Darren Aronofsky has been making movies for a decade and a half, but the unprecedented financial success of Black Swan finally leveraged his name to new budgetary heights. Like with any filmmaker making this transition, the question of the new film becomes whether the filmmaker does better work under financial or studio constraints.
Well then Aronofsky decided to make his next movie about Noah, adding the almost inevitable controversies and reactions of audiences to religious themed movies. Early news was out of the playbook of a trainwreck in the making: something about six-armed angels (associated sound of people flipping through the Old Testament to remind themselves of whether or not this was mentioned anywhere there), Paramount requesting a different ending (associated conspiratoid grumblings of yet another Great Movie that Never Was), and a trailer that made the movie look no different than any other fantasy epic (hissing release of built-up schadenfreude from various people who aren’t fond of Aronofsky’s movies). Sarcastically or not, people wondered if Noah was going to be portrayed in his drunken state.
As such, Noah has the supreme misfortune of being the type of movie that people go into with more than just their own personal baggage, but something closely resembling a hoarder’s attic-worth of preconceptions, expectations, and personal juju looking for concrete examples to fill the Madlibs form argument they’ve prepared for any Internet debate they expect to get into.
Thus, to cut to the chase, the easiest way of summing up Noah would be to say that it’s still very much a Darren Aronofsky product, so your enjoyment of the movie is going to be highly correlated with your appreciation of his work in general. More importantly, it’s sincere.
The problem is that it throws you into the world of Noah so quickly, it takes some time to adjust. From this issue will derive most criticisms of fantasy epic style to the film: quick introductory titles roll the audience through the first stories of Genesis; a young boy Noah watches his father Lamech get murdered over Epic Acting Barotone Voice dialog, and it’s but a few more speeches from Russell Crowe over the importance of plant and animal life to his kids before we’re already to giant crumbling rock monsters in an especially scorched area of a dying over-industrialized Pangaea.
What’s happening here is that we find Noah on the outer reaches of the wasteland the descendents of Cain have turned much of the Earth into, living a rough but comfortable life with his wife and three children Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Unfortunately The Creator (if I recall correctly, ‘God’ is never used in this movie) sends him a premonition of the flood in a dream, and so the family must travel to Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins being ridiculously awesome) to inquire whether the premonition holds any hope for salvation. Along the way the family comes across Ila (Emma Watson), an orphaned and wounded young girl that Shem takes an immediate liking to, cross the sordid band of raiders lead by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), and discover The Watchers, six winged angels that fled Heaven to help humans and, in punishment from the Creator, were literally ‘encrusted’ in the rock of the Earth. So yes, there are giant, groaning, polylimbed golem/angel hybrids aiding Noah on his journey.
Whereas much of this may seem overwhelming in detail and underwhelming in purpose, it is world building that reveals quite a lot about Noah’s belief in and relationship to his Creator. Noah lives in a world where rock angels and giant floods aren’t surprising. It’s a new world: three short, quick shots of a snake, an apple, and a rock in a fist detail Noah’s entire history and lineage, his comprehension of the world. In the world of the film, the presence of the Creator is clearly felt.
So Methuselah helps Noah finish his premonition and the building of the ark begins, but for Tubal-cain in the forest amassing an army to take it. It’s here that the movie hits its stride. All of the characters in their own way, even the villainous ones, are motivated by a complete existential threat against their own survival, humanity’s survival, and the world’s survival, and the lack of clarity or direct communication of the Creator, the ineffableness of the whole end times thing, sends them in great personal trials. Noah’s dedication to the Creator’s will makes him sometimes blind or even adverse to the needs of his family (especially his increasingly lonely son Ham). Ila is barren, an issue that stakes the very survival of humanity in her romance with Shem and puts to question the Creator’s abilities to provide for the increasingly hopeless family. Even Tubal-cain, the heavy, sees the Creator’s ambiguity as permission to take over the world so that humanity can thrive on the basis of its resources.
By the time the animals have arrived and the rain actually starts falling, the movie really only has one last big battle scene and the associated ‘epicness’ of it fades away. We’re left with a traumatized family on a very small, very dark boat, who have to live with the first hand experience of massive amounts of death, no hope for the future, and a tightly wound mess of resentments with each other. The Creator isn’t communicating, Noah’s devotion to his instructions has reached the level of madness, and Ham plots vengeance.
Most people know the ending of this story, and so special attention should be brought to Aronofsky’s peculiar brand of darkness. It is well suited for the material once you have the obvious-in-retrospect realization that, well, Noah is an incredibly dark character. Also worth pointing out is that Aronofsky’s two most spiritual movies are both the ones with the most levity in regards to leaving the audience with a feeling other than sheer depression.
At the root of both movies is the strength of love against the ineffability of mortality. And for a director whose movies often make people feel like killing themselves, in both The Fountain and Noah, Aronofsky shows a sincere belief in the higher meaning of that love.