Darren Aronofsky has always felt a bit like America’s Lars von Trier — a brilliant misanthropic visionary, a storyteller whose wry approach often hits closer to home than we’d like. Aronofsky is more of a romantic than von Trier, but the emotional depths to which both men often insist on traveling feel kindred. And the results tend to share a gloom that distinguishes them from their peers. While Noah begins as an immense action epic, it ends in much more familiar territory for Aronofsky: Tense, probing character drama dealing with the lengths to which an obsessive person will go to do something they believe in.
The story of Noah is known by everyone: In a world of violent and corrupted men, Noah (Russell Crowe) is peaceful and God-fearing, and so is chosen for one of those ludicrous tasks the God of the Old Testament eagerly dished out. He must build an ark large enough to house two of all the world’s animals, to keep them safe from the cleansing flood God plans to unleash on his corrupted creations. In Aronofsky’s version of the story, Noah’s wife (Jennifer Connelly) and children (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, Leo McHugh Carroll and Emma Watson) find themselves begrudging confederates in the plan, and when their own desires put them at odds with Noah, divine inspiration turns him from a gentle patriarch to a crazed zealot.
There’s a lot to see in Noah. Certainly Aronofsky is a visual director, and while his patented quick-cut sequence is predictably present, the film offers plenty of visuals worth the price of admission. Around the midway point, Noah tells his family the story of creation, and Aronofsky reveals where he spent some of his Hollywood money. We watch the creation of the universe unfold (over Crowe’s rumbling narration) in a balletic, kinetic time-lapse. Planets form and complex life grows from single-cell organisms, and the blend of Old Testament language (“on the third day…”) and new science (big bang, evolution) create a cosmically epic progression of time that cleanly breaks up the film’s first and second half.
Which is also where the trouble begins.
Noah’s first 60 or so minutes are devoted earnestly to the dynamics and action of building a life-saving ark, with a host of visual effects eager to impress. It’s certainly a new kind of Darren Aronofsky, and he doesn’t always have his feet entirely underneath him, but there are so many ideas present that even when he seems a bit adrift, the film remains unavoidably compelling. Unfortunately, once the family has arrived on the ark, and the waters are rising, Noah goes from active to idle, from a scrupulously CGI’d menagerie and Old Hollywood action to interminable character drama. It follows the director’s oeuvre that this film would end up about a man’s lowest point, but it also feels like a cop out, like Aronofsky found himself knee deep in uncharted territory and retreated to what he knows. Which doesn’t in and of itself earn reproach, but after creating so much action and spectacle, it’s hard not to feel disappointed with the literal end result.
And so, a bit shockingly, Noah ends up Darren Aronofsky’s worst film to date. Which isn’t to say it’s bad; the tonal inconsistencies from one half to the next leave it hopelessly imbalanced, which is not a good look for Aronofsky, but he remains the director who made Requiem and The Fountain and Black Swan. This is still a film with plenty to chew on, and a foray into biblical fiction on this scale, regardless of its success, remains objectively compelling. If anything, Aronofsky just needs to get back to telling original stories. Noah’s tale brings a host of expectations with it, and the director seems to be struggling to work with and around them. If there’s a comfort found in telling stories for the first time, he’d be better off returning to it next time around. For a director so invested in the small things, he may have simply bitten off more than he could chew.
poster design by Dan B. Illustrations