There are scenes and images in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah as astonishing as any in recent memory, surrealistic flashes that inspire immediate awe and reverberate long afterwards. And there are moments so goofy and tone-deaf that you wonder if the gifted and visionary filmmaker was asleep at the wheel. It’s as odd and schizophrenic a picture as you’re likely to see in the focus-grouped, play-it-safe moviemaking climate of the moment, and the fact that it exists at all is sort of a (ha ha) miracle. The fact that it takes itself so very seriously will, no doubt, lead its more cynical viewers to dub it an unintentional laugh riot — and you can choose to laugh at it. But you can also choose to wrestle with it, to engage as fully as Aronofsky has.
The biblical story of Noah is one that just about everyone knows, if not by direct encounter, then by popular culture saturation: the man taxed by God to build an ark with two of every animal, which would provide safety for him and his family during a great flood intended to wipe out the wickedness and allow a reboot of that whole “life on Earth” thing. It’s compelling stuff, but a little brief, so Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel have fleshed it out. Oh boy, have they fleshed it out.
Our first indication that this is not your Sunday-school Noah comes early, in a scene where Noah (Russell Crowe) stumbles upon an animal wounded by a trio of hunters, and takes them all out singlehandedly. The moment is jarring, like a Gladiator deleted scene cut into our Bible story out of nowhere, but that’s just the beginning of the picture’s peculiar fusing of biblical narrative and ultra-traditional, heroes-and-villains, period battle epic. He envisions “The Watchers,” fallen angels who first antagonize Noah and then help build the massive ark, as giant rock monsters that move and verbalize in a manner, I’m afraid, a bit too reminiscent of Transformers. He gives us a scenery-chewing bad guy in the form of Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), ruler of the wicked land, who rustles up an army to “crush those giants” and take the ark as his own personal safe haven; this results in a giant battle sequence that feels like something out of The Two Towers. And he creates a third act where he seems to have lost interest in Noah altogether, and decided to tell the story of Abraham and Isaac instead.
Surprisingly, these deviations from the text have resulted in little pushback from the religious community Paramount has so aggressively courted (with an eye, no doubt, on those monster Passion of the Christ grosses); after some initial concern, it appears that such evangelical interests as, ugh, Focus on the Family are on board with the movie. (Well, some are still taking to Fox News to complain about Aronofsky using “Creator” instead of “God,” a grievance so stupid I can’t even begin to wrap my head around it.) Even if they were objecting to the filmmaker playing fast and loose with the Bible, that wouldn’t matter much — and it wouldn’t account for those elements of the film not working. It’s not a matter of fidelity; it’s that, in those sequences, we can feel the filmmaker trying to work in conventional narrative elements, presumably to make his movie more palatable to mainstream audiences. It’s obvious, and frankly, it’s a little condescending.
What’s most surprising about Noah is that Aronofsky’s most striking images and most bracing moments come not from these deviations, but from sticking close to the text at hand. (Maybe that’s not surprising — have you read the Old Testament? Pretty dark!) There are dream sequences and hallucinatory visions a-plenty of striking snakes and wide-eyed bodies floating through the coming flood; there are scenes of fire and blood and pits of corpses. And then there is the flood sequence itself, riveting from the initial shots of the rumbling, blackening sky and the visceral intensity of the first drop of rain, which falls like a knife. The entire section left this viewer agog; you get the feeling Aronofsky’s been waiting for it as eagerly as his audience, as he pelts us with bravura effects and nightmarish compositions (Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is stunningly hellish), prodded on by Clint Mansell’s urgent, terrifying score.
At the conclusion of that sequence, Aronofsky and Libatique give us their most stunning image of all: the ark passing a mountain of the dying, a pile-up of wailing and shrieking (and drowning) bodies, a makeshift island in this sudden ocean. After taking in that haunting visual, one starts to understand why a filmmaker like Aronofsky wanted to tell this story in the first place — and the film is at its best when it untethers him, giving in to his inclinations towards the wildly experimental and unconventional.
Yet Noah cannot be that film — as, indeed, no big-studio Bible movie (even one that takes as many liberties as this) can be. There are just too many masters to serve, and Noah often strains under the weight of trying to be everything to everyone, an art film and a kick-ass studio blockbuster and an act of faith, simultaneously. Movies that attempt that much plate-spinning usually topple over, often spectacularly, and by most measures, Noah is a mess. But the freedom to make this kind of a mess can yield spectacular results, both on a micro and macro level. Noah is not a great a movie, but its nutso aesthetic and shoot-the-works style results in more genuinely haunting moments and lingering images than an entire season of smoothly executed, “well made” films.