• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

Non-Review Review: Noah

Noah is very hard to process. It’s very much an adaptation of its source material – very clearly a biblical epic that draws from The Book of Genesis in terms of tone and mood and imagery. It’s a story that is harrowing and horrifying, couched in allegory and metaphor and built around an idea of divinity that is difficult to comprehend.

At points, Darren Aronofsky’s biblical epic seems to move in dream-time; the imagery is abstract, the scope almost impossible to comprehend; time and scale are conveyed through disjointed slideshows that invite the viewer to composite them together, creating a sense that this is more abstract than conventional storytelling.

noah3

Like The Fountain before its, Noah is a story that seems to exist without place and time. Witnessing the devastation that mankind has done to the world around it, it seems like our protagonists have stumbled into a post-apocalyptic wasteland with burnt trolleys and abandoned pipes scattered across scorched Earth.

Past, present and future co-mingle, creating a sense that this is a world without time as we might conventionally understand it. After all, this isn’t the real world. This is a story. The internal logic is prone to shift like uncertain ground, the viewer never quite sure if they’ve properly found their footing. Aronofsky’s vision is at times frustratingly oblique, but more than occasionally brilliant.

noah9

It captures a lot more of The Book of Genesis than most of its critics would concede – in mood and tone as much as literal interpretation. At the same time, it makes a pretty compelling example of why big crowd-pleasing biblical epics don’t tend to draw from The Book of Genesis, favouring later – less difficult and polarising – biblical material.

It’s very hard to imagine Noah as a commercial exercise – to recognise a group that will respond to a story that is willing to be so bold in tackling its subject material. And yet, at the same time, it is an absolutely intriguing piece of cinema.

noah2

The story of the flood is one of the foundational Christian stories. It’s one of the most iconic and influential elements of The Book of Genesis, recounting how Noah son of Enoch heard a message from God and built an arc to shelter some life from a cleansing flood. It’s a story that has been told and re-told many times, one that lives on even outside the context of Christian theology. It has become an instantly recognisable tale in Western culture – the name “Noah” is familiar to those even outside the faithful.

However, as familiar as the tale might be, it is also absolutely terrifying. As with so much of The Book of Genesis, it’s a story that has absolutely horrific connotations, one written to conform to a very different sense of morality than the one to which most Christians hold. As much as it might comfort us to imagine a wise old man tending to wildlife on a floating nature preserve, it is essentially the story of how Noah’s faith and trust in God led him to allow mankind to die in that cleansing flood.

noah6

Aronofsky’s Noah perfectly captures that sense of alien horror. As Noah and his family huddle together in the ark, the screams of the desperate and the dying carry on the wind – their bodies broken against jagged rocks as they struggle to keep their heads above the rising tides. Noah’s earlier visit to the tribes desperately seeking passage on his boat is equally unsettling; the film playing off our knowledge (and Noah’s knowledge) that he is essentially witnessing a genocide.

That is an absolutely horrifying realisation, and it’s something that tends to get buried a bit in the way that we frame these stories for popular consumption. It’s to the credit of Aronofsky that Noah doesn’t sky from this implication – any attempt to gloss over the implications of Noah’s actions would be trite or dishonest. As much as the New Testament might be built on humanism and optimism, the Old Testament has a very different philosophy; and Noah is willing to play that to its logical conclusion.

noah11

It doesn’t make for comforting viewing. The film is tough to watch in places, often feeling like an abstract metaphorical horror. It explains why biblical epics have traditionally drawn from later material, stories that offer a more comforting internal morality – that appeal to modern sensibilities and don’t raise uncomfortable questions. The Book of Genesis is an uncomfortable read even today, despite the fact that many of its stories have become familiar to Western audiences.

Indeed, one senses that this might be the point – that Aronofsky is deliberately challenging his audience by forcing them to confront the horror inherent in these stories; horror lost through familiarity or phraseology. After all, Aronofsky seems like a strange choice to direct a biblical epic. Noah is disturbing and illogical and unsettling, but all of that comes from the source material. Even some of the movie’s liberties with Noah’s own story – particularly involving his grandchildren – are lifted from other stories within The Book of Genesis.

noah1

As such, there is a sense of provocative cynicism to all of this. Noah’s devotion to “the Creator” is both awe-inspiring and terrifying. Acting on visions and instructions presented by a force beyond mortal comprehension, Noah does the most impossible and most horrifying things. Again, there’s a sense that Aronofsky is trying to provoke his audience – to ask them to confront the uncomfortably subtext that runs through much of the Old Testament.

He even makes the character of Tubal-Cain, Ray Winstone’s descendent of the first murderer, almost sympathetic in a way. Cain is a monster, capable of justifying horrific acts by reference to his own self-proclaimed superiority. At the same time, his relationship to “the Creator” is complicated. It’s hard to not feel some measure of pity for the warrior king. “Am I not man?” he asks at one point. “Am I not made in Your image? Why will You not converse with me?” Keeping “the Creator” at a distance invites the audience to reach their own conclusions.

noah

In many respects, Aronofky cheats a bit in the Noah‘s final act. In the wake of the flood, Noah finds himself facing a revelation about the nature of the relationship between mankind and “the Creator.” Again, this isn’t an element traditionally included in the story of Noah; it is a shift in Christian theology that occurred considerably later. However, as with the thread involving Noah and his grandchildren, it makes sense for Aronofsky to build it into this story.

Noah seems like Aronofsky’s reflection on the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament in Christian theology, confronting movie-goers with some of the more troubling aspects of the belief system – the stories that we would probably prefer to tell another way, or gloss over. Noah puts them all up on screen, with all the troubling implications and unsettling subtext for the audience to digest.

noah5

That’s not to suggest that Noah has been written as a diatribe or an attack or anything as direct as that. There’s a great deal of respect for the biblical text here. Aronofsky acknowledges that these myths do have allegorical resonance – even if literal interpretation is troubling and problematic. At one point, Noah’s narration of the iconic “in the beginning…” is juxtaposed against images of evolution, as if to demonstrate that faith need not exist at odds with scientific belief. Both can be true at the same time, with a little open-mindedness.

Noah is a story about stories. There is more than one interpretation of this narrative, just as there is more than one interpretation of any story. By shifting that emphasis of the story so far from its conventional axis, Aronofsky is making a point – inviting the audience to reach their own conclusions about these stories. In touches that run very much at odds with traditional approaches to the story, Aronofsky makes use of the idea that Noah and his followers did not eat meat before the flood as a way of endorsing vegetarianism, and ties the flood imagery into environmentalist concerns.

noah10

Both are logical developments, even if they aren’t part of the traditional narrative. There is a sense that Aronofsky may be playfully tweaking some noses here, aware of the link between the religious right and the people who protest against ideas like climate change; or the stereotypical image of the meat-eating conservative against the vegetarian liberal. Then again, maybe there’s no such subversive cheek to it; maybe Aronofsky is just drawing attentions to ideas in these stories that have resonance for him, much as any storyteller can shift the emphasis to suit their own world view.

The biggest problem with Noah is that it seems to exist more of an intellectual exercise than as a story in its own right. The characters move around the script as necessary, rather than feeling like organic components of a larger story. Things happen to underscore themes or ideas, rather than because they feel like logical character developments. The moments where the script does try to treat these figures as people rather than archetypes feel a little strange in contrast to the grand sweep of the film – Methuselah’s weird craving for berries being one of the most surreal examples.

noah12

At the same time, Noah himself feels somewhat hazily defined, his character shifting from scene to scene – caught in the whims of a “Creator” he can barely comprehend. There’s a noble tragedy to all this, and Noah makes for a fascinating protagonist driving the film, but he never feels like a character in his own right, more a narrative function to help Aronofsky make the film that he wants to make. Crowe is the perfect actor to play the hero in a biblical epic, but he suffers because this really isn’t a typical hero in a typical biblical epic.

In fact, casting Crowe and marketing the movie as a biblical epic feels downright subversive – an exercise in manipulating audience expectations. Despite its premise, source material and marketing materials, there is no real way in which Noah resembles a biblical epic as a Hollywood genre. This isn’t a criticism; however, setting up those expectations in order to deliver something so radically and surreally different occasionally feels a little bit too cute or too wry for its own good.

noah8

At the same time, Aronofsky’s vision is breathtaking. Like The Fountain before it, the result is often more provocative and stimulating than satisfying – but there’s a definite sense of a director who knows what he wants to realise on film. The production design on Noah is amazing. Even if there are some ropey CGI effects, they play into the surreality of the setting. Aronofsky plays up the unreality of his setting. It’s easier to buy into the events portrayed because Noah seems to unfold in a world that operates on a slightly different wave-length than our own.

In a way, Aronofsky seems to pitch Noah half-way between a science-fiction spectacle and a biblical epic. “The Watchers”, Aronofsky’s fallen angels, look like aliens from some strange science-fiction blockbuster. The ruined landscape traversed by Noah like something from The Road or The Book of Eli. “This is the end,” Noah’s daughter remarks at one point. “The beginning,” he corrects her. “This is only the beginning.” You get a sense that it can be both.

noah7

Again, this is an idea that could easily become an exercise in pseudo-philosophical naval-gazing. And, at points, it definitely does. There are moments when it feels like Noah gets just a little bit too heavy-handed or too pretentious, the same problem that hounded Battlestar Galactica when it tried to do that sort of thing. At the same time, there is something very bold and ambitious and exciting about all this.

The result is a movie that is very weird and very odd, but also strangely compelling and consistently intriguing. It’s very hard to imagine who is the target market for Noah, but that almost seems to be the point. That a film this interesting and infuriating and impenetrable could be produced is proof of the sort of diversity possible in modern cinema.

2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on moviesutra.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: