In the copy of the Bible sitting on my bookshelf, the story of Noah is a pretty brief one. Granted, a lot gets packed into that eventful section of Genesis, what with the cubit-tabulating, the ark-constructing, and the two-by-two animal marching, all leading up to the mother of all Old Testament climaxes: the flood. Still, there’s hardly enough material there to hang a two-hour-plus Hollywood epic on. So going in to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, most of us will have already made peace with the idea that certain storytelling embellishments are going to be made. Whether or not audiences will be happy with those changes is another story.
In an unpredictibale career that’s alternated between telling stories on a small canvas (Pi, Requiem For a Dream, The Wrestler) and a larger one (The Fountain, Black Swan), Aronofsky has always been an audacious and idiosyncratic filmmaker. With its $125 million budget, Noah is his broadest canvas yet. And it ends up being a maddeningly schizophrenic experience. On one hand, it’s a remarkably earnest and heartfelt Bible parable, not unlike Martin Scorsese’s darkly existential The Last Temptation of Christ. It contains a handful of gut-wrenching small-scale moments, like Noah’s decision to spare his grandchildren from sacrifice, that are so powerful they’ll make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and salute. On the other, though, it’s an excessively flashy Tinseltown spectacle tarted up with all the razzle-dazzle eye candy that a nine-figure price tag can buy. It’s as if Aronofsky had so many resources at his disposal, he couldn’t help but give in to the sin of cinematic gluttony. These two competing impulses seem to be battling for Aronofsky’s filmmaking soul. And the result is a disappointing draw.
Aronofsky’s wisest move was casting Russell Crowe as Noah. As one of the last descendants of the peaceful line of Seth, Noah is a faithful husband to Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and a loving father of Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), and the adopted Ila (Emma Watson). He’s the rare piousman in a god-forsaken world of wickedness lorded over by the evil offspring of Cain (led by Ray Winstone’s fiendish, scraggly Tubal-Cain). And Crowe plays this virtuous ascetic with a fiery, half-mad intensity and moral weight he hasn’t shown in a very long time — maybe since Gladiator. The problem is that Aronofsky seems to be less interested in his flesh-and-blood characters than the fantastical CGI ones — namely, a strange, trippy race of fallen-angel stone monsters called Watchers who look like gigantic piles of smoldering charcoal briquettes and speak with the growly voices of Frank Langella and Nick Nolte. They’re ridiculous.
As the film begins, Noah has a vision of a serpent and an apple and humanity drowning in a watery death. He senses that this is a prophecy. That the Creator is going to destroy the world and wash away the wicked. Before that hard rain comes, though, Noah and his righteous family must prepare. So the ark is built with the help of the Watchers (who come off like antediluvian cousins of the Ents from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy), and the animals are gathered in a computer-generated sequence that makes Cecil B. DeMille’s parting of the Red Sea look like a cheap dime-store illusion. Meanwhile, Shem couples off with Ila, the devilish Ham is seduced by Tubal-Cain, and Jopheth?well, Jopheth just obeys papa and tends to the slumbering camels, rhinos, and elephants below deck.
It’s difficult to reduce the fire-and-brimstone wrath of God to a third-act Hollywood money shot, but when the flood comes it’s an event of haunting beauty. The family holes up inside the ark that’s being tossed like a cork, while the heathens outside howl and scream in anguish. Such is the price to cleanse humanity of its trespasses and start over. Noah is a movie about big ideas (environmentalism, heavenly obedience versus earthly love) and even bigger directorial ambitions (how to tell a personal story on the grandest of grand scales). But, in the end, it’s also a disappointment. Maybe not one of Biblical proportions, but a disappointment nonetheless. C+