At times reminiscent of the darker side of Jim Henson’s puppet workshop, and at other times wandering through Cormac McCarthy’s burnt-out landscape, all the while grappling with one of the oldest stories in Western civilization’s mythos, Noah is an overproduced, but impeccably acted, well thought out but poorly written, sweeping philosophical endeavor that sometimes stumbles over the constraints of its genre but nevertheless continues running toward us with all the ferocity of the Great Flood itself.
The story of Noah’s flood is one that needs no synopsis, but Aronofsky’s version moves in such a radically different direction from the stereotype that it necessitates some explanation. Noah, played by the heavy-browed, cantankerous Russell Crowe, is instructed by God, through some immaculately realized dreamscapes, to seek out his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins), who had fled to the only mountain that Noah’s Earth seems to contain. On his way, he encounters the Watchers, fallen angels encased in stone and rock, who look as if they walked straight out of The Dark Crystal, who take him under their protection. They begin building the ark according to God’s instruction and with a little magical help from Noah’s grandfather. Trouble befalls them when the evil descendants of Cain, led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winestone), want in on the whole ark escape plan. Naturally, there is an epic battle scene, drenched in the first downpour of the flood.
Suffering heavily from the over-produced visual quality of today’s Hollywood blockbusters, the film is nominally saved by its rolling prophetic voice. Noah and his grandfather wheel and deal in a sort of voodoo, drug-induced black magic passed down to them from the garden of Eden. Aronofsky, as he is wont to do, veers from the traditional storyline to delve into history and myth: sweeping visual montages that confuse past with future and present. The heavy philosophical questions asked, most left unanswered, revolve around the relationship of God to man and man to beast. Tubal-cain, in one of the most moving of many, many, melodramatic monologues, implores God, asking “I am a man, made in your image… Speak to me!” Aronofsky’s Noah is an ancient version of an eco-terrorist, defending Earth’s animal kingdom from the lust and destruction of mankind.
But while Noah is strong theoretically, it is weak in its delivery. Its editing is choppy at best, clearly condensing what probably stood as a more than four-hour film into just over two, which leads to odd swathes of time stripped out of the narrative. The actors collide into each other and bounce off in mildly amusing ways, but no one except Noah bears enough depth and personality to hold our sympathy. The film is surprisingly misogynistic, constructing female characters whose sole concerns seem to be satisfying the sexual and reproductive needs of the men around them. Emma Watson and Jennifer Connelly give everything they’ve got in their own emotional climaxes, but they’re so easily shaped and explicitly created to function around the desires of Noah, that the source material caves underneath their acting prowess..
While this film is at times visually beautiful and bravely performed, these moments are few and far between, cushioned by the stereotyped movements of the modern film epic. Aronofsky, popular for his philosophical pandering in films like The Fountain and Requiem for a Dream, seems to lose his grasp on his own work here, leaving the viewer confused. The film has glimmers of importance and relevance, but it is crushed under the weight of over-production and genre constraints. Its only worth is in its voice of warning. Noah, in one instance, turns to his wife and says glumly, “The time for mercy has passed, now our punishment begins.” This is where Aronofsky is on sure footing, this beautiful yet harrowing visual language of apocalyptic prophecy, a prophecy of environmental disaster born not from our past, but foretelling of a terrible, all-too-possible future.