Is mankind too willing to dominate its environment? And is humanity ultimately flawed? These are the questions asked in Darren Aronofsky’s latest film Noah, but they could easily apply to the big budget Hollywood machine and its impact on this innovative director’s style.
It’s easy to see why Aronofsky, director of 2010’s Oscar nominated Black Swan, chose the Noah story for his first big budget blockbuster. Family ties and psychological conflict feature heavily in Aronofsky’s previous work from addiction drama, Requiem For A Dream, to dark ballet thriller, Black Swan. What’s curious then is why these ideas are so diluted in Noah.
We’ve come to expect visceral detail and intensity from Aronofsky’s work. In Noah we get large dollops of melodrama and predictable subplots. Yet despite the sketchy performances and odd casting choices we also get a few glimpses of Aronofsky’s fine camera craft and pungent imagination.
This is the life story of Noah with the ark and great flood planted squarely in the middle. That the story’s true climax comes midpoint makes for a dramatic problem and Aronofsky scrabbles for subplots to generate momentum in the final act. Yet Noah as a character study is Aronofsky’s film at it’s weakest.
Even with the prospect of the flood’s immense slaughter, it’s hard to detect the conflict behind Noah’s eyes, masked by Crowe’s bland, Hollywood performance. Storing up his psychological wrangling for a splash of artificial jeopardy that Aronofsky injects into the final act, we only catch sight of Crowe’s artistry as Noah nears its conclusion.
It’s here where Aronofsky uses the character of Noah to explore the worthiness of humanity most clearly. Despite his film’s flaws, Aronofsky manages to weave a fine line between justice and vengeance which is not always entirely clear and infuses Noah with relevance. Hidden in the dialogue are ideas about the decline of religion, humanity’s sense of abandonment and man’s place in the world, the latter acting as a salient reminder of today’s environmental concerns. Aronofsky’s Noah diverts from The Bible to offer looming doubt, leaving his audience to contemplate whether humanity deserves to be reborn.
Noah’s internal conflict over this issue feeds his marital frictions with an underused Jennifer Connelly. This should add tension to the final act but is ultimately based on a flawed twist. Aronofsky’s creative liberties with the Bible have fuelled controversy and while some of these diversions work artistically, others furnish the film with its lowest points. Ray Winston feels like a ridiculous choice for humanity’s King, with a deadpan portrayal and calm threats that undermine all sense of foreboding. That Aronofsky, propels this character into the film’s climax in order to suggest a neat backstory for the future actions of Noah’s son Ham (which some theologians consider to be part of a larger story not explored fully in Genesis) distracts from the film’s wider messages.
Yet Noah distances itself from religion as we know it, using terms like The Creator to evoke a mysticism that permeates the entire film. Aronofsky seizes The Bible’s hazy concepts, using them as an inspirational trampoline to create something unexpected. When The Bible’s Nephilim become The Watchers - giant rock angels expelled from Heaven for helping humanity - it is clear Aronofsky’s imagination has not been entirely obliterated.
Neither are Aronofsky’s gifts with the camera entirely sidelined by the mainstream demands of his blockbuster. His retelling of The Genesis story could stand alone as a powerful and sharply executed short, using the time lapse, rapid shot effects that marked him out as a director of note in Requiem For A Dream. Early images of the Earth from space, with inky black cities spreading like a disease over the land add a layer of artistry to Noah that elevate it from standard blockbuster territory. Still, set in the time of a vengeful, punishing God, it feels like Noah would work better as a darker, more visceral viewing experience. Impressive Geysers, powerful waves and desperate victims play into our expectations of a big budget apocalypse movie but here the result is bland. Instead a few scattered images of desperate cannibalism provide a glimpse of what Noah could have been.
Running Time: 138 minutes