(Photo : Paramount Pictures)
Adapting the Bible to any artistic medium always presents an issue. The simple act of interpreting a text that means a great deal to millions and then releasing the adaptation for public consumption will undoubtedly split opinions. Of course, this is the case whenever you're adapting someone else's work to film, but the public outcry is nowhere near as high as it is when the Bible is the work in question. Darren Aronofsky, always a bold visionary, has done precisely this with the story of Noah's Ark from the book of Genesis in the Bible. While Aronofsky's "Noah" will certainly draw the ire of some, it is a strong work when take at its own word.
As the film starts, a number of title cards appear as well as corresponding images that relate the creation of the world, the seduction of Eve by the serpent, and the murder of Abel by Cain. The story then quickly cuts to a young Noah and his father, the last two remaining descendants of Seth. Noah's father is killed by warlord Tubal-Cain and he's forced to flee. The film then jumps ahead to showcase Noah with his two sons Shem and Ham. The film's eponymous character has his famous dream in which he sees the world drowning underwater and also sees the mountain where his grandfather Methuselah lives. He sets out to seek his grandfather and eventually learns that he must build the arc to save the animals of the world from utter destruction. As Noah draws more and more animals to his arc, he is also faced with warding off an army of humans led by Tubal-Cain who also want to board the ship and survive the deluge.
The film works as an examination of human tragedy as well as a conversation piece about the relationships between man and God (or the creator as he is called in this film). Noah believes in God's word so devoutly that he causes his own downfall later in the film. He is so sure that he understands the truth of God's signs that he clouds his own judgment and slowly destroys his own humanity. On the other hand, Tubal-Cain does not comprehend God despite his belief in him. He is barbaric and monstrous, but believes that God has created him in his own image and his actions are an extension of God's. When Noah tells him of the creator's plan for destruction, he questions God's intentions. In a well-observed moment, the warlord attempts to converse with the deity and asks him repeatedly why he will not respond; this mirrors Noah's own plights in his moments of great despair and highlights humanity's own struggle with faith when faced with no discernible communication from God. Noah puts his full faith in God, but Tubal-Cain feels that the creator's own silence motivates humanity's own freedom to do as he pleases, even if those actions are deplorable.
The film also plays with the story of Noah's son Ham. The Bible is never completely clear about why Ham is cursed by his own father. Aronofsky and fellow writer Ari Handel take advantage of this ambiguity and reinterpret Ham's tragedy, which in many ways lies at the center of the film; Ham is a reincarnation of Cain in this film. He spies on his brother Shem engaging in intimate moments with their adopted sister Ila and repeatedly tells his father that he wants his own woman to help him procreate. He is a teen not only attempting to deal with his new-found sexual desires, but also attempting to seek out his own identity; identity in this film is defined by procreation and family and Ham seems unlikely to find any of that based on his situation. Early on he runs into Tubal-Cain and is tempted to join him. But Ham, still under his father's command returns to the arc. However, upon realizing that his hopes of a wife may never come to fruition, he runs off in search of one. His journey eventually leads him down a rather dark and traumatic path; one that he can never quite overcome.
The remaining characters are also given tremendous depth, particularly those of Ila and Noah's wife Naameh. Ila struggles with her infertility, which was caused by an injury in her childhood; this leads her into an existential crisis as she prepares for the end of the world. She confronts Noah with her frustration and questions whether she deserves to live on considering her inability to help perpetuate humanity. Naameh is Noah's partner throughout the early stages of the film, but as he erodes emotionally, she becomes a more active character. After being his symbol of constancy, she becomes the symbol of his own destruction as her turning against him emphasizes his loss of family and by extension identity.
As has become the norm with all of Aronofsky's films, the acting is spot on. Russell Crowe dominates the film as Noah. He is a fearless warrior early on, particularly in an action sequence in which he takes down three men. But as the narrative progresses, the man slowly falls apart emotionally. At certain points, his heroic qualities turn more dangerous and demonic. But Crowe manages to sustain the internal drama of the character, particularly in the film's climactic scene and the subsequent despair that he feels in its coda. His plea to God at a moment of crisis is breathtaking in its subtlety. Despite his cries that he will do God's bidding, Crowe expresses the character's regret and shame over his duty with his searching eyes.
Jennifer Connelly's British accent is a bit inconsistent, but she manages to hit the emotional peaks throughout. In a rather quiet moment she listens as Noah sings to the young Ila to help her fall asleep. The camera cuts in close to Connelly's profile and despite the darkness, it manages to capture a tear and serene melancholia in her eye. In a latter scene she confronts Noah over an action he is determined to take. Connelly lets her pain completely take over to the point that she chokes up on a few words; the mistakes add to the visceral nature of her performance and elevate the conflict.
Logan Lerman is a fine Ham, his innocent gaze becomes increasingly hardened as the film develops. However, he never loses that sense of seeming innocence throughout the entire running time, accentuating his eventual downfall. Emma Watson is wonderful as Ila; the "Harry Potter" star has proven that she can hold her own outside of Hogwarts and this film supports that further. Watson is extremely sensitive in attempting to grasp her existential crisis in the early parts of the work and has a breathtaking moment with Crowe's Noah when she asks him to find another wife for Shem. Later on when she is faced with an even greater conflict, Watson breaks hearts with her tremendous outburst of emotion. Ray Winstone is formidable as Tubal-Cain and manages to imbue the villain with some humanity though his performance is filled with aggressive sneering and shouting; screenwriters may be to blame for making Tubal-Cain play more like a stereotypical villain, despite some hints of complexity. Anthony Hopkins is charimatic and mystical as Methuselah and steals every scene he is in.
Aronofsky manages to imbue "Noah" with some memorable stylistic cues. His repetitive montage of the three images associated with the snake, forbidden fruit and Cain's murder of Abel with the same sounds again and again is extremely effective in its rapidity and as a constant reminder of the burden that Noah carries. Later in the film, when Noah relates the opening chapter of Genesis and the creation of the world, Aronofsky develops these images further and gives them their completion so we can see them in their full elaboration. His decision to show Cain's murderous act from a number of perspectives with different weapons and other people in silhouette is particularly powerful in driving home Noah's idea of humanity as inherently sinful. The choice to use time lapses throughout also makes for an interesting visual perspective on the story; it adds a dynamism that is sorely lacking in most blockbuster productions. The same goes for the quick stop-motion montages that showcase the evolution of the world and the growth of a river that will lead the animals to the ark; these moments are initially jarring because of their context—no one expects this artful style in a big-budget production—but they prove to be fascinating in their full execution.
Despite all of these positives, the film is far from perfect. CGI filmmaking is not Aronofsky's strength and it shows. Some of the animals, particularly in the beginning, look fake and even some of the wide angles of the arc look a bit suspect. The biggest weakness of the film is its inability to come to terms with its tone for most of the first half. The angels are said to turn into rock-like creatures called Guardians for siding with Adam and betraying the Creator. This fantasy element is a bit distracting and makes the viewer question the world drastically. Is this supposed to be a fantasy film, or is there an attempt at creating something more naturalistic despite the biblical proportions? This confusion is further emphasized by the first half's climactic battle between the Guardians and Tubal-Cain's army; this scene is extremely reminiscent of the rock creatures from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" or even one of the final battles in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." The fantasy element becomes even more problematic when it completely disappears in the latter half of the film in favor of more probing and psychological conflicts. This shift in the world almost makes one wonder why the fantasy element had to exist in the first place.
The musical score by Clint Mansell is also nothing to marvel at. It hits all of the Hollywood blockbuster notes with its roaring orchestra and excessive romanticism. Even in some scenes that could do without it, the score remains rather intrusive; one such example would be a major confrontation between Noah and Naameh late in the film. The intensity of that moment would have been riveting without the melodic music.
Despite these shortcomings, Aronofsky's "Noah" dares to be bold with the source material and manages to create an intricate and psychologically piercing thriller that also touches upon existential issues relating humanity's interactions with God. The film's major fault may be that it strives to be a blockbuster when it really never needs to be. But even then, "Noah" sets a higher standard for what large Hollywood productions can achieve and should strive for.