Despite its huge budget, action movie trappings, and scriptural focus, there was never any real concern that American auteur Darren Aronofsky was going to make a boring sandal-clad, desert epic. The person behind Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, and Black Swan is seemingly incapable of approaching any material without transforming it into a “Darren Aronofsky project” in the process.
That’s not necessarily an endorsement in the abstract – I like some of those movies much more than others – but not one of those films lacks ambition, artistry, or deep commitment to their ideas. The notion that Aronofsky – obsessed with driven anti-heroes, moral compromise, corrupting influences, and struggles to transcend – would ever phone it in, or offer up some spectacle schlock, just seems profoundly unlikely.
Still, I was taken aback by how much I liked Noah.
Based on reviews and trailers, I expected a full-blown studio picture with plenty of CGI, occasionally punctuated by Aronofsky’s examinations of faith, doubt, and transcendence. Turns out, it was exactly the other way around: spectacle is (mostly) in service to much more intimate stories, and Noah’s transition from a decent man grappling with impossible and morally complex demands to a tyrant assured of his knowledge of the divine is among the most serious attempts to tackle these things I’ve seen on film.
There are also cool rock monsters.
Aronofsky maps the story of Noah (Russell Crowe) onto a post-apocalyptic vision that’s growing increasingly familiar in modern cinema – Noah’s family (including Emma Watson and Jennifer Connelly) hides out as though they are in Mad Max or The Road, the land is barren under the rule of evil, and God is preparing to wipe out what’s left and start over. Or so Noah learns in a dream.
The building of the ark is an epic endeavor, but it’s not shrugged off in the cutesy way I remember from CCD – two of each fluffy animal, a triumph of a world born anew. This Noah is fully aware that these visions mean, at best, the end of most human life, at least for a time and maybe, by necessity and divine decree, forever (a nihilistic vision that comes to dominate the film in a way I don’t remember the Old Testament suggesting quite so adamantly).
Noah approaches his job – which is, again, to facilitate the annihilation of most and possibly all human life – first as a man on a mission to both carry out God’s will for the non-human creatures, while also taking care of himself and his own. (He’s a lot like Michael Shannon’s Curtis in Take Shelter in this regard, another film that, in its focus on impossible responsibility and the existential absurdity of faith, strikes me as much more spiritual now than when I saw it.)
Before the deluge begins in earnest, there are a lot of juggled plot-points (possible title for future essay: “Juggled Plot-Points: The Story Of The Bible” ~ ed. note) and a lot of turmoil between characters, but the central focus remains on the choices Noah makes and their repercussions. His determined doubt, which guides his earlier decisions, is replaced with a kind of fanaticism, a certainty in his interpretation of what he’s been asked to do, and the film amplifies the horror of what that might mean. It also suggests that the position he ends up in – knowing for a fact what God wants – is vanity, pure and simple, and has more in common with the world left behind than the new one he hopes to see into being.
Yes, there are big fights and floods and CGI animals aplenty, and there are also startlingly beautiful sequences rendered in the same vein. But that’s not where the film’s heart is, or Aronofsky’s. Noah is an unusually sincere treatment of faith, doubt, punishment, and transcendence from a filmmaker who returns to these themes again and again.
As weird as it may sound, a CGI-heavy action movie about the Biblical flood is one of the most serious and challenging movies of the year.