We’ve documented some of Noah’s trials leading up to release, notably some contention between director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem For A Dream) and distributor Paramount Pictures. Supposedly we are getting the version of the movie that’s reflective of Aronofsky’s vision for the film, but I can’t escape the feeling that there were still way too many cooks in the kitchen for this one, and not just in the editing bay. In case you didn’t know it already, this is not your grandmother’s telling of the Noah story. Probably a good thing, all considered. Didactic art rarely does more than preach to the choir. There are definitely seeds of something deeply interesting in this at times mystical, occasionally riveting exploration of the Biblical deluge, but rather than flowering they are too often, and too quickly, drowned in a movie that frequently feels at odds with itself over what kind of narrative to pursue and how to pursue it.
There’s quite a bit to tackle with this movie, so let’s start with the simple, well, simple-er part where this is not a traditional telling of the Biblical story of Noah (played here by Russell Crowe). The movie smartly lets us know something’s up from the get-go, although it does so through the slightly questionable means of an animated voiceover. The voiceover tells an apocryphal version of the creation story, wherein the descendants of Cain encounter The Watchers, fallen angels (though it turns out not of the Paradise Lost sort) who teach them industry. This of course goes south quickly given that Cain’s descendants are an evil lot, and when we come in on the story proper, we quickly learn that the righteous offspring of Seth (Adam and Eve’s third son) are very few. Noah’s father was killed before him, and his own family exists in constant fear of marauding evil men.
All this is part of the setup to a world that feels very intentionally half-formed. The earth is full of mostly flat expanses still young in the diversity of flora and fauna, it would seem, yet possessed of the stuff of legend, a mysticism that stems from consistently experiencing the power of the Creator (as God is always referred to) yet unable to fully comprehend that same power. It’s all a very intentional separation not only from our own modern world, but from anything we might be able to conceive of as historically, naturally true within our own history. The Creator may be encountered meaningfully, but both he and his creation remain in many ways a mystery. Several dream sequences Noah experiences are exceptional in their execution, visual standouts that sell Noah’s conviction that a flood is coming and that he has been chosen for a divine mission (the ark) without the Creator ever needing a voice.
The problem is that this conception of the world is utterly betrayed, and pretty early in the film at that. The mystical wonder of the world is replaced by the expectation that things outside the natural order or commonplace. The gloriously inexplicable becomes bound by mechanics. There’s even a Tree of Life-esque run through the history of creation, from the big bang through humans. It’s a science-y sequence that feels totally at odds with a world rooted in ancient conception of the cosmos. This is where we begin to get back to the too many cooks problem. Time and again in this movie, it feels like you had multiple people with multiple visions fiddling with story elements. The early narrative, for example, is all about collective human experience of the divine, playing into this idea that the Creator is a present and active, if difficult to understand, force in the world. The industrialism of Cain’s descendants is even rooted in mystical resources they harness, but never truly control. For the first maybe 30 minutes of the two hour and twenty minute runtime, the movie feels really. But when the magic disappears from the world, so too does the movie’s thematic and narrative focus.
The movie pivots away from explicit notions of the divine to questions of purely human interactions. We get parts of plotlines that explore human agency, others that encounter the ends to which idealistic devotion can drive someone, others that probe the idea of innocence, and still others that simply ask about the nature of love. It all contributes, I suppose, to the overarching theme of how man ought to relate to his own kind, but not only does this exploration feel terribly fractured, the attempts to connect this back to our collective experience of God make God feel distant and unapproachable where previously he felt so close.
The narrative is similarly fragmented, but what really hobbles the movie is a lack of characterization to make actions meaningful. It’s not that motivation is wholly lacking, it’s more like we see just enough near the surface of each character to find their actions acceptable without truly understanding the person to whom the characteristics belong. Animation of the character is the result of the plot occasionally pulling strings rather than the plot being moved by living characters. Noah’s oldest son Shem (Douglas Booth), for instance, is growing to be a protector and provider to his own family, one which figures soon to splinter off in the same way that Noah did when he was younger. So he acts as a provider might. When conflict arises between himself and Noah, he takes action to resolve it, but the action is never rooted in the particular relationship a son has with his father; rather, it’s rooted in the idea that Shem is a protector and provider, and we never really see him in any other light.
Just as this more naturalistic part of the movie clashes with the earlier, more magical, nature, the parts of the plot though the second and third acts of the movie clash with one another. I don’t know if it was Aronofsky clashing with the studio or something else entirely, but the movie can’t help but feel like it’s bitten off more than it can chew and can’t fully digest any of the parts of the story (and the themes, characters, and plots which comprise it).
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
What I liked about Noah, I really, really liked. I was thrilled with Darren Aronofsky’s bold departure from a mere recounting of the Biblical bullet points in an attempt to create something that dealt with similar ideas in a more approachable form. The mystical nature of the world he created left me wary of its danger yet wanting to explore it anyway, which to me is the sign of a fantasy world well-created. And you really do have to look at this movie with those glasses on – this is a mythic telling, a legend with all the trappings of the genre. Noah fell apart for me when the mystical stopped being mysterious, and where a tight plot in an expansive world turned into a bloated one in a confined locale. Noah isn’t without its talking points, but for me those points were more about wasted potential than questions well-explored.