Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: "Noah"

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Runtime: 138 minutes

When a director gets the chance to make the big-budget extravaganza of their dreams, it's difficult to ignore the offer. Yet large budgets have a history of being more restrictive than liberating when it comes to the studio system. For months, rumors have persisted that this was the case with Noah, Darren Aronofsky's long-awaited follow-up to Black Swan (a low budget smash hit). Talk of feuding between studio heads and the director caused worry that the latter had been forced to compromise his vision. Yet despite all of the thorny territory that comes with scripture-based films (Noah has been banned in several countries), Aronofsky's latest is undeniably his vision. It may be bigger and a touch broader, but Noah still fits perfectly in line with the rest of the director's filmography. 

Like all Aronofsky films, Noah centers on a figure who is consumed by a driving goal. In Black Swan, it was the quest to become the perfect ballerina. In The Fountain, it was a time-spanning crusade to overcome human mortality. Yet all of these goals stem from human forces. Noah, obviously, finds its titular protagonist (Russell Crowe) receiving a task from none other than God himself (here referred to as The Creator). Noah lives a peaceful existence with his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and three sons (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Leo Carroll). 

As the last descendants of Seth (brother of Cain and Abel), Noah and his kin live a life in harmony with nature. They use the land only for what they absolutely need, not even picking flowers. Unfortunately, Noah's way of life is often in danger of being swallowed up by the massive industrial cities filled with the descendants of Cain, who have figuratively and literally poisoned the world (can you spot the subversive environmental commentary?). So when the Creator gives Noah his famous task (communicated through a series of dreams and visions, rather than a conversation), he has no problem with the idea of humanity being completely destroyed.

Even amid some awkward establishing scenes, one of the strengths of Noah is how Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel cast Noah as a man whose obsessions lead to dark conclusions about his fellow men. Rather than consider himself superior to Cain's descendants, Noah sees himself as the last flicker of a race that deserves to be obliterated. His Old Testament fury is so strong that he considers it a blessing that his adopted daughter-in-law (Emma Watson) will be unable to bear his eldest son a child in the new world. As such, Crowe's casting helps bring the grizzled iteration of Noah believably to life. 

Crowe's cast members, sadly, are less fortunate. Aside from Watson, the rest of Noah's family are largely inconsequential stock characters. Jennifer Connelly tries her best to be a moral counter to Noah's rage, but her big moment is undermined by stilted dialogue. Booth, as Noah's oldest son, is barely a presence at all (though at least he's scene doing things, unlike poor Mr. Carroll as the youngest son). Logan Lerman as middle son Ham is easily the worst served by the screenplay. The idea for his motivation on the ark (which I'll leave unspoiled) is solid, and helps play off the contrasting ideaologies of Noah and his family. Yet Lerman spends most of his scenes staring in angsty befuddlement, his mouth hanging open enough that you wish someone would let him know, lest he start drooling on himself. 

In fairness, some of the blame lies with Aronofsky and editor Andrew Weisblum for constantly cutting back to these silly reactions, but Lerman certainly isn't doing anything to rise above the material. The last notable cast member, Ray Winstone's villainous king Tubal-Cain, isn't exactly good either, but at least he has overwrought dialogue to snarl through and a thoroughly off-putting beard.

It's the small scale parts, the characterizations, the emotional arcs, that give Noah trouble and keep it from being a full-blown triumph. Some significant developments are handled in a way that provokes unintended laughter. Some scenes do hit home, like an encounter between Crowe and  Watson during the ark's construction, but otherwise the supporting cast simply drift around Noah like distant moons.

When it comes to scale, however, Aronofsky's film is much more successful. Though the visual effects aren't uniformly strong, they're enough to get the job done without taking one out of the moment. It's hard not to share Noah's awe when hordes of birds, reptiles, and mammals fly, slither, and crawl aboard the ark in droves. More impressive than any real animals are the Watchers, fallen angels encrusted in rocky shells who come to Noah's aid. Surely one of the biggest departures from the Biblical text (though such creatures are mentioned in some parts of ancient Jewish lore), these hulking creatures are put to good use in the film as Noah's superhuman construction workers and defenders. No single Watcher is given an individual history, yet their collective struggle works in a way that many of the human characters don't. 

Working with many regular collaborators behind the camera, Aronofsky has created an appropriately grand-looking film that still possesses the right amount of roughness one would expect in such an ancient time. The interior of the ark, though often shrouded in swaths of darknesses, is effectively designed as a boxy cargo vessel, rather than a traditional ship, which fits in well with this grimier, grislier take on the tale. The big visual effects moments are also quite strong, with the build up and arrival of the flood set on an overwhelming scale. Most impressive, however, is the aftermath, when the film takes a moment to show the last descendants of Cain screaming for their lives on a rock being pounded by waves. Though at times too big for its own good, Clint Mansell's score ensures that every grand moment sounds even grander.

For all its visual grandeur, Noah is caught between its epic ambitions and its character-based drama. Were the film a one man show for Mr. Crowe, the journey might have felt more personal and better focused. Instead, the drama feels halfbaked, especially when contrasted with the admirable effort put into creating Noah's world and mythos. As far as scripture-based films go, Noah deserves praise for making the ancient story work to fit another man's vision. It doesn't pander the faithful, and its heart of darkness is able to lend the story more dynamism than a traditional treatment would have provided. Like the ark straining against the waves, Noah is able to hold off the negative effects of its weakness long enough to accomplish its Herculean task, even if it runs aground rather than come to a smooth landing.

Grade: B-

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