Darren Aronofsky’s new film offers only a soggy glimpse of what could have been
DARREN ARONOFSKY, director of independent films such as «Black Swan», plunges into … the world of the big studio production with «Noah». And it proves a controversial step. «Noah» tells the tale of the ark from a post-modern, environmentalist perspective, according to which humans have pillaged the earth, and animals, the only innocents, must be saved. The film takes liberties with its Biblical source in a way that was always going to be troublesome, using a video-game aesthetic and an aversion to the word «God» (only the word «creator» is ever used). Indeed, the studio, Paramount, was so anxious about the director’s broad interpretation of Genesis that it staged several test screenings last year with religious groups, and is thought to have made some changes following a hostile first response.
However, «Noah’s» real problem is not that it is insufficiently faithful to scripture. Indeed, in many ways this film tries harder to eke out forgotten doctrinal events than any of the classic predecessors beloved of religious groups, such as Cecil B. DeMille’s «The Ten Commandments». No, the fundamental difficulty with «Noah» is that it comes across as a bloated mishmash of blockbuster clichés that take themselves far too seriously. It overindulges in testosterone-fuelled fight scenes and manful glowering that feel disappointingly familiar. And without the epic silliness of pulp classics like «Braveheart», or the gritty realism of «The Passion of the Christ», it ends up failing both as a studio potboiler and as a religious tour de force.
We begin with a dreamlike flashback to Adam and Eve: the unmistakeable chomp of an apple, the frightening hiss of a serpent. Then, suddenly, we arrive at the time of Noah, descendant of Seth, who is the only righteous man left standing in a world peopled by evil-doers. The progeny of Cain have swamped the Earth and it is the worse for it. The terrain is dusty and dying; the «Watchers», fallen angels (and the film’s shipbuilders), look like a cross between Transformers and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents, bizarre action figures designed, perhaps, to justify Mr Aronofsky’s $130m budget. Death is everywhere. Even the womb of Ila (Noah’s adopted daughter played by an increasingly mature and watchable Emma Watson) is barren, a plot device on which much of the third act pivots.
Noah lives with his family in poverty but peace. There is his wife, Naameh, a subservient Jennifer Connelly, and their three sons: handsome and well-behaved Shem (Douglas Booth), covetous Ham (Logan Lerman) and tiny Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). However, Russell Crowe’s Noah is not a Santa-like animal-lover but a grim patriarch. Plagued by visions of a flood he becomes convinced that God has instructed him to take on the salvation of the animal kingdom and the destruction of mankind. Once the floodwaters open, he is also wracked with survivor’s guilt.
From the outset, Noah is set in direct contrast to Tubal-Cain, a «baddie» played by Ray Winstone with a touch of Mad Max. It’s here that Mr Aronofsky’s premise is clearest. Is Tubal-Cain really a baddie? Or is he a humanist, someone who will do everything to ensure mankind survives, just as Noah’s apocalyptic fervour is making him less and less sympathetic to the audience and to his own family? Tubal-Cain is in rebellion against God, at least in part because he believes God has abandoned humankind. “No one’s heard from the Creator since he marked Cain,» he laments. «We are orphan children.» This is not a film about goodies and baddies but, as Mr Aronofsky said almost a decade ago when he first began writing the script, a film about «dark, complicated characters». What a shame it could not just focus on that. The special effects are decent enough but Mr Aronofsky sets up a plot based on character analysis only to distract us from it repeatedly.
«Noah» is a modern, intimate and claustrophobic Biblical interpretation …