A locavore’s tale

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Having made movies about obsessive characters looking for God—or something like Him—in the numerology of the Kabbalah (Pi), at the end of a heroin needle (Requiem for a Dream) and in the outer reaches of the galaxy (The Fountain), surely it was only a matter of time before Darren Aronofsky got to making one about a man with a direct line to the Creator. And so we have Noah, in which the world’s most famous shipwright becomes neither the Marvel-sized savior suggested by the posters nor the “environmentalist wacko” prophesied by some test-screening Cassandras, but rather a humble servant driven to the edge of madness in his effort to do the Lord’s bidding. Counterintuitive, perhaps, but by no means sacrilegious, Aronofsky’s uneven but undeniably bold, personal, visually extravagant take on the Old Testament tale will surely polarize critics and audiences. Only time—and word of mouth—will tell if it can stay the course for anywhere near 40 days and nights.

Whatever comes of Noah, the film certainly ranks alongside The Great Gatsby and Gravity as one of the riskiest director-driven passion projects to be gambled on by today’s ever more cautious major studios. And if Aronofsky’s $130 million, 137-minute movie ultimately feels compromised at all, it’s less by studio interference than by its director’s own desire to make a metaphysical head movie that is also an accessible action blockbuster (where The Fountain tilted heavily toward the former). Noah does not always sit easily astride those competing impulses, but it is never less than fascinating—and sometimes dazzling—in its ambitions.

For starters, “Noah” doesn’t look like any biblical epic we’ve ever seen before, with the verdant hillsides and ashen volcanic flatlands of Iceland standing in for the deserts of the Middle East. Likewise, the costumes eschew robes and sandals in favor of heartier attire that might best be described as proto-army surplus. As for the supposed “liberties” Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel have taken with their sacrosanct source, they aren’t boldfaced transgressions so much as interpretations, additions and embellishments designed to flesh out the spare Noah narrative to feature length. This includes making the characters far younger than those described in the Good Book—which, if followed to the letter, would have yielded an antediluvian Amour.

Aronofksy’s Noah (superbly played by Russell Crowe) doesn’t hear God’s voice booming down from the heavens like in Bill Cosby’s celebrated standup routine, or sit on the stoop shooting the breeze with the Creator like Steve Carell in Evan Almighty. Rather, the looming flood and the mission of the ark come to him in the course of two vividly rendered hallucinogenic dreams—one natural, the other induced by some special “tea” served up by Noah’s grandpa, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, leaving no bit of scenery unchewed). And because the story lacks a natural antagonist, the film corrals one from elsewhere in Genesis in the form of Tubal-cain (played as a youth by Finn Wittrock), a descendant of the Abel-slaying Cain first seen in a brief prologue delivering a fatal blow to Noah’s father, Lamech (Marton Csokas)—a scene that, like much of Noah, feels straight out of a 1940s frontier Western. Later, as a full-blown supervillain (Ray Winstone) hip to Noah’s survivalist scheme, Tubal-cain and his rogue army vow to hitch a ride on the ark or else die trying. (This leads to a large-scale battle sequence that, while impressively staged, is easily the film’s most conventional passage—an extended outtake from Middle-earth.)

Here is where you feel Aronofsky and Handel laboring intensely, with only partial success, to turn what has traditionally been something of a one-man show into more of an ensemble affair. Where Noah is the model locavore, who takes from the land only as much as he needs and strives to be at one with his surroundings (but who, being Russell Crowe, can also kick serious butt when need be), Tubal-cain personifies the debauched, resource-plundering wastrels God seeks to smite from the universe. And though Winstone plays the part with sinister flair, the character never becomes much more than a stock bad guy, on hand to pop up like a jack-in-the-box at the least convenient moments, and to try wooing Noah’s petulant, Skywalker-ish son, Ham (Logan Lerman), over to the dark side. Ham, meanwhile, may be patient zero for middle-child syndrome, spending most of the movie sulking about wondering when he’s going to become a man, and staring dolefully at the beautiful Ila (Emma Watson), an orphan girl who was adopted as a child by Noah and his wife, Naameh (a solid but underused Jennifer Connelly), and who becomes betrothed to their eldest son, Shem (Douglas Booth).

But if the interpersonal dramas don’t quite fully engage, as spectacle Noah rarely disappoints, commencing with the building of the ark itself. Designed by production designer Mark Friedberg (and built, to the actual dimensions specified by the Bible, on a New York soundstage), it is an awesome thing—not the traditional sailing vessel of many an artist’s interpretation, but rather an enormous wooden warehouse that makes the Maersk Alabama look like a lifeboat.

The arrival of the animals, which appear to self-organize by phylum, is a similarly marvelous sight (even if the creatures retain a conspicuous CGI appearance). Then comes the Frankenstorm, in which the waters of the earth quite literally rise up to meet those of the heavens—a suitably Dramamine-worthy sequence, expertly rendered by Aronofsky and all his technicians. Not soon to be forgotten: the image of humanity’s last dregs clambering for a foothold on a lone rocky outcropping as it, too, is finally swallowed by the sea.

Yet it is only after the tide has ebbed and a new day has dawned that Noah seems to come to its real place of purpose. Taking inspiration from a line in Genesis about Noah’s post-flood descent into drunkenness, Aronofsky and Handel imagine an exhausted hero who can’t understand why, if all mankind was meant to perish, he and his family should be saved. And since that telephone to the heavens only receives calls, Noah has no one to ask. Crowe is incredibly good in these scenes—you feel his torment as if it were a fire burning him from the inside out—culminating in a terrifying moment of near-infanticide.

The purists will blanche—injections of existential angst and self-doubt into Scripture are always guaranteed to rankle (as The Last Temptation of Christ proved). But it’s here that one feels fully why Aronofsky wanted to make this movie in the first place, as Noah’s own age of anxiety seems to echo directly into our own. The movie leaves us with a crystalline image of a man who feels most adrift when he is finally standing on dry land—and who, regardless of what faith one subscribes to, cannot relate to that?

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