fever pitch to become an affront to God (who is always referred to as Creator). After a visually exciting prophetic dream comes to Noah in the night, he uproots his family and marches them toward the home of his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, of course), who advises him further about his dreams and the Creator’s plans for him. Everyone knows where this is going, and in not much time he is building his ark with the help of the Watchers, fallen angels reimagined as giant stone golems with multiple arms. The film jumps ahead in time as the ark is completed, with Noah’s family now fully grown and threatened by a marauding band of humans led by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone).
Considering that the story of the flood only took up three pages or so in Genesis, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel have plenty of room to play. It should not come as a surprise that they make the film as much about Noah the man as they can in the midst of the apocalyptic flood and the battle for the survival of man and animal kind alike. The result of this push and pull is honestly at bit of a mess. It can be difficult to tell a personal story while at the same time making room for giant rock monsters and a huge battle scene and flooding the entire surface of the Earth. There are moments of brilliance, those times the Aronofsky of Requiem for a Dream or Black Swan peeks through and assaults the audience, often out of nowhere. This is, for what it’s worth, a decidedly brutal affair, as Aronofsky makes sure to show the audience exactly why God saw fit to wash the world of Man away and start anew. A bravura sequence in the middle of the film shows Noah traveling to Tubal-Cain’s camps in an attempt to find his troubled son Ham (Logan Lerman of The Perks of Being a Wallflower) that pointedly evokes Black Swan but more importantly shows the sort of unbridled fury that has gripped humanity (compare this to the Golden Calf scene from The Ten Commandments). These little flourishes show up on a regular basis throughout the film’s first two acts, giving just a taste of that Aronofsky madness in the middle of what should be a classical epic.
The design of the film is strong; the prophetic dream sequences are incredible to behold, the Watchers look amazing on the screen (introduced in silhouette, a tactic Aronofsky uses a lot here) and there is a truly awe-inspiring sequence of Noah retelling the story so far of Genesis that could legitimately be worth owning this on physical media just to watch again whenever necessary. These moments may evoke Aronofsky’s earlier work, but they take a back seat to what has become the single best aspect of any new Aronofsky film, Clint Mansell’s score. He does not work nearly as much as he should, which is a shame because no other composer working in film today comes close to the consistently breathtaking work Mansell has been churning out since Requiem for a Dream put him on the map. Aronofsky needs to keep making movies if only just to ensure Mansell keeps scoring them. The fact that he’s an excellent director on top of that is icing on the cake.
The film struggles, though, when Aronofsky’s personal touches are pulled away. The third act of Noah is a fascinating one, wherein the flooded world becomes a backdrop for the personal struggles and demons of the man himself. Noah is, at his core a human, and he doubts that humanity should even exist anymore if someone like Tubal-Cain (who sneaks onto the ark to essentially turn the film into Air Force One for a few thoroughly unfortunate scenes, though Winstone does his best with an unfortunate situation) can exert his dominance over much of the globe. The choice pits Noah against the rest of his family and puts him right into the dangerously obsessed protagonist role that Aronofsky loves so much. It has the makings for some explosive family drama, which is a wonderful subversion of expectations. But this time around, it just does not work as well. The film feels under-stuffed, groping for plot points to justify its 137 minutes so it can cross that two hour runtime and feel like the epic it’s supposed to be. Too many of these moments, most of them quiet dialogue scenes, actively feel like the cast and crew are stalling for time, and the film starts to drag in ways it shouldn’t. There is likely a legitimately good 100 minute character piece hiding in here, something more akin to Aronofsky’s older work that does not have to live up to the loftiness of its goals, budget and subject matter.
Noah is certainly worth a watch. Enough of Aronofsky is present to intermittently please his die-hard fans, and Mansell’s score is his best work since The Fountain, which itself is likely his best film work ever. The performances are solid (even with a few missteps from Connelly) and do the best with what they are given. There’s even a bit of levity from time to time that breaks up the dread. Beyond that, the film is worth seeing for just how completely crazy it is, and how it tries to bring an anarchic barely controlled style to what could have been (and too often becomes) a stuffy swords and sandals epic. There isn’t enough Aronofsky to make this a winner, but there is enough to make it interesting for all of its flaws.