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Noah – film review

April 3, 2014

NOAH

Environmental epic not merely for believers.

Reviewed on Thursday 27th March 2014

noah - the ark

Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel. Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman and Douglas Booth. Running time: 138 mins.

A fantasy-laced interpretation of the biblical story of Noah and his mission to save     the animals of the world in the face of imminent world-wide disaster.

Looking through writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s impressive and highly-personal body of work; it becomes clearly apparent he has an ongoing fascination with obssessive characters. Ellen Burstyn becomes addicted to slimming pills thanks to her obssession with wanting to appear on an infotainment TV show in Requiem For A Dream. Hugh Jackman’s obssession to save his dying wife comes at the cost of not being with her in her final days in The Fountain. Natalie Portman’s obssession with attaining perfection in her preparation for the lead role in Swan Lake spirals into full-blown psychosis in Black Swan. And Sean Gullette’s obssession with breaking the mathmatical code of reality consumes every waking moment of his life, ultimately leading to self-inflicted lobotomy in Pi. And this Noah (as played by a back-to-form Russell Crowe) – is definitely another in the pantheon of Aronofsky’s obssessives.

In a major departure from the original text; Aronofsky’s Noah is an environmental crusader – a man hell-bent on saving all the innocent creatures – even if it means ending his own family’s bloodline in order to ensure humans never again gain a foothold and dominate or exploit the natural world. So driven does he become in     fact that by the third act we begin to question his sanity and even start to fear and, more surprisingly – despise him. Indeed, in a fascinating and at times unsettling turnaround; this incarnation of Noah could very easily be compared to the megolamaniacal Captain Ahab from ‘Moby Dick’ – except that in this case he is driven to save, instead of destroy. Compelling and intense; Crowe here gives one     of his finest performances in years. Of the rest of the cast: Jennifer Connelly is profoundly moving at times as Noah’s wife Naameh and Anthony Hopkins is refreshingly understated as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah; while camping-it-up Ray Winstone, cast as the villainous Tubal-cain; doesn’t appear to be taking his character as seriously as everybody else and is much less convincing as a result. However, it is Emma Watson who is the biggest surprise of all; handling the complex role of a young orphan taken into the fold by Noah and his family with considerable insight     and understanding. She demonstrates a maturity of craft which is well beyond her years and is clearly someone who has the acting chops to develop into a very accomplished performer.

emma watson in noah 2014

Being a longtime fan of Aronofsky; this is for me the most anticipated release of the year. And it’s been an unusually long wait for a new film of his – thanks in part to his initial involvement with The Wolverine and then the Robocop remake falling through. Thankfully, the critical and financial success of his previous film, Black Swan, has allowed him unprecedented freedom on a budget large enough to realize this new re-imagining of Noah – a passion project he had begun to develop around the same time as his first attempt to produce The Fountain here in Australia in 2001.

Much has been made of the creative liberties taken by Aronofsky in tackling this story and there is definitely a timeless quality to this ancient world (even, dare I say it; a Heavy Metal Magazine aesthetic) in the sense that it could easily be taking place in some distant future or even perhaps an alternate reality. In the establishing scenes which open the film: rusted industrial artifacts of a once-advanced society dot the landscape, while human skulls are stacked in piles and a deforested wasteland         of tree stumps stretches away as far as the eye can see. There is also a brief anachronistic sequence (using flip book-style animated still images) which doesn’t detract from this idea: showing two figures silhouetted against the sky fighting it out in the heat of battle; their military garb and weaponry progressing down through the ages – becoming more modern with each strobing flip book flicker.

Aronofsky also weaves in more surprising fantastical elements by having Noah aided by a troupe of fallen angels (known in Hebrew as the Nephilim) – here referred to as ‘The Watchers’. Devine beings banished to Earth by the creator; these gentle giants encased in lumbering bodies of rock become the self-appointed protectors of Noah and his family; while helping to build the ark in an attempt to gain atonement from the creator for being complicit in Tubal-cain’s corruption of humanity and degradation of the Earth. There is a definite Peter Jackson influence to these creatures; especially in a stand-out scene where The Watchers fend off Winstone’s army as they attempt to storm the ark – a sequence which incorporates seamless CGI with circling bird’s eye camera moves; reminiscent of those employed by Jackson in Lord Of The Rings.

jennifer connelly as naameh

Aronofsky’s attention to detail is evident in every frame of Noah, especially in the way he circumvents the implausibilities inherent in the original tale by providing practical solutions; such as having The Watchers assist in the building of the ark; instead of leaving it to just Noah and his sons to attempt the enormous task by themselves. Likewise, he has Noah put all the animals to sleep by burning a     special plant extract with anaesthetic properties – so all the creatures may       survive the voyage without eating one another.

While the major effects sequences by Industrial Light And Magic (especially the arrival of the animals, the deluge itself and the panoramic vistas of the ark at sea) feature some of the most spectacular state-of-the-art visuals seen in recent times (equal to anything in Jackson’s Tolkien opus) – there has been a fair amount of criticism levelled at some of the less-than-convincing CG in the movie. Sure, the highly-stylized imagery of Noah’s Garden Of Eden visions (the snake, the apple)     are admitedly low-fi, and the animation of The Watchers has a decidedly old-school Harryhausen stop-motion feel to it, but considering Aronofsky’s unerring eye for detail; I very much doubt he would have allowed such blatantly low-fi CG to creep     into his movie without a purpose. It seems more likely he was aiming for a certain visual aesthetic with these particular effects. Aronofsky is often called a visionary director; as images from his films stay with you long after seeing them. And Noah     is no different: Crowe floats suspended underwater near the bottom of the sea – as hundreds of bloated corpses rise up from the kelp; a pull-back from the Earth reveals the entire globe covered with storms; and dozens of screaming souls are washed off a mountain peak by crashing waves during the height of the deluge. Indelible images which are impossible to forget.

ark in noah the movie

While Aronofsky himself has been forthright in disclosing publicly his own atheism, his intent in keeping both creationists and atheists on-side is brilliantly conveyed via a remarkable CGI-heavy time-lapse sequence during which Russell Crowe recites the biblical story of creation (being that the Earth was created in seven days) over fast-moving, flip book-animated still images showing the scientific explanation of the beginnings of the universe; through to the formation of the planets to the evolution     of life on Earth from single cell organisms to modern primates – all in the space of a minute or so. The cleverness of this sequence is that it can be interpreted both as a literal representation of the story of creation (as laid out in the Bible) or as a metaphor for the evolutionary and scientific explanation of how we came to be – depending on which side of the fence one stands. Some may argue that by having one foot in each camp; Aronofsky may end up pleasing no one – but honestly I don’t think this is the case. I feel ultimately he achieves what he set out to do, and that is; to make a film which is inclusive (as opposed to divisive) and in some way bridge the divide between science and spirituality and show they can in fact operate in tandem in exploring humanity’s place in the universe. My only real issue with the movie is its length.       It does tend to drag somewhat in the second half and could benefit with some tightening. But this is ultimately a minor quibble and doesn’t take away from the overall brilliance contained within.

russell crowe as noah with family

As one would expect, the film’s technical aspects are top notch. Regular Aronofsky collaborators: lenser Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell again contribute enormously to the overall beauty of the piece; Mansell reuniting with Australia’s own Kronos Quartet (whom he previously collaborated with on the music scores for Requiem and The Fountain). This score ranks as one of Mansell’s best: uplifting, soaring and majestic. Considering the confidence and ability Aronofsky has displayed in bringing such a large scale epic to the screen, I find myself pondering how his original vision for the Australia-lensed, Brad Pitt-starring mega-budget version of The Fountain (the tone of which this film most closely resembles) would have looked had it gone ahead when it did. I truly hope the success of this film will allow Aronofsky to access large scale projects in the future.

Moving and emotional; Noah is without a doubt the director’s most accessible film for a mainstream audience. It is unashamedly fanciful – creating a refreshing spin on one of the world’s best-loved stories; giving it a new-found relevance for the modern age and is absolutely worth seeing whether you’re of a spiritual persuasion or not.

4.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at The Piccadilly Cinemas, North Adelaide, March 27th 2014.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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2 Comments
  1. Loved THE FOUNTAIN. Really looking forward to this on Blu-ray (hopefully it will come soon enough). The reviews seem to be very mixed for this film and I think that’s a good thing; it obviously seems to be not all one thing or another and is polarising people.

    Interesting that you enjoyed the score- its the one thing regards this film I was looking forward to most but it has had some particularly bad reviews. Perhaps it works better in the film than on disc?

    • gregory moss permalink

      I’m pleased to hear you enjoyed The Fountain (now THERE’S a film which deserves more love!). 🙂 Big fan of Clint Mansell myself (Moon is a fave). And yeah, his scores are usually great listens on their own. This one works very well with the visuals, so it will be interesting to see whether or not it holds up on its own. And you’re right – it’s funny how polarizing films are usually the most interesting. I enjoyed Noah so much I saw it twice at the cinema – the second time on a V-Max screen, and it was even better the second time around. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on it. 🙂

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