Character Ark: ‘Noah’ Writes The Book On Savvy Spectacle

russell-crowe-noahHave you heard the Good News?

One of the most innovative filmmakers of this millennium has released an epic blockbuster that caters heavily to a Christian audience — and it’s actually pretty decent.

There was every reason to be skeptical about a major budget version of this tale. Actually, any major budget version of any tale. In case you haven’t noticed, movie studios are increasingly obsessed with telling (and retelling) recognizable stories in recent years — and there are few stories more widely recognized than the tale of Noah’s ark. We’ve all become reasonably cynical about Hollywood’s eagerness to turn anything you’ve ever heard of into a film — comic books, video games, board games, toys, people — regardless of story potential. There’s no actual correlation between brand name recognition and box office, since so many of these films have failed, but it keeps happening and almost always seems more like a cash grab than a movie.

Factor in the massive amounts of money that can be made when the right movie finds its built-in Christian audience, and Noah seems like a no-brainer — and by that, I mean both a really good way to make money, and also a potentially brainless movie. The wild card here is Mr. Darren Aronofsky, one of this generation’s most talented filmmakers, the man behind Black Swan, The Wrestler, and Requiem For A Dream.

Yes, that’s right — the same guy who brought us Ellen Burstyn hopped up on diet pills being attacked by a refrigerator and Jennifer Connolly going “ass to ass” for a heroin fix is now bringing us one of the most cherished biblical stories ever told. Who’d have guessed?noah-anthony-hopkinsDarren Aronofsky’s last film was the dark ballet drama Black Swan, which was nominated for Best Picture, won Natalie Portman an Oscar, and made a surprisingly massive killing at the box office. No one expected a psychological thriller about a demented lesbian ballerina who ends up stabbing herself in the belly on opening night to gross over $300 million worldwide… and nobody expected the man who made it to suddenly turn his eye toward the Bible with his newfound clout.

As it turns out, Noah is a passion project of Aronofky’s, and anyone who has seen the underrated, multi-century-spanning The Fountain can understand how Aronofsky’s sensibilities might line up with this kind of old-fashioned epic. But still! Even in comparison to other Bible stories, the tale of Noah’s ark is problematic. It doesn’t hold up to deep scrutiny. I mean, can we seriously believe that two of every species on Earth could fit on one boat? And have enough food to eat throughout those forty days of rainfall? And not kill each other? Where did all that water come from? And, forty days later, where does it all go? Does this mean that every single person on Earth is a descendant of Noah and his wife? What about black people? And Asian people? And Latin people? There weren’t two of any of them on the ark!logan-lerman-ham-noahNo, this particular Bible story has never really seemed all that believable, and there’s only so much that the big screen Noah can do to combat that. Those who go into this movie questioning the veracity of this tale will not leave it utterly convinced that this is the way it happened, but that’s not necessarily a problem. Did we leave Lord Of The Rings thinking that Frodo really made that epic trek across Middle Earth? (Sorry, there is no Middle Earth.) Aronofsky adds further fantasy elements, such as angels-turned-rock-monsters, as if to highlight that the entire tale is utterly implausible. Turn your brains off, skeptics, and just enjoy the ride.

Noah stars Russell Crowe as the biblical hero, who is turned here into more of an antihero, determined to wipe mankind off the face of the Earth. ‘Cause, you know, God said so. This kind of defense didn’t work so well for the Son of Sam thousands of years later, which I count as progress, but back in the ol’ days I guess people just sort of accepted it. (Most people with this sort of agenda end up being the bad guy, thwarted by James Bond, which is what makes Noah rather nifty.) Noah is married to Naameh, played by Jennifer Connolly, who gets this film’s most powerhouse scene. (It’s too early to talk Oscars, but one can imagine a Supporting Actress nod in her future. Maybe.) You may remember that Connolly also played Crowe’s wife in A Beautiful Mind, so she’s had plenty of experience playing “supportive wife to potentially schizophrenic visionary played by Russell Crowe,” as she does here.noah-jennifer-connolly-naameh-russell-croweNoah also has two studly sons, Shem (Douglas Booth) and Ham (Logan Lerman), plus Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), a son too young to be deemed “studly,” and a surrogate daughter named Ila (Emma Watson). Since these are to be the only survivors of humanity, the fact that Ila is not really their sister is how Noah dances around the tricky issue of incest, although it is implied that there will be some funky pairings going on when Ham and Japheth eventually have to fuck their nieces in order to keep the population going. (Sequel!) The cast is rounded out by Noah’s loopy grandfather Methuselah, who is a little bit crazy, a little bit magical, and a lot obsessed with berries. He lives up on a mountain and apparently doesn’t get out much, since when Naameh finally visits him he’s apparently been cooling his heels, waiting for someone to bring him berries for the better part of a decade. (He is also apparently not invited to join his family on the ark? Harsh!)

Yes, there’s a lot of silliness in Noah, much of it thanks to the source material. But as blockbuster spectacle goes, it’s pretty killer. The CGI animals aren’t super convincing, but the imagery is dazzling nonetheless, and it’s nice to see what Darren Aronofsky can do with untold millions at his disposal. (Then again, the special effects in Black Swan and The Fountain were even more breathtaking, and done with a fraction of the budget.) There’s some Requiem For A Dream-like editing involving animated Bible sequences (swapping the forbidden apple for heroin, which is fitting), and another bombastic score by Clint Mansell. The epic battle scenes are… well, epic. And there’s a Tree Of Life-like montage of Earth’s creation which shrewdly avoids any evolution-related controversy by cutting away just before monkeys turn into people. (But we all know it happens… right?)NOAHWhat truly sets Noah apart from the average blockbuster — and the average movie that caters to a Christian audience — is its savvy attention to character. Each of the main players has a clear and compelling story, and though the Bible didn’t often give its female characters a lot of agency, the women in Noah are every bit as important as the men, even if everyone does ultimately defer to the titular prophet — even when he attempts to kill off members of his own family because he’s pretty sure that’s what God told him to do. (On this matter, it would have been helpful if God had been a little more specific.) There’s real angst to be found here, which is not so true of most films of this size and scope, and the Noah character goes surprisingly dark. He spends more time on the Ark threatening to kill his infant grandchildren than hanging out with giraffes — a bold move in a studio movie, which tend to demand that all heroes be “likable” (AKA boring). God tends to be a more benevolent figure in modern Christian lore, but Noah isn’t afraid to point out that back in the day, He could be kind of an asshole. (Don’t smite me. Just saying!)

The fact that Noah is Darren Aronofsky’s worst film yet is only a testament (ha!) to the fact that his other movies are so good. And in comparison to his pre-Black Swan oeuvre, Noah is poised to make boatloads (ha!) of cash, which means he may have even more artistic freedom from here on out. It’s far from a perfect movie — the teen romance dips into melodramatic Twilight territory once or twice, Anthony Hopkins starts off hammy and goes full-on goofy shortly after, and Ray Winstone’s broad villain should have been excised from the latter half of the movie to make room for the true “bad guy,” Noah himself — but it’s still all rather awesome, considering. After a string of flops, it’s nice to see Russell Crowe back in Gladiator mode, headlining the sort of movie he’s good at… even if he does sing again (triggering shudder-inducing Les Miserables flashbacks — but only briefly). It absolutely could be better, but it also could’ve been God-awful. (Ha!)

Faint praise? Maybe. But Aronofsky is one of few filmmakers I’m still willing to follow to the ends of the Earth. I only hope this budget hasn’t spoiled him, because I’d much rather see more pill-popping housewives, suicidal wrestlers, and demented ballerinas than Aronofsky’s take on the parting of the Red Sea.

Let’s save that one for Paul Thomas Anderson.noah-naameh-crowe-connolly

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