I am an orthodox atheist, a militant one. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good mythological story, especially a stylish fantasia made by one of our better filmmakers. Darren Aronofsky is among those better filmmakers, certainly. He has great visual taste and a storytelling technique that has real gusto, exuberance, that’s never dull — well, maybe The Wrestler was a bit groggy, but that’s also due to Mickey Rourke’s unfortunate but appropriately punched-up face. Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and Black Swan are visionary and edgy in terms of the scripting, editing, the camerawork, the performances he elicited. The Fountain showed his penchant for a certain mawkish ‘mysticism’ or ‘spirituality,’ whatever you want to call it, and that has come roaring forward in Noah at the expense of all common sense or moral decency with respect to the debate raging in this country between the evils of religion and the goodness of science and reason. That penchant is bullshit.
I will go into detail at the end of this critique as to which elements of the film make it so reprehensible to have made Noah in the first place. Let me first try to evaluate it as a film.
In a dystopian ancient past meant to mirror our modern melting world, mankind has upset the Creator by over-populating and destroying the Edenic planet that was created for us in the first place. A tenth-generation descendant of Adam and Eve (and strict, moss-eating vegan), Noah has a vision of the destruction of the world to cleanse it of its essential wickedness, i.e., us. With the help of fallen angels who are keen to reconcile with the Creator, he builds a vessel large enough to hold the male and female specimen of each species of animal and insect. The plants are damned, which you might think a problem for a vegan, but there I go already quibbling when I said I would leave that for the end. The Creator floods the world, the animals and Noah’s family are saved, and everyone lives happily ever after to inbreed to their hearts’ content.
Note that I have distinguished between animals and Noah’s family. This is because Aronofsky makes it clear that we are not the same, not descended from apes but rather from a magical act performed by the Creator. But there I go pre-quibbling again.
This is a studio picture, which means the dialogue is acid washed with dumbness and triteness while simultaneously trying to dodge basic clichés like, “I’m pregnant,” and replace them with extreme close ups of actors’ eyes flickering with understanding. But in terms of plot and structure the script is as sound as any well-crafted Marvel movie. It’s not up there with, say, Christopher Nolan’s epic studio flicks, but it works; if I were an alien who had no opinion about the great war between religion and reason, looking at it in comparison to Lord of the Rings I would find Noah not as exciting, but exciting enough for me not to switch channels on the in-flight entertainment and pay attention until the sleeping pill kicks in.
The second act in particular is as sturdy as production designer Mark Friedberg’s ark, and utterly engaging. For that part alone — if you are willing to overlook the egregiousness of making Noah in the first place, if you are an Aronofsky fan in particular — you will like this movie.
This most riveting, dramatic section is after the flood, when the CGI has abated somewhat and the interpersonal drama is allowed to breathe. You are reminded of what Aronofsky does best: setting up fraught, fucked-up family and personal dynamics and taking them to the edge of annihilation. But don’t kid yourself: this ain’t no Requiem or Black Swan.
The production overall is superbly visualized and executed. Matt Labatique’s camerawork is fluid, lyrical, sometimes oversaturated, but nothing you haven’t come to expect from those “earth porn” photos blanketing the Internet. Aronosfky does a good job of making the CGI feel organic in most places, but nowadays that’s rather commonplace. His time-lapse-ish sequences are particularly crafty, if not outright artistic; it’s no wonder I sometimes get Aronofsky and Spike Jonze confused.
The performances rise well above what is expected from a studio movie, mainly among the older cast. The young uns pout their generous lips to a not-annoying degree, but they remain background scenery for Russell Crowe’s barrelly-gravelly Noah. He is his Gladiator self, admirably restrained heroics in extreme close-up, brooding sloped shoulders in the wider shots. It is Jennifer Connelly as his wife, Naameh, who is allowed to blaze as she hasn’t since Requiem. But it’s an all-too-brief blaze.
I don’t understand Emma Watson’s appeal, but I’m not a straight geek on Reddit who finds her an ideal among women; my classicism runs too narrowly. My litmus test is if I wouldn’t cast an actress in a Tennessee Williams play, then she isn’t an actress, just a movie star. I wouldn’t even cast Watson in Glass Menagerie.
Anthony Hopkins is a delight, both in the way his role is painted — a fine, humorous Sumi-e illustration, spare yet evocative of so much more — and in the rightness of his casting, his manifest delight in the role. But Ray Winston as the nemesis, Tubal-Cain… I haven’t enjoyed him this much since Sexy Beast. Give the man a Bond villain, I say.
And now for what undermines the film completely: its existence in the first place.
There’s always much ado about the constant battle between directors and studios. It’s a valid ado, but a healthy one; good directors are highly creative, with all of the difficult-character flaws that come with recognized creativity, and we often need corralling. There is a lot of money at stake, so the strife between us and our backers is for the most part productive, unless it’s just plain strife, in which case the project isn’t worth it.
The fact is that a film cannot move forward unless a director is willing to dedicate a sizable portion of his life and energy to it. A studio can have all of the stars and resources and money it wants, but unless there is someone skilled enough to build that ark and sail it, it ain’t gonna happen. Or it is doomed to failure because real talent was replaced by incompetence or pure mediocrity.
There is a limited amount of directors at Aronofsky’s level. He had his pick and choose of studio pictures after Black Swan. Like a Christopher Nolan, he wanted to do it without losing too much of his integrity as a creative. I just wish he had been honest about it and picked a comic-book superhero story amongst the many waiting for the right director and not made this.
Yes, as an orthodox atheist raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition I am particularly sensitive to Biblical stories being portrayed as historical events. Just as I become far more outraged by the wrongs my parents inflicted on me as a child than wrongs inflicted by people I have met on my journey through life, I am more sensitive to productions of Old Testament stories than I am to, say, Hinduism’s Mahabharata. Biblical stories are lies that were presented to me as truths. A great many people who vote in a democracy that is the pilot for modern civilization still believe those truths. Encouraging them (or trying to) is deceitful, criminal.
A basic anti-scientific issue is the notion that only a male and a female of each species is necessary to propagate that species again. There is another issue related inbreeding that Aronofsky has inserted himself, it seems, rewriting the original story, but explaining it would require a spoiler alert that entirely undermines the inter-personal dramas of the second act, so I won’t do it. Let’s just say that Aronofsky reworks the Bible’s cast of who was on the ark in order to ratchet up the drama to histrionic levels. But he leaves us with the supposition of close-family incest in order to carry mankind forward that is revolting to people who live outside Deliverance territory.
Perhaps I would forgive Aronofsky had he not chosen to recount the Biblical creation myth in the middle of the second act. Noah tells the seven-day story in context of the Big Bang and the theory of evolution, but when it comes to the part where the link is made between mankind and apes, he cuts. Noah states that we were made separately by the Creator. In doing this, Aronofsky bows to creationists, and I am unable to allow this, particularly in light of the current cultural discourse. This is not the Silmarillion, Tolkien’s book about the creation of Middle-earth. There might be wizards, but no high elves, dwarves, dragons, hobbits. The stories in the Bible deeply affect mankind, still. The root of the War on Terror lies in the Israel-Palestine conflict, which is rooted in the Bible being some geographical survey/land grant. It’s as if people took The Lord of the Rings seriously and divvied up New Zealand into Mordor, Gondor, the Shire and whatnot. Ludicrous and dangerous.
We are the most powerful nation on earth, capable of the sort of acts of annihilation Noah describes, but we are being sabotaged by these troglodytes who insist that the absurd myths religion have a valid place the science. Religion has held back progress for millennia. I can understand making a film about Christ, there is flimsy evidence he actually existed; if you take out the miracles and other acts of magic his can be seen as an interesting story of a gentle, loving paranoid schizophrenic who managed to establish a hugely influential religion, and to whom speechwriters have posthumously attributed some inspiring-if-naive words of wisdom. But why Genesis? In light of the current struggle, what Aronofsky has wrought is no less than the propaganda Leni Riefenstahl filmed for the Nazis.
The irony is these creation myth-believing troglodytes are the very people who deny global warming, who are most dangerous to our environment. This invalidates whatever analogy Aronofsky endeavors to make between the story of the Great Flood and the disaster that is well upon us. And he goes to such great lengths to beat you over the head with that analogy that you would think he would have been more responsible with it in the first place by not making this film at all.
I am not being disingenuous. That cut during the transition between apes and man in the recounting of the creation myth, and the marketing of the film in general, might have been out of Aronofsky’s hands, entirely the studio’s fault. Apparently there was some strife over the edit, but I’m too far from the production details to know. But I cannot think he is entirely innocent; I keep Pi and The Fountain in mind. And, no, I don’t think his nod to the evils of religion with the snakeskin shel yad — that upper-arm wrap with which observant Jews strap themselves, presumably shed by Satan in the Garden of Eden — excuses him.
Like all Aronofsky films, Noah is a labor of immense dedication and energy. If you are not as militant as I am about the need to regulate religion, about churches being taxed like any other commercial enterprise, and on and on, then it is a worthy outing. If not, you should know that Bill Maher was being kind. You should boycott this.
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