Aronofsky's Turbulent "Noah" Lost At Sea

Meet writer-director Darren Aronofsky. Nuance is his friend. See 2008’s “The Wrestler,” a devastatingly bleak portrait of substance abuse and existential grief. It’s quiet, moody, and tremendously affecting, and liable to knock the wind out of viewers by the time its credits roll. Alternatively, witness 2006’s “The Fountain,” Aronofsky’s trippy, nonsensical time travel odyssey in which the filmmaker dresses inanity in pretension, as if to shroud the film’s ramblings in something resembling art. Aronofsky has long been an artist at war with himself, combating intimacy with scale – and vice versa – and “Noah,” his long gestating biblical epic, sees his most hackneyed instincts emerge victorious. “Noah” is blustery, absurd, and so irresolute in its tone as to teeter between camp and humorlessness for extended periods of time.

As the film begins, Aronofsky immediately taps into kitsch, calling on a spectacularly silly font for his opening titles, followed by some ferocious editing and musical choices to set the stage for the death and destruction to come. We’re then introduced to our hero, Noah (Russell Crowe), wearing a scriptural approximation of designer jeans. This is capped off by the introduction of the Watchers, giant rock creatures that are lovingly rendered in a kind of nouveau stop motion – think “Jason And The Argonauts.” Fair enough. All of this is initially welcome because it signals intent to make a throwback art film, an update to the tacky sword-and-sandal epic that was en vogue in the 1960s.

But soon it becomes clear that Aronofsky is hedging his bets, pulling back on the campiness and attempting to stage a semi-faithful, ultimately overlong telling of the story of Noah and his Ark. As soon as it becomes apparent that we’re supposed to laugh, Russell Crowe turns up the dourness as if to admonish our amusement. The pic’s narrative is ubiquitous. God has grown tired of man’s wicked ways and plans to drown them with a great flood. The Creator chooses Noah, a righteous man, to build a great ark that will allow for the survival of mankind, along with all of the world’s animals – one male and one female of each. The film generally stays true to scripture with a few major exceptions.

Specifically, the reason for the existence of the ark has been altered. Here, Noah is not meant to save mankind – merely the world’s animals. It’s a change that’s certain to be met with resistance on the part of biblical scholars, but it serves a definite dramatic purpose – allowing for inner turmoil on the part of Noah’s family. Instead of being chosen ones, Aronofsky gets to draw them as individuals with very different ideas as to how they should proceed as human beings. Jennifer Connolly (reuniting with Crowe, her “A Beautiful Mind” co-star) plays Noah’s wife, Naameh, while Ray Winstone features as the evil, voracious Tobal-cain. Emma Watson plays a crucial role as Ila, Noah’s daughter-in-law.

But Aronofsky’s choice to play up human conflict ultimately backfires, leading to some hefty bouts of overacting – particularly in the film’s third act. Once Noah and company are on the ark and the waters rise, the screenplay leans heavily on invention, throttling the narrative with melodrama and mistaking Noah for biblical characters not named Noah. When God commands him to kill the offspring of his daughter-in-law, Jews and Christians are sure to fidget in their seats. Everyone else will simply roll their eyes. It isn’t quite the nadir of the picture, but it’s close, only topped in preposterousness by some laughably misplaced fight scenes.

At 2 hours and 20 minutes, the simplicity of the story is lost while the modern story machinations come across as unnecessary padding. It could be argued that by that walking a line between authenticity and embellishment, the film opens itself up to both believers and non-believers alike. In reality, it’s a film that will please virtually no one, diehard Aronofsky fans being the likeliest exception. Seeing the filmmaker work with a massive budget is interesting enough, and his involvement seeps through much of the film. But tonal inconsistencies derail the piece, its intermittent kitschiness melding woefully with big-budget action pic tropes.

What’s so unfortunate is that the filmmaker and his co-writer, Ari Handel, have plenty of interesting thematic ideas for the story. Using a biblical story as a vessel for environmentalist (and to a lesser extent, humanist) ideals is a delightfully subversive idea. But the execution is sorry, the kind that one might expect from a hack filmmaker-for-hire. Darren Aronofsky’s creative voice remains as distinct as ever, but “Noah” is as misguided a film as you’re likely to see from a genuinely great filmmaker. As far as failures go, it’s a moderately interesting one, but casual moviegoers should stay far, far away.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: March 28, 2014
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenwriter: Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins, Logan Lerman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content)