Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Darren Aronofsky's Gloriously Nutball "Noah"

2014 has seen a resurgence in Bible epics and Christian-themed films. By far the most interesting of them has been Darren Aronofsky's "Noah," which reimagines the famous story of the flood and the Ark as a gloomy meditation on environmentalism, human extinction, and religious fundamentalism. Oh, and it also has giant rock monsters epic battle sequences, and miracle sex, because Paramount is footing the bill and needed something that would look good on IMAX screens. There was reportedly quite the struggle behind the scenes over the final cut of the picture, which is apparent from the often schizophrenic tone and content that winds up onscreen. "Noah" clearly made concessions to the studio, but Aronofsky's work hasn't been compromised. And though it's a strange, uneven, and problematic film, I'm so very happy that it exists.

Aronofsky's interest in the Noah story clearly isn't with the spectacle, which often comes across as an afterthought, but exploring the psyche of a man who is receiving orders from his Creator. Played by Russell Crowe, Noah is burdened with interpreting a series of visions he receives, driving him to devote his life and his family's lives to the creation of the ark and the fulfillment of a divine plan that he believes requires the total extinction of the human race. The last bit troubles his wife (Jennifer Connelly), who worries for the future of their sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh), and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson). As the ark nears completion and the flooding is imminent, Noah and his family are threatened by the armies of Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), who will do anything to ensure his own survival.

I've seen Paramount get some flak for pushing to make the film more palatable, but I'm pretty impressed that they let Aronofsky make a big-budget film this difficult and downright weird. "Noah" is about as far from the sanitized, pandering version of the Bible story we all heard as children as it possibly could be. Aronofsky humanizes the man, putting his moral, ethical, and spiritual dilemmas front and center. For a good portion of the film he's more villain than hero, descending into self-righteous zealotry that drives him to do some pretty heinous things. Aronofsky also doesn't shy away from the cruelty of the Creator, who wipes out nearly all of humanity in the deluge, including people who are clearly innocent or redeemable. There are holes in the logic of narrative everywhere you look, but Aronofsky seems to purposefully draw attention to them, provoking the audience to question the characters' behavior and assumptions.

I love that "Noah" contains so many of these little moments of subversion. The standout sequence in the film is when Noah tells his family the story of Creation. What we hear is the Biblical version, but the accompanying visuals are the scientific version of how the earth was created and how life began and evolved on Earth. Every time the movie threatens to turn into a mindless action spectacular, we get pulled back into the more personal struggles of Noah and his family. Aronofsky avoids most of the obvious epic imagery we associate with the story of Noah. The animals arrive two by two, but are then promptly sent into a drugged stupor and largely inconsequential for the rest of the picture. When we do see something awe-inspiring, it often has negative connotations - the sight of the massive ark bobbing on the rising floodwaters is accompanied by choruses of screams from the people left to drown outside.

Not all the changes work. In fact, some of the new twists and reinterpretations are downright baffling, particularly the family drama aboard the ark that plays out once the flood has been unleashed. Aside from Noah, the characters are pretty flat, but the cast is strong enough to mostly make up for it. I don't think Noah's wife is ever addressed by name, but Jennifer Connelly makes a strong impression with her few big moments, including a confrontation scene that is the best part of the film's problematic final third. I also liked Logan Lerman as Ham, Noah's middle son, who had bits and pieces of an interesting arc, but needed more fleshing out, and Emma Watson as Ila, whose character is a dodgy addition to the story no matter how you look at it.

There's something almost campy about the dynamics of the situation, and the way that our loyalties are abruptly meant to shift multiple times as events play out. Is Aronofsky commenting on the self-seriousness of other Bible movies? Is he highlighting the absurdity of the story's mechanics and internal logic? With another filmmaker I might be inclined to see the cheese as cheese, but we are talking about the director who made "Black Swan." There's so much to dig through and debate and examine, something I didn't expect. And that's why, even if "Noah" is such a ball of competing interests and half-baked ideas, I still found it a fascinating piece of work. I think Aronofsky's least successful films are the grander scale ones like "The Fountain," which "Noah" most closely resembles, but I find it impossible to begrudge him for his ambitions.

Aronofsky's "Noah" may not be a good movie, but it's undeniably Aronofsky's "Noah." And that's enough.

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