Saturday, April 5, 2014

NOAH Is The First and Only Art-Film Biblical Fantasy-Epic

 NOAH Review:

- Darren Aronofsky's biblical epic, NOAH, has all of the scope and grandeur you would expect out of this story. And yet, Noah is unlike any bible-based film we've yet seen. Aronofsky, ever the auteur, goes for broke here - crafting a film with complex morality, apocalyptic darkness, and, oh yeah ... giant rock-monsters engaged in Lord of the Rings-style battles with human armies. This is a movie that is most definitely NOT playing it safe, and to me, that's what makes this such a riveting and uniquely entrancing spectacle.

In interviews, Aronofsky - raised Jewish but a proclaimed atheist - expresses his desire to capture the awe-inspiring and very-much-relevant story of Noah and recast it as an epic morality play in the style of Greek myth. And that's exactly what he's done. Freeing himself from the need to take one of the bible's most outlandish stories and tell it as literal history, Aronofsky is instead able to make this story every bit as sweeping, mind-blowing, and thought-provoking as it can be. So to those who perhaps shied away from the film because of the supposed controversy, I say open your mind and recognize that this film actually presents the meat of the biblical story in a surprisingly un-whitewashed fashion - instead of dancing around the questions raised by the text, it addresses them head-on. Any biblical scholar should be able to appreciate that. For those on the other end of the spectrum - those who are wary of any biblically-derived story on the big screen - I think that when you look at these tales as morality plays, as myth with still-resonant themes and lessons - there is a lot to be gained from them, and there's a reason why they've endured in our collective imaginations for so long. What Aronofsky has done here is to imbue a visionary's imagination into one of the greatest story's ever told. This is one of today's best filmmakers going bigger and crazier than he's ever gone. And that means that Noah is a must-see not just for biblical scholars, but for any and all film fans.

I found so much about Noah fascinating, but what immediately grabbed me was the pre-Flood world that Arnofsky has crafted. It's a primitive world, in which the descendents of the murderous Cain have spread across the globe, eradicating environmental resources and building crude and lawless cities. On one hand, it's a world that's unspoiled compared to what we have today. On the other hand, it's a world that very quickly became depleted and barren, with large swaths of wasteland emptied of trees and vegetation. While the tribes of Cain live in violence and sin, the nomadic descendents of Seth live in relative peace - living off the land and keeping to themselves. One such person is Noah, who lives with his wife and children, adopting a simple and quiet lifestyle. Noah, in fact, is one of the few holy men left in the world. While the tribes of Cain believe that the Creator has abandoned the earth, Noah believes that he still guides them. One day, Noah begins having prophetic visions, and becomes convinced that a world-ending flood is on its way. Acting on his divine dreams, he begins building a massive ark (with help from the Watchers: fallen angels-turned-rock-creatures, more on them later) to help his family - as well as representatives of every animal species on earth - to ensure that he and earth's animal kingdom survives the flood and can start the world anew. Of course, when the tribes of Cain - led by the desperate Tubal-cain - begin to sense their oncoming doom, they rise up and revolt against Noah, leading to an all-consuming battle as the flood rains begin to fall.

And ... that's just the first half of the movie.

What is both jarring and sort of cool about the whole thing is that Aronofsky goes all out in crafting a world where divine miracles are part of the fabric of reality. Using the vocabulary we know from other pop-culture, this is a world of magic - the pre-Flood biblical earth as Aronofsky's version of Middle Earth. The aesthetics of the film - from the giant battles, to the monstrous, Ent-like Watchers, to the costuming - support that notion. But the magical nature of this world takes root in other ways as well. Anthony Hopkins' character, for example. Hopkins plays Noah's wizened grandfather, Methusala, a hermit who lives alone in a cave atop a mountain, whose ramblings are a mix of age-induced senility and a genuine knack for divine magic that proves crucial to the plot. The Watchers, meanwhile, are sort of insane, yet undeniably cool if you just go with it (and yes, their appearance in the film is inspired by allusions in the biblical text). They are angels who were long ago cast out of heaven, and who have since lay dormant on earth, pledged to not interfere in the affairs of man. They move like stop-motion animated creatures, channeling the spirit of Ray Harryhausen, lumbering around with divine light shining through their rocky exteriors. I loved the look and feel of the Watchers in the film - while it was initially odd to see fantasy creatures like this in this film, their presence ultimately adds to the film's sense of mythic scope.

At the same time, Aronofsky makes this a very human story. There is real weight to the movie's destructive events. Noah is a good man, but as the responsibility and survivor's guilt begins to weigh on him, he goes just a bit mad. And he becomes sort of a jerk, if not a full-blown antagonist. In the second half of the film, as Noah and his family stay cooped up within the ark, the issue of what happens after the flood begins to come to the forefront. Noah's eldest son Shem has taken up with Ila, a girl who Noah and his wife Naameh adopted and saved from certain death as a young child. But Noah's second-oldest, Ham, is growing restless. He has no woman of his own, and the thought of being forever alone in the new world begins to turn him against his father, to an extent. What's surprising is just how seriously the movie addresses the idea of post-apocalyptic repopulation. Noah, eventually, is convinced that all people are meant to die out after the flood. Which is a major issue, since Ila is pregnant. Noah's grim determination to do what needs to be done, to carry out what he believes to be the Creator's will, is what actually turns him into the movie's de facto villain. That's where the moral complexity I mentioned comes into play. On one hand, we see how wicked and horrible many of the descendents of Cain truly are. On the other hand, we see just how cruel and terrifying the decision to wipe them *all* off the face of the earth really is. In one key scene, Ham goes to a village to try to find a decent woman to bring with him on the ark. He seems to find one, but Noah refuses to help her when an angry horde of tribesmen chases him, Ham, and the girl. "She was innocent!" screams Ham, later, in condemnation of his father. And as far as we know, she was. Similar feelings of dread run through our heads when we see the great flood killing people. This isn't simply some cleansing water whose apocalyptic effect goes unseen. We see people scrambling for higher ground, clinging desperately to rocks, and being swept violently into the cascading waters. We ultimately feel less good about Noah and his family surviving the flood, and more mournful for those who did not.

Aronofsky has dabbled in the world of high-concept epics before (I'm a huge fan of the underrated The Fountain), but he's never done anything quite like this. But man, he shows that he's got the chops to go big - and not just in the same way that so many other blockbuster filmmakers go big. Aronofsky uses his artist's touch to make NOAH not just big, but awe-inspiring - as it should be. I talked about the ominous, fantastical, almost alien look of the movie's world. But the way he shoots Noah, his family, and the Watchers constructing the ark is a a thing of beauty. So too are the scenes in which the animals make their way onto the ark, compelled by a divine calling. You can't help but gasp a little as you watch the procession of beasts. And yet, Aronofsky makes the film seem even more epic by interspersing interesting, non-traditional vignettes amidst the big set-pieces. The most memorable of these is a cutaway that essentially re-tells the story of Genesis in a manner that's both mesmerizing and thought-provoking. In a Cosmos-worthy montage, we see the seven days of creation juxtaposed over what is, essentially, the process of evolution. I love that Aronofsky included this, because it's a concept that I've always personally embraced: that when taken as myth and parable, and not literally, the biblical text is actually a fascinatingly accurate overview of the scientific genesis of humankind, and a remarkably rich document worthy of discussion and debate as to how to interpret its meaning (something which us Jews have been doing for our entire history). In any case, Aronofsky adds texture to his film by giving it a hypnotic art-film feel. Even though I compared it to things like Lord of the Rings, that's not entirely accurate - because Aronofsky goes big, but he also never abandons his love for hallucinatory mind-trip aesthetics.

It's funny - in another review, I saw it mentioned that Aronofsky made this film for no one. And I laugh because it's true. A morally complex art-film biblical fantasy epic? It's incredible that a studio put money behind this, and even more so, in a way, that the movie proved a box office hit. At the same time, it seems a lot of moviegoers came away from the film sort of perplexed, which is understandable. NOAH is, easily, one of the weirdest blockbuster films ever made. If you don't dig weird, then you might be one of the naysayers. But those of us who have followed Aronofsky's career, and who go in knowing that we're getting a version of Noah from the guy who made Pi, Requiem For a Dream, and Black Swan ... well, this is, most certainly, and above all else, a Darren Aronofsky film.

Part of the great fun of this film (yes, it's fun, despite also being super-dark and intense), is seeing Russell Crowe once again play the epic hero. The dude was born for this type of role, and he brings all the gravitas you'd want to the table. The fact that Crowe makes Noah the undeniable hero, only to turn the tables and recast him as a morally-ambiguous character, is a credit to the actor's ability to bring nuance to even his most bombastic roles. Meanwhile, Emma Watson as his adopted daughter Ila is the other major standout here. Watson does fantastic work, acting as the movie's heart, soul, and conscience. Jennifer Connelly is excellent as Noah's wife, and Logan Lerman also really sells his character's angst and torment as Noah's problem-child son Ham. Speaking of which, I also got a huge kick out of Anthony Hopkins's hammy awesomeness as Methusala. One of the movie's most endearing scenes is when Methusala talks to one of his youngest great-grandsons about what they love most in life. I won't spoil it, but the over-the-topness of it all is quite entertaining. I'll also give a shout-out to the always-great Ray Winstone as Tubal-cain. While he is clearly the villain of the story, there is also much truth in what he says, and if the story were told in a slightly different light, he may well have been its hero. Winstone does a commendable job of showing both the character's repugnance and his more sympathetic side.

Noah does at time walk a fine line between treating the biblical story as grandiose mythology, and yet also putting a microscope up to some of the text's more puzzling and contradictory aspects. When the movie ends, we're still not sure what mankind's future could be. Are we really meant to speculate on who repopulates with who, and how exactly Noah's family is to "be fruitful and multiply" given the lack of of-age males and females? Probably not, but Aronofsky invites us to wonder about these things given the way he's told his story. At times, there does seem to be a slight disconnect between the movie's mythological ambitions and its desire to present these characters as real, grounded, and morally complex.

But what ultimately makes the movie work is that Aronofsky is able to turn this sprawling story into a resonant parable - about the goodness that we as humans are capable of, despite the flaws inherent in our makeup. Noah becomes convinced that all people are wicked, and therefore condemned. But the lesson of the story of Noah is, perhaps, that all people are both wicked and good, and all we can hope for is that as that eternal battle between our dualities is waged, the good will find a way to prevail. NOAH posits that even when things are at their worst, we've still got a fighting chance.

My Grade: A-

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