In 2006 director Darren Aronofsky released The Fountain, a surreal picture in which Hugh Jackman played three different versions of the same man across a period of a million years. The film centred around the pursuit of eternal life with Hugh no. 1 as a Spanish conquistador looking for the mythical tree of life. Hugh no. 2 in the modern day looking for a cure to save his dying wife and Hugh no. 3 as a futuristic spaceman floating around the cosmos with a tree in a giant bubble. It is fair to say, it wasn’t a mainstream movie.
Then in 2010 Aronofsky gave us Black Swan, about a New York prima ballerina who becomes obsessed with the dual roles of white and black swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. She begins to suffer psychotic delusions and the film features scenes of body horror as she goes slowly nuts. It was pretty trippy but compared to The Fountain it looked like Happy Feet.
Aronofsky has made some fairly straight forward films and some that are a little less accessible but no matter what kind of mood he is in, he is never afraid to let things get a little bit weird. Now then he comes to the story of benevolent old father Noah and his floating zoo, so how strange has he made everyone’s favourite Old Testament children’s story?
To be fair, it isn’t a children’s story in its original incarnation. Genesis Chapters 5 to 10 have far too much genealogy in them for that. It also revolves around the annihilation of pretty much the whole human race which isn’t something you used to get on Jackanory. Nonetheless, we all know the basics, two of every animal, wooden boat, 40 days and 40 nights, dove with olive branch, Mount Ararat, rainbow, etc.
The over riding impression with Aronofsky’s Noah is that he has taken some pretty big liberties with this familiar narrative (it takes a pretty bold person to rewrite The Good Book) but although there is truth in this, many of the more surprising plot developments are actually there in the original source material.
For example, Adam and Eve did have three sons. Everyone has heard of Cain and Abel but younger Seth was also there all along and Noah is one of his descendants. Also, what seems like one of the director’s most outlandish additions; the massive rock monsters, are also referenced in The Bible, kind of. It says ‘there were Nephilim living among humanity at that time’ and most interpretations maintain that this refers to giants of some sort. The etymology of the word Nephilim also suggests that these giants were ‘the fallen ones’ which fits in with the way they are presented by Aronofsky. Genesis also makes it clear that the flood waters came up from the ground as well as falling from the skies so those neat special effects were effectively story boarded three thousand years ago. Finally there is Noah’s descent into alcoholism and the time his sons find him face down, butt naked in the sand. None of this stuff is new, it’s all there in the King James Version.
In fact there are aspects of the original story that Aronofsky has actually dropped, presumably as they were just too much for an audience to swallow. This mostly relate to the ages of the central players. Noah was in fact 500 by the time he started his family and his sons in turn were also getting on by the time the rains came. Little Japeth, the preteen brother in the film, was actually around 100 years old when they went to sea and he wasn’t the youngest, that was Shem. Also, Noah’s three ‘boys’ all already had wives in The Bible which is significantly different to what we get here, the whole ‘doomed to the life of a single guy’ thing being a major driving force for Ham, the middle child, in Aronofsky’s version.
Of the things that are added, and there are a few, perhaps the most significant concerns Noah’s state of mind. It seems that those long hours cooped up inside the boat begin to get to the man and, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, he flips out a little. (All work and no play makes Noah a dull boy!) I’d like to hear the chorus of that traditional kid’s song rewritten to reflect this twist:
‘They all went in to the ark for to get out of the rain
at which point Noah went slowly insane.’
Wait, I’ve got more: There may only be one pair of flying mammals on this boat but three of the passengers were bats. (Yes, I know there are over 1,200 species of bat but I’m having fun, and anyway, you are the one taking the story literally.) It’s not only the birds going cuckoo. (Okay, I’ll stop now.)
Interestingly, the animals are largely sidelined in this version of events, all of them being anetheatised below decks like dogs administered sleeping pills on a long car journey. It is Noah’s lunacy then that drives most of the suspense. Curiously the method in his madness is a result of misinterpreting the intentions of the creator (no one uses the G-word here). It is possible that this is trying to say something about the dangers of religious fundamentalism but if so the message is lost. The trouble is, it is just hard to take any of it seriously. Poor old Emma Watson is acting her heart out in one scene but she just isn’t going to get the awards recognition because the film is just so imperious and silly.
That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable but this is definitely the unrestrained work of the man who directed The Fountain. His characters are all deadly serious in the face of situations so extreme and unreal as to be borderline laughable. There are odd nonsensical amalgams of different creatures running around, like the armadilldog, which are very peculiar and we have beautifully designed effects sequences that are so stylised that they jolt the viewer out of the narrative. The dialogue is a little ripe too. The whole thing is approached with such bombast though, that you become submerged in it and there, in the middle of it all, is Russell Crowe.
There are a number of successful film actors with a fairly limited range. They know not to reach above their abilities though and they do well and get that Malibu beach property. They’re never going to win trophies (apart from maybe the MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss or #wtf moment) but they look good and they sell tickets. Russell Crowe is not actually one of these film stars, he is actually very talented, but he might get that reputation as he does keep picking roles that are a little bit beyond him.
Crowe was great in State of Play, LA Confidential and Gladiator, to name a few, but then there was that terrible accent in Robin Hood and his seriously below par singing in Les Miserables. Earnestly frowning his way through pompous movies like Noah and Man of Steel does not help. He seems to have carved himself a reputation as this century’s Charlton Heston but he’s just not up to it. I don’t think he is as powerful a screen presence as his Les Mis alumni and fellow Aronofskyite Hugh Jackman and there are others such as Michael Fassbender and Tom Hardy who are more commanding.
All in all then, Noah is an ambitious and confident film but it isn’t as good as it thinks it is. There is no great sense of peril for Noah’s family, which is saying something when they are trapped, with no refuge, in stormy waters, on a rudimentary vessel with millions of wild animals and a man of murderous intent. Still, there is much to enjoy if you don’t mind being amused and bemused in equal measure.
The ISWYS Test:
1. Is there a female lead?
2. If that character was your sister would you respect her?
3. If your sister did those things would you proudly tell all your friends about it?
The female lead is Jennifer Connelly as Naameh, Noah’s wife. She is certainly a strong character and really comes into her own when her hubby starts to go schitzo. She is shown to be forthright and forceful but is only prepared to stand up to Noah to a point because he is the patriarch. You could argue that it was a different time but compared to the rest of the film, a little bit of female empowerment wouldn’t have seemed unrealistic. You could argue that Noah’s ultimate salvation is due to the females that surround him so respect for the genders does go both ways. I’m giving Noah and Naameh 3 out of 3.
Is this one for the kids?
Noah is a 12A and the levels of violence and swearing are fairly standard for this rating. The screams of the dying masses are a little creepy and you do see some water bloated corpses. There is also one moment when a character we have been asked to invest in comes to a sudden and brutal end but you don’t really see anything.