I am sure that there is going to be a lot of ink spilled talking about religion and Noah, as has been apparent in the weeks leading up to its release. Instead I just want to talk about the film as a fan of films and Aronofsky. I have intentionally avoided reading any reviews of this movie before watching it, as Aronofsky is one of the few directors I trust whole-heartedly enough to not care what their movie is about before seeing it, and I’d rather go in knowing as little as possible. Although, it would be pretty hard to spoil a movie about one of the most iconic biblical figures. I grew up as an Episcopal, so there were plenty of children’s bible stories flying around, and I can’t imagine there is too large a group of people who would not immediately associate Noah with an ark. If you want to know more about the plot than what I give, then google “Noah’s ark”, you’ll get all you need there. All that aside, let’s jump into the polarizing flick that is Noah.
The biggest mind-fuck of the film is the addition to the standard Noah story of “the Watchers”, who are a group of sentient, multi-armed, rock creatures, formed from the light of fallen angels that decided to help humans after the fall of Adam & Eve. These creatures feel strange at first, as they are the only hints of magical realism in the beginning, but they grow into their part and feel welcome as the movie progresses. It’s strange that these creatures don’t make it into the previews of the movie, but I guess understandable at the same time (’I don’t remember magic rock men in the Bible!’).
One of the surprising assets that Noah has is in Russell Crowe as Noah. The surprising part being that I really, really enjoyed him in this. Admittedly the only movie I have ever truly liked Russell Crowe in was Virtuosity, where he plays a computer program turned being that is sociopathic and murderous. To a certain degree, Crowe reprises that role in Noah. Crowe as Noah is headstrong and cock-sure, despite the consistent silence from “the Creator”. He seems to see messages in everything, and with the strangeness of what’s going on around him it’s easy to understand why. He sees plants sprout instantaneously; he buries an acorn that grows into multiple streams, which then grow instantly into a forest; and animals flock themselves into his not-yet-completed ark. If there was ever going to be any doubt in his mind that these vague dreams might not mean that he needs to build a giant-damn boat, then the Creator was sure to beat it into his head.
What really brings Noah together, as a film, is Ray Winstone. He plays the current king of the Canaanites (read your damn Bible). He also represents everything that is foul with humanity, including, but not limited to, being a meat-eater (Yes, there is a very strong pro-vegetarian message in this movie, and as a vegetarian I get giddy with the idea of evangelical parents having to explain to their children that they are not as evil as Ray Winstone for eating innocent cows. But I digress). Winstone’s portrayal of the all-important human is amazing. He is the antagonist to Crowe’s Noah, and as Noah is trying to murder babies, those are some hard boots to fill.
I did have some pre-conceptions going into this movie, just from knowing Aronofsky’s work. I assumed that the crux of the film would be Noah’s inner-turmoil with himself. “Am I insane, or is God really speaking to me?” sort of thing. But that issue never comes up. As mentioned he is all but forced down the path of building the ark. The crux of the movie, instead, revolves around the decision of humanities fate being placed squarely in Noah’s hands. When there are signs all around you from a silent Creator, how are you supposed to read into them and where do they end? As God’s errand boy, Noah is tasked not only with heavy labor, but in the end, with the final decision of humanities continuation on the Earth. This is played to an even greater degree by Noah never being unsure about his decision to doom humanity. He sees that even they, the saviors of the animal kingdom, are evil and depraved inside, and if the Creator wants them gone, then he will see to it that they are wiped-out.
This concept of man’s blight on the Earth is juxtaposed beautifully by Winstone, stowing away on the ship with the help of Ham, Noah’s son. Winstone, to get his strength up (being hidden in a dark corner of the ship) eats one of the lizards in front of Ham, dooming that species to extinction. When asked about this he explains that after the Earth and the animals were made, the Creator wanted something more, something to claim dominion over all, and that task was granted to man. The evil, self-righteousness of this character is played like Hannibal Lecter: mundanely horrifying. If the beauty of love exists within Noah’s family, then Winstone shows the gluttony and endlessness of man’s desires.
I would like to note that this is one of the few movies where I can honestly say that I thought the CGI was beautiful. There are so many shots that are necessarily swamped with CGI animals, but they still come off as awe-inspiring, rather than busy and flashy, like most action movie CGI flare these days. There is absolutely stunning camera work throughout the movie, including a long shot of Crowe climbing up flights of ladders, where the camera follows him so fluidly that I lost myself in the sheer mastery that it must have taken to make that shot. And one of the best scenes of the film comes when Crowe tells the story of the origin of the world to his kids, and we follow an Aronofsky visual retelling of how the universe was made, evolution, and the corruption of humans. No words I could write could possibly describe the beauty of this. For whatever problems others say this movie has, don’t let anyone tell you that this movie is not gorgeous.
In the beginning, I did not enjoy this movie much. The Watchers felt cartoonish and almost tweeny, in a Young Adult novel kind of way, the story seemed stream-lined and self-assured, much like Noah, and the characters were coming off more like tropes than fully fleshed out people. My main problem was my expectations of Aronofsky, though. Aronofsky has always dealt with the human condition in his films. Whether it be the frailness of our spirit in Requiem for a Dream, or the finality of aging and death with The Fountain, or our own inner demons we must struggle with in Black Swan. At first Noah felt as if it was just going to be a love letter to biblical films and the Torah (Aronofsky is Jewish) in general, as there is no question of the Creator, and there are such obvious good & evil sides that the conflict seems all but spelled out. As the movie goes on, though, it gains more nuance and the true subject of the film starts to appear: are humans even worth saving? This is where the movie goes from a gratingly cut & paste morality play, into something more. The movie isn’t a retelling of a famous Bible story, it is Aronofsky dealing with the human-condition on a grand scale. Is there anything worth saving? Are we not inherently flawed as humans? Can we do anything good on this Earth or will we just destroy it? The answer to this question, in the movie and outside of it, lies in Shem’s proclamation to his wife after the flood: “Maybe this time we will be a little kinder.”