Before anything, let us pause and be grateful a movie like "Noah" exists.
Equal parts sermon and spectacle, intimate drama and epic, Darren Aronofsky's latest (and what a treat to say those words at all) throws down the gauntlet as a movie that wants to be everything and partially fails if only because it winds up being a lot of things.
Perhaps Aronofsky's perusal of The Bible would have served him better by skimming the parable of the man who spread his seed too wildly. And yet despite its shortcomings, this is such a deliriously singular movie. Capable of individual moments of inspiration, passion, and spine-crushing beauty, this is not a movie to be written off. Its greatest sin may be its ambition. But is that such a sin?
This is a standard issue disaster movie, complete with dark images of rain, brawny men, and CGI landscapes crumbling, yes, but it's a disaster movie run on nightmare fuel, told from the inside out, through one man's crazed desires to carry out what he feels he was put on this planet to do. In short, this might be the story of Genesis you dutifully studied in Sunday school and maybe enjoyed because it's a nice way to explain rainbows before you learn how reflection and refraction work. But rest assured, this is still Aronofsky's interpretation of Genesis. And he's made a few...changes. OK. A lot of changes.
This is like a rewrite of Genesis after it gets thrown out of every publishing house in town because it won't sell.
Lets start with Noah himself, played by Russell Crowe in some of his most interesting work in years. He's still the centerpiece of our story. He still believes the world to end through a flood, as punishment from God for our wickedness. He still builds an ark to stow his family and two of every animal. This is the basic spine of "Noah." It also represents all the overlap between the movie and the source material. Aronofsky's biggest and perhaps most radical departure is to treat Noah as the world's first antihero, like the twisted lead of a cable drama who does what no one else has the balls to do. If Noah of Genesis openly welcomed anyone who wanted to join, Aronofsky's Noah firmly believes his mission from God is to bring mankind to an end, surrendering Earth to the innocent animals, with he and his family surviving on the ark only to bring this mission to a close.
As a major alteration to the supposed word of God, this is bold. As the dramatic structure to a movie, it's at least fascinating, if only because "Noah" remains rather coy about what it truly thinks of its main character. Where does its, and by extent our, allegiance lie? Key to the movie's ultimate antihero casting of Noah is its initial build up. We meet Noah as we've always known him - the last decent man left on this planet. He loves and protects his family. He helps those less fortunate. And yet when he receives warning of Earth's impending doom - from a being pointedly referred to as "the Creator," never God - it's treated not as a booming voice from on high, but a surreal fever dream.
We know the flood ultimately ain't no bluff and that Noah will ultimately be responsible for the continuation of our species. But here's the thing - as viewers of "Noah" the movie, we don't. Roger Ebert taught us to never bring to a movie any more than it offers, and Aronofsky enjoys toying with our expectations of who we think Noah is. By the time the flood waters inevitably strike and Noah transforms into action hero mode, we stand with him insomuch as we stand with one of The Bible's more noble characters. But that doesn't negate the nagging tidbit we already know: Noah's success in boarding and sealing the ark also means the end of mankind, as he intends for he and his family to die as the last humans ever to walk this land. It's a jarring transition in both character and tone to the final act of the movie and one I don't feel it completely earns, as Noah's wife and family learn of his ulterior motives and he transitions again from action hero to a figure not unlike Jack Torrance patrolling the Overlook Hotel with an ax, with Crowe tapping into some genuine menace.
Still, in the pantheon of Aronofsky leads, Noah acquits himself rather comfortably. From Sara Goldfarb, struggling to fit into her red dress, to Nina Sayers, starring as the Swan Queen at all costs, we meet Aronofsky's heroes at the point in their lives when their desperation outpaces their ability and their dreams are something to be met come hell or high water.
Noah by way of Fitzcarraldo.
That's actually a rather apt way to describe this movie, which tells an epic story through a personal filter. No doubt this is an epic. It has the battle scenes to prove it. But Arronofky isn't playing in the world of Peter Jackson's vast helicopter swoops. When he busts out a wide shot, it isn't one of sweeping beauty, but one of empty, desolate hell. Conversely, he films the major action sequences in the middle of the movie largely in medium and tight shots, rarely allowing us the luxury of cinematic fun, until the movie finally disappears entirely in the ark and it feels like the world tightening in on itself.
All appropriate to the end of "Noah," where our characters have won their victory, but it's of the hard-earned type, where they're left to wonder if it was even all worth it. If there's one undisputed positive I can say about "Noah," it's that it truly makes you experience the abject horror of this biblical story, what it's like to see firsthand the near extermination of our entire planet and be left with the worst case ever of survivor's guilt, wondering how this could indeed be an act of mercy.
So where does that leave Aronofsky's intimate epic, his tale of two tones (and then a few tones more)? Difficult to say, and a nagging suspicion lingers that perhaps this still isn't the man's final cut, that one day we'll see a two or three disc DVD definitive edition that whittles his outpouring of imagination down to a finely toned stream. And there really are staggering moments of imagination in this movie, including a magnificent standalone sequence on the ark that could fit smoothly in an episode of "Cosmos," where Noah tells the story of Creation to his children, clearly marking each of the six days not as a 24 hour period, but as an indefinable era. And if the power of movies are their journey to places we've never been, we've truly never experienced anything like the surrealist horror that is Aronofsky's Bible.
In the end, imagination wins. Ambition wins. In fusing a parable of mercy being something you choose to grant (as opposed to simply received) with a Mad Max-style epic with a dark, stark drama of a father possibly going mad, Aronofsky doesn't quite succeed. But the mere fact he even attempted is something remarkable.