by Tony Dayoub
If I were to review a film simply for its ambition, then Noah would get some of my most positive praise. Director Darren Aronofsky offers some truly enlightening perspective on the story. He also continues to explore themes present in all of his work. His Noah (Russell Crowe) is a true believer whose fervent passion not only flirts with madness but is consumed by it. Then there are the visual touches that serve not only to illustrate the vaguest portion of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, but also double as a means of marrying our contemporary knowledge of evolution to the more fantastic element of creationism in a way that asserts one need not necessarily exist independently of the other. There is a lot to chew on in this new, grimmer take on Noah and the ark he built to save his family and the animal kingdom from a flood meant to blot out the men. But if I were only to grade a film on ambition then I'd have to ignore the problematic mistakes of other bold films that try tackling complex narratives—movies like The Bonfire of the Vanities, Dune, and Heaven's Gate—spectacles which fail spectacularly.
Noah is one of these films. Yes, it's endearing and earnest. Aronofsky honestly makes an effort to convey what he finds so fascinating about a man that has only been portrayed as a kind of cypher in the past. No less than the great John Huston tried his hand at adapting Noah's story in his uneven omnibus, The Bible: In the Beginning, and fell into much the same kind of trap that Aronofsky does here. Huston, the movie's creative force, cast himself as Noah, the implication being that Noah was a metaphorical figure, a stand-in for God. Aronofsky's Noah is in effect interpreting God's visions in such a way that he is not God's agent but a man that decides who dies and who gets to survive as part of a new world order. Aronofsky's film shows how arbitrarily subjective Noah's decisions are in a sequence where he decides to save one of his more troublesome sons, the covetous Ham (Logan Lerman), over an innocent girl who he abandons to a stampeding mob. At least Aronofsky is going one step further than Huston in explicitly assigning motivations to Noah instead of simply ascribing them in the free-associative way Huston did in his film.
Of course, there is no mention of such an incident in the Bible. And this drama is simply one of many instances that Aronofsky adds to pad out a story an hour longer than is necessary. But it is a well-intentioned attempt. Much like one of the more controversial Biblical film adaptations, The Last Temptation of Christ, to which religious fundamentalists objected to because of the depiction of carnality in Jesus, Aronofsky's liberties seem to be taken nobly. Midway through the film comes the most explicit linkage between God and Noah when he speaks the words of Genesis 1 (if not faithfully, then paraphrasing pretty closely) over a series of images depicting the Creation. The representation bears some resemblance to the hallucinatory imagery in Ken Russell's Altered States, primal images that tie intelligent design to Darwinism in a manner that is meant to unite both debating factions rather than divide them. It's as if Aronofsky is trying to tell us there is room for a multitude of interpretations of God's word.
What ultimately undermines Noah's credibility lies in its clumsy move to reduce the man to a kind of archetypal superhero tale, complete with origin chapter, a visit to the sage wizard, and inclusion of absurd aliens. The murder of Noah's father Lamech (Marton Csokas), a huge departure from the Bible story, inadvertently adds revenge as a motivation in Noah's alienation from men and their leader, Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), who might be labelled as the basest of humanists from a certain cockeyed perspective. The Bible's passing reference to the Nephilim, often interpreted as fallen angels, is cause to introduce ridiculous-looking rock monsters right out of Galaxy Quest, creatures which are essential enough to this version that they are voiced by actors like Nick Nolte. Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) enigmatically proffers knowledge to his descendant like some kind of Gandalf. Before long the Fallen, or Watchers as they are called here, are helping Noah build his ark and fend off Tubal-cain and his evil men in a conflagration not unlike the Ents' attack on Isengard in The Lord of the The Rings. In deciding to aggrandize Noah's story into a sort of superhero myth, Aronofsky actually reduces the simple, miraculous wonder of the story: that Noah is an all too human agent of God whose heroism lies in faithfully fulfilling a monumental task He sets out.
One could argue that Aronofsky's interpretation is a concession to today's audiences, a calculated decision to go for the broad appeal that usually greets a fantasy blockbuster. This isn't entirely surprising considering the critical condition Paramount Studios is in these days. In fact, even the selection of Noah as the hero is a safe, calculated gamble. Here is a figure of reverence to Christians, Jews and Muslims that should attract a huge cross-section of viewers to theaters. But the studio's late-term pursuit of endorsements from religious leaders of all kinds, starting as high as the Pope and on down, signals their recognition that something foundational was left out of the mix. Like other earnest, interesting failures, Noah has its charms and may build a cult audience once it makes its way to home consumers. Rock monsters aside, however, Noah's greatest sin is that it forgets the enormity of the role God played in the Great Flood, and that's something even the most open-minded faith-based theatrical audience members won't forgive.