After years of development hell and hype, indie darling Darren Aronofsky finally makes the jump to blockbuster filmmaking through a passion project that has burned within him since he was 13 years old. At long last, he gets to share his take on the enduring Noah’s Arc story. Passion projects such of this are often an incredible success, or a biblical disaster. How does this one fare?
Pretty damn well.
The film centers on Noah (Russell Crowe), who is given a divine task by “the creator”. He, his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), his three sons (Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, and Leo McHugh Carroll), and Ila (Emma Watson) an adopted daughter and wife to the eldest son, must construct an Arc that will be able to endure an all consuming storm that will envelop the earth, destroy the wicked forces of humanity, and save all of the earth’s animals. No pressure. In the meantime, Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a ruthless brute of a king, refuses to back down and accept his impending doom, leading a rebellion against Noah’s crusade.
Let me preface something right now. I am not religious, and have never read The Bible. Therefore I have no pre-conceived notions about how this story should be told. I look at this as a work of fiction, and a pretty wonderful one at that.
What really makes this film work is Aronofsky’s commitment to his world, and characters. The film completely immerses you in biblical lore, but never in a way that comes off as heavy handed, or preachy. It’s great world building, like any other classic fantasy. I loved seeing the creation of the earth visualized (despite a slight issue with the sequence that I will address in the moment), and learning about the plight of the fallen angels, or watchers (voiced by Frank Langella, Nick Nolte, and Mark Margolis) who aid Noah in his quest. It is easy to tell that everyone involved cares about making this material accessible, and entertaining, and on a visual, and emotional level, they completely succeed.
The performances are also uniformly excellent. Russell Crowe gives his most layered performance in years here. This is a character with an incredibly heavy sense of obligation and purpose, who wants to carry out his duty no matter what the costs, who also has a great deal of inner conflict towards the atrocities that duty entails. Crowe portrays the toll this struggle takes on that character masterfully, selling both sides of him in equal measure. All of the supporting players are great too, particularly Jennifer Connelly, and the severally underrated, utterly imposing Ray Winstone.
For his first time dealing with this sort of film, Aronofsky has a solid eye for action sequences. They feel epic, and above all, brutal. This film does not shy away from the dark elements of the tale one bit. People die in horrible ways, and it gives the whole affair an air of consequence, and weight. When humanity is ultimately massacred in the flood, the genocide potentially registers. There are also a number of non-action sequences that contain some sweeping visuals captured with flair by Matthew Libatique.
The screenplay by Aronofsky and Ari Handel is filled with solid dialogue, that sounds eloquent while never veering overboard. The first two acts are solid, but really kicks into overdrive in the third act. I won’t give anything away, but I’ll say this. If you are worried that the movie has been spoiled by the trailers, don’t be. What happens once the characters are on the arc is the richest, most complex, and powerful material in the film, and you’ve seen none of it.
There are a couple flaws, but they never bring the movie down a terrible amount.
Sometimes the story feels uneven, and drags. The film completely glosses over the actual construction of the arc, jumping several years in the process, and then spends a solid 20-30 minutes in neutral waiting for the storm to arrive. Some parts of it is needed, other bits feel expository and could have been chopped. This also spills into the tail end of the film, which has a little bit of a ‘Return of the King’ feeling, in that there are several spots where the movie could satisfyingly end, but persists.
Also, while this is really more of a personal stylistic nitpick, I was not a huge fan of the way the sequence detailing the creation of the Earth was visually realized. Aronofsky chooses this odd strobe effect as we travel from space, to sea, to land as life grows, and it’s rather off-putting. There are a few little choices like this that seem to be growing pains of a filmmaker who is used to smaller scale productions adjusting to a whole new ballgame.
Minor quibbles aside, Noah is a true epic in every sense of the word. It’s big and boisterous with eye catching action and captivating world building, while still maintaing a great deal of heart, and moral ambiguity. It’s one of the absolute best films to come out of 2014 so far, and it would be a mistake not to check it out, regardless of your beliefs.