Sunday, April 13, 2014

Noah Movie Review

I guess the hokeyness of the Biblical epic film was just waiting for a rebirth. We could count Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ as the start of a new wave, but it’s more torture porn than uplifting. When Darren Aronofsky decides to tackle a Bible story, even when granted a mega-millions budget by a major studio, you have to expect something a little beyond the ordinary, if not quite extraordinary.

In Noah, Russell Crowe plays the Old Testament hero who saved all God’s creatures from death in the Great Flood. Aronofsky’s screenplay, co-written by Ari Handel, has more up its sleeve than the old films like The Ten Commandments. There’s a slight tinge of modern environmentalism at work here. The Creator, as the characters refer to Him, isn’t angry just at the wickedness of men. Perhaps he’s also disturbed by the practice, hinted at by Noah, of men eating animals. “They believe it gives them strength,” Noah somberly explains to his son, Shem and Ham, when they are boys. Soon after, he’s having visions of death beneath the water, of new life sprouting instantaneously from a single raindrop.

As grown men, Shem and Ham are played by Douglas Booth and Logan Lerman. Shem has a female companion in Ila (Emma Watson), a castaway adopted by Noah as a little girl. But Ham is left waiting for companionship once they start boarding the ark. Noah’s wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) plays the dutiful subservient woman up until the moment when it looks lie Noah has completely lost his mind while in thrall to fanatical ideology.

In this world, only partially pre-history, men are divided into two factions: the good descendants of Seth (Adam and Eve’s lesser-known third son) represented here only by Noah, his progeny, and his grandfather Methusaleh (Anthony Hopkins), a kind of wise old sage living on a mountain by himself; and those descended from Cain. They are the evils of man, led by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) and they far outnumber Noah’s family. They live in great industrial cities, barely seen on the horizon of this dusty barren world where the film resides. Aronofsky seems to be suggesting some connection between Old Testament wrath of God stuff and the direction we’re heading in the present day with climate change, and more and louder talk about sustainable living. Are we in the 21st century merely repeating the mistakes made by Cain’s descendants? Or was that chapter of Genesis a future prediction more than a historical tale?

There’s plenty to ponder in this modern interpretation and it’s clear that Aronofsky hasn’t lost his visionary touch, although you can certainly feel the compromises that come with a $130 million budget. The artistic freedom evident in Black Swan has been greatly subdued by an executive’s need to recoup a large investment. And to do that you need butts in seats. That problem is solved here, like it is in every other blockbuster action extravaganza, with CGI creatures and an absurd battle involving hundreds of anonymous deaths.

I don’t quite know what to make of The Watchers, these fallen angels cast out by the Creator for aiding men after the expulsion, now permanently cast in hard rock. They move a little like the bulky hulky transformers and sound (voiced as they are by the digitally manipulated raspy vocal work of Frank Langella and Nick Nolte) and fight like the Ents of The Lord of the Rings. They’re hokey and ridiculous, let’s be honest about it, and they feel so oddly out of place in this Biblical epic except that the screenplay needed a deus ex machine capable of helping Noah defeat legions of attackers who want on his boat.

In the end, the self doubt Noah ahs, and his shift from believing his family has been chosen for salvation to an understanding that he was chosen only for his commitment to the task (as opposed to any inherent goodness) is shoddy patchwork designed to appease the Aronofsky fans who want something more from their blockbusters. I would have preferred a much darker and more introspective tale that really digs into what it means to be the guy who gets to watch humanity suffer.

Aronofsky and Handel are onto something interesting in crafting an ambiguous time frame that could be part of pre-history, but that has elements that hint at a new futuristic creation myth. I think they open the doors to all kinds of inquisitive criticism and debate about our current place in the world and how we view the Bible as either fact-based history or moral teachings. Noah brings the Good Book back around to what could be a useful tool for morals and values.

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