Wednesday, April 09, 2014
NOAH (Darren Aronofsky, 2014)
At the center of the Biblical story of Noah is the kind of spectacular visual event suited for an effects-driven Hollywood production. A vengeful God floods the entire planet to eliminate all living beings from the land except one family and the pairs of creatures of the ground and air that the patriarch is instructed to collect in an ark. The basis for disaster films resides in the oral and written traditions through which the tale has survived. What’s not included, though, are the characterization, plot details, and dialogue that the feature-length cinematic form needs, leaving writer-director Darren Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel to fill in the gaps in NOAH. Although their version deviates from what is taught in Sunday school, they use artistic license for an often thrilling examination of Noah’s psychological challenges in carrying the burden of such a calling and the construction of a sense of the supernatural more prevalent at the time.
Descended from the line of Seth, Noah (Russell Crowe) is a righteous man living off the rocky land with his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and their young sons Ham, Shem, and Japheth. They try to avoid the descendants of Cain, who live in cities where all manner of evil is engaged in. Having received visions of a great flood to come, Noah and his family travel to consult his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) about what is being asked of him. Along the way they add a girl, Ila, to their numbers after finding her as the lone survivor of a slaughtered group.
Noah understands that God is angry with the corrupt humans and plans to drown every person and creature with a great flood. As Noah has found favor with the Creator, he is to build an ark to house his family and the males and females of every kind of animal and bird. After the waters subside, they will repopulate Earth. The Watchers, fallen angels encased in rock and mud, assist Noah and his clan with the years-long task of preparing for the floodwaters to come and protect it from the king Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) and the panicking masses trying to get aboard the ark.
The ancient world of NOAH is more connected to the mystical than contemporary mankind, so glowing stones, a magical snakeskin, and the interpretation of the Nephilim as rock monsters work within the film’s context. Through these enchanted means Aronofsky and Handel tell the allegorical tale in a way that might have seemed logical to early human generations. Although these aspects are likely to be the most contentious departures from the familiar source, creating an air of unreality helps to root NOAH in another time when more active spiritual intervention was assigned responsibility for what was happening. Incorporating fantastical elements also make the antediluvian period feel more real, as it corresponds to how those who followed may have understood the nature of things.
While NOAH excites and amazes by establishing a bygone era through THE LORD OF THE RINGS-like fantasy, it’s greatest power comes in empathizing with the person directed to carry out a divine mission. What is required of Noah is enough to lead one to madness. Crowe invests the character with steadfast faithfulness while also expressing the physical and mental strains of the task at hand. To the doomed Noah behaves like a villain in a horror film. When he seeks wives for his sons he witnesses the depravity in the city that will lead God to wipe all but the chosen few from existence. Noah believes this decision is just and thus must make horrifying choices, yet despite the outcome from his assent to God’s instructions, Noah is also a victim. Shot in close-up inside the ark, Noah listens to the wailing swirl around him as the wicked suffer horrible deaths that he could prevent if told to do otherwise. God is not given an audible voice in NOAH, which makes the protagonist’s struggle to see his job through all the difficult.
Adapting religious texts for popular entertainment will always be a dicey proposition. While there are a sufficient number of creative choices in NOAH to draw the objections of some, Aronofsky’s dynamic rendition of the flood finds room to respect the source while allowing for divergences that help to keep the story relevant.