Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is, on the one hand, exactly what the title suggests: A dramatization of the biblical story of Noah, who, being the only man God viewed favorably, was called upon to build an ark that would house two of every animal, protecting them from a great flood that would return the earth to a pure state, before the misdeeds of humanity. But unlike the disappointing Son of God, released only one month ago, Noah isn’t a series of sanitized, Sunday School vignettes, and the title character isn’t an idealized figure. With regards to the character, played by Russell Crowe, Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel refuse to condescend to audience expectations.
They bother to actually develop him into a complicated man, capable of tremendous decency and appalling sanctimoniousness, torn, at times painfully, between his duty to God and his responsibilities as a husband and father.
This may account for the tensions that arose between Aronofsky and the powers that be at Paramount Pictures, who reportedly got nervous when largely religious audiences reacted badly to test screenings in October of 2013, and subsequently fought for creative control over the final cut of the film. Another factor, I’m certain, was a bravura sequence in which Crowe narrates almost verbatim the opening passages from the Book of Genesis against an abbreviated montage of the Big Bang, the cooling of Earth from a volcanic state, and organisms evolving into prehistoric animals and beyond. I have no doubt that fundamentalists would find this offensive. More reasonable audiences, of any religious persuasion, should be able to see the point Aronofsky is trying to make, namely that there’s absolutely no conflict between evolution and a belief in God.
After testing alternate cuts that veered away from Aronofsky’s vision, Paramount relented and allowed the director to release his preferred version of the film. A victory, to be sure. However, there are specific aspects of the story that could have benefited from some outside meddling. The most glaring example is the depiction of Watchers, fallen angels more prominently featured in ancient Jewish texts than in those of modern Christianity. It’s explained that, following mankind’s expulsion from Eden, the Watchers directly disobeyed God – who, it should be noted, is never referred to as God but as The Creator – by descending from heaven and interfering on mankind’s behalf; as punishment, the Watchers, ethereal light creatures, were encased in mud and volcanic rock, turning them into gigantic stone monsters. Looking at these scuttling, crab-like behemoths, it was obvious that they would have been better utilized in a Clash of the Titans knockoff.
I think what I most appreciated about this film was the way Aronofsky addressed the issue of how, in matters of religious teachings, things are open to interpretation. In the latter half, after the flood has swallowed the world and the tremendous ark bobs in the water, Noah will have the most personal of inner conflicts, his values as a person clashing with what he perceives to be the intentions of The Creator. Without delving into specifics, this directly involves a character conceived of exclusively for this film adaptation. This would be Ila (Emma Watson), rescued by Noah as a little girl and raised as his own after the entirety of her family and tribe were slaughtered in a feud. The Creator doesn’t provide Noah with the counsel he seeks regarding his inner conflict; he can only be guided by his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), despite the fact that she had never been called by The Creator. Whether or not she successfully guides him is something you’ll have to see for yourselves.
Genesis 6:11-12 describes how God judges humanity for being violent and corrupt. Aronofsky skillfully depicts the violence and corruption without being too timid or too graphic. As Noah, his family, and the Watchers construct the ark, a titanic rectangular vessel of logs and mud, they find themselves under constant threat of the ruthless King Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), who not only murdered Noah’s father years earlier over a land dispute but is also the leader of a tribe turned savage due to a lack of food. There’s a disturbing scene in which Noah enters Tubal-Cain’s settlement, attempting to find wives for his three sons (Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, and Leo McHugh Carroll); as the desperate, starved masses weep, wail, and stampede, a live goat is tossed into middle of a crowd and promptly torn to pieces.
I have no doubt that purist biblical scholars, along with rigid fundamentalists, will indeed respond poorly to Noah. Nowhere in the Bible, for example, does it state that Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah, was capable of miraculous acts. Nevertheless, that’s how he’s depicted in the film, in which he’s played by Anthony Hopkins. And perhaps it’s too convenient to sidestep the issue of feeding and cleaning up after two of every single animal by having them all put into hibernation via incense. Most audiences, on the other hand, should be able to see that, by developing the title character beyond the scope of preconceived notions, the story can actually resonate. The original flood narrative ends with God vowing to never again destroy humanity, and He signifies it with a rainbow; the film, by virtue of Crowe’s complex portrayal of Noah, earns the right to end in that particular way.
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