Review: Noah (2014)
You just never know what the rain will bring
The Old Testament was a gnarly, brutal place. The stories that pepper it are insane. I'm no theologian, but what I know of that part of the Bible is that it is filled with tales that are stranger than fiction and often paint a desperate and bleak existence. This makes for perfect cinematic cannon fodder. Strange then, that only now, after so many decades, are filmmakers catching on to the narrative goldmine that is the Word of God. Especially because the stories in the Bible are free. You can pay five million for the galley's to the new John Grisham novel if you want. I guess the world could always use another courtroom thriller. Or, you can pull down that dusty, leather bound book some great-grandparent gave to you or one of your siblings thirty years ago and pick any one of a hundred stories of sexual immorality, ultra violence and gods and demons. For free. It doesn't matter what you believe, a good yarn's a good yarn.
The story of Noah and the great flood is one of the more famous ones. Most people have heard and have at least a basic understanding of it: the world has gone to pot, God is displeased. He has let his once perfect creation become a moral and, probably, literal landfill. He decides to start again. He appears to one of the few men good men left, letting him know He plans to destroy the earth and that the man must build an ark for himself, his family and two of every land based animal on earth. No big deal, then. Noah complies, is ridiculed, escapes the flood, finds land, starts over, God is pleased but decides never to wipe out life again, no matter how gross it gets down here, rainbow, end.
A crazy, farfetched story to be sure, but a good one. Darren Aronofsky, writer/director of Noah 2014, recognizes this and decides to follow up his biggest critical and commercial hit, Black Swan, with a Biblical epic. Aronofsky is an acutely visual filmmaker. His filmography is splattered with stories that probe the farther recesses of our psychological makeup: Pi, Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain. Even Black Swan used sly visual tricks to make even the viewer question whether they saw what they think they just saw.
No better captain to helm the great ship Noah then. If there's one thing you need to be to adapt a story from the Bible, particularly an apocalyptic one, it's a visual filmmaker.
And Noah is a very visual film. Whether it's the thundering mass of an endless ocean of creatures making their way to the ark; the spectacle of the ark in progress looming colossus-like over the valley; the raging waters of the flood quite literally wiping out all life on earth; or the beautiful time lapses that explain the beginning of the world, Noah is never lack of something to gawk at. That said, I had the same problem with Noah that I had with the Lord of the Rings trilogy: too damn much CGI. I get that realizing a story of this magnitude would be a chore without computers, but come on. The animals approaching en masse upon the ark looked like they were on loan from A Bug's Life 2; the effect of thousands of bodies being washed away in the flood was dulled due to how obvious it was that there wasn't a single human body anywhere near that water; and the film features two of the fakest looking CGI infants this side of that dancing baby on Ally McBeal. I know this is 2014 and this is the state of film in this day and age, but if Cecil B. DeMille could pull off half a dozen biblical epics more than half a century ago, and Stanley Kubrick could pull off 2001: A Space Odyssey without anyone even knowing what the earth looked like from space yet, Darren Aronofsky could have found twin babies for Emma Watson to hold in her arms for goodness sake.
Noah is a long movie. For a story that only stretches two(ish) chapters of a book made up largely of genealogies, almost two and a half hours is pushing it. Aronofsky remedies this by taking great liberty with the story between the verses. This is the part where many who are seeing Noah expecting a verse for verse adaptation are going to get huffy. The earth in Aronofsky's Noah, perhaps not unlike the earth in the Biblical text, is a place of great degradation, but also of wonders. Of mystical men and mythical creatures. I don't fault him this. The Bible says little about the specifics of the beasts and creatures who walked the earth before the flood, so a filmmaker could put a pink polka dotted unicorn with a trench coat, hat and vest dancing around in there and we can't say for sure it wasn't the case. It wasn't the creatures that walked the earth that I had a problem with in this movie though, it was the story that takes place after the flood hits.
Once Noah and his family are safe and sound in the ark, the movie loses some steam. There's a ridiculous subplot involving Ray Winstone's character (a descendant of Cain, so without question a monster of a man), that feels clunky and ill conceived. Like they couldn't think of anything better to challenge Noah with so why not thrown this in there.
There's also confusion as to who we're supposed to be rooting for in this movie. God is revered, but also comes across as a bit of a brute in this, 'that scary man in the sky'; Noah's kids are at best pretty annoying and at worst, vengeance thirsty traitors; his wife seems to care less about what 'the Creator' wants and gives Noah all manner of heck for trying to do what he's told; and Noah is so focused on his task and his mission that he's nearly sociopathic at times. Willing to cut down anyone in his way. But maybe that's what was asked of him.
I realize I have been giving this movie a lot of scolding in this review, but I honestly don't think it's as bad as all that. It has it's computer generated faults, it's plotting is awkward and it's over long. But it's also an impressive sight to behold much of the time. It's filled with fantastic performances (except for Jennifer Connelly, who flubs a important emotional moment in which, acting wise, she was in over her head a bit), the liberties the writer's take with the story are well thought out and add to, not detract from, the grandiose scale of the storytelling, and it has a genuine and relevant message at it's core which ought to leave everyone with a little ball of warm fuzzy in their bellybutton after it's over. Unless you're someone who doesn't like their scripture screwed with, in which case your warm fuzzy will probably feel more like a cold prickly.
Verdict: Ambitious, visually rich and imaginative and impressively acted. It drags and runs out of ideas once or twice and overuses it's less than photorealistic CGI, but Noah is an impressive achievement overall and shouldn't be dismissed for the occasional liberties it takes with it's source material.