Article By: Dan Clark
Biblical epics were once a staple of the old school Hollywood. Movies like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments were the big budget blockbusters of their day. It appears they are making somewhat of a comeback with Exodus being scheduled for release later this year and the recent release of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film Noah.
With Aronofsky at the helm there is little doubt this adaptation will not be a straightforward one, and in fact his Noah has a closer resemblance to 80’s Fantasy than a Sunday School story. Considering the source material his vision will certainly stir some controversy. Beyond those basic implications is the question of do those drastic changes provide a new valuable insight to a legendary tale or is it simply a sacrilegious exercise meant to provoke. That question is answered quickly as what drove Aronofsky to this project becomes evident. His visual flair and inquisitive mind takes a new look at the moral implications of this world ending event. Everything may not completely come together by the end, but what does is enough to attest to the fact that different is not necessarily evil.
The world of Noah is harsh and unforgiving. This pre-apocalyptic world resembles many post-apocalyptic ones. Earth appears in a decaying like state as vegetation and water are on short simply. It is a reflection of the overwhelming evil that has inherited the Earth. Humankind has turned their back on the creator to forge their own path. Seemingly only Noah and his family still serve the creator. With little hope left Noah is chosen to save the innocent from the cataclysmic judgment that is coming.
Here Noah is not the kind timid soul many have come to expect. Russell Crowe plays the titular character with more of a Gladiator sensibility…and fighting style. It is a type of role he tends to be successful with. One who struggles with his position of power and the moral implications of his actions. There is a dual sense to his character. He is the loving father and husband that yearns for a better world, although he can be cold and distant as he views humanity as a curse than needs to be cured. His obsession with his cause is consuming nearly to the point of madness. Where his creator’s wishes stop and his own desires begin devolves into an unanswerable question.
Aronofsky uses this story as an opportunity to deeply investigate the ethical ramifications of Noah’s task. Thematically there is dichotomist aspect that runs throughout. Light and dark, life and death, and ending and beginning—are some of the few of those elements. While this provided a richer subtext, its lack of cohesion was evident at times. Noah transforming back and forth from hopeful hero to cynical death dealer was an aggressive adjustment and on occasion overly melodramatic.
When you have an auteur the likes of Aronofsky there is an assumption that the visual presentation will be as much of a vocal point as the narrative. Certainty there is a vivid realization to the imagery that separates it from other dry epics. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who worked on Aronofsky’s last film Black Swan, returns to assists in crafting a look with an elemental foundation. Fire, water, earth, and weather are continuous motifs. A number of shadowy portraits give the sense that light is in a never-ending losing battle. Perhaps the moment that best epitomizes what Aronofsky brings is a retelling of creation. He showed is knack for artistically reexamining a known concept in a heavily stylized fashion by combining the words of religion with the images of science.
Not all the concepts completely worked. At times the special effects lack a level of authenticity. One of the areas it struggled with the most was the rendering of the animals. A shot following birds as they arrived at the ark resembled an out of date screen saver. Moments meant to be majestic came off as cartoonish. Certain special and practical effects did work. The creation of some oddly shaped rock creatures…yes rock creatures…had the appeal of classic Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation. That along with the Ark set design gave it that yesteryear fantasy feel.
With its unabashed adjustments it is easy to overlook the most thought-provoking facets of Noah. Here the moral ambiguity of this entire concept of justice is examined and intriguing questions and criticisms are raised. Inquiries like how having to decipher meaning from poignant visions can lead to misinterpretations and the impact that can cause. Are zealots and prophets more alike than we are willing to recognize? Where do science, religion, and the environment intersect and what effect do they have on one another? All these questions and more are explored and scrutinized to a degree. In some ways the more fantastic elements take away from profound themes as they become a needless distractions. While they provide Lord of the Rings esc entertainment, they also appear out-of-place when conducting these type of provocative philosophical inquiries.
Those that take umbrage with questioning what some deem unquestionable will take little pleasure in this adaption. Others may just find its eccentricity too polarizing to take seriously. There is a lot to admire with what Aronofsky and his team brought to this tale. How it is able to bring insight the relationships humans have with nature, god, strangers, and family in the backdrop of an action adventure is somewhat remarkable. With over ambition comes failure and Noah is not on short supply of faults. Still, its determination to tackle the taboo makes it one of the more unique cinematic experiences in some time.