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Thursday, April 10, 2014 12:01 am

Conflicted Noah visually spectacular, narratively muddled

 

Hardly worrying about catering to the critical eye of theologians or the concerns of the bean counters at Paramount Pictures, director Darren Aronofsky has succeeded in creating a singular vision with Noah to the tune of $125 million. A film that created a stir from the moment it was announced, this is a project that marches to the beat of its own drum, controversy be damned. Whether this ends up being regarded as a fool’s folly or a groundbreaking piece of religious-based filmmaking remains to be seen, however there’s no question that Noah is a radical reimagining of the biblical disaster story that presents its hero as a conflicted environmentalist who succeeds in carrying out the mission God sets out before him at the cost of his family and sanity. The humanistic approach is a refreshing take that allows a route to relating to the character. That Aronosky also borrows elements from the Transformers films is another matter all together. (More on that later.)

After being assaulted by a jarring and awkward depiction of the story of Adam and Eve and the death of Abel at the hands of his brother Cain, we meet Noah (Russell Crowe) and see that he’s a very down-to-earth man who has great respect for the land and its bounty. However, there are fewer and fewer tracts of open, healthy soil left to tend as his world has become something of a barren landscape, dead and seemingly consisting most of volcanic rock and ash. This troubles him, but what bothers him even more is a vision that comes to him in his sleep of the Earth consumed by water. Unsure of what it means, Noah and his family set out to see his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, giving the film’s most realistic and humorous performance) and seek guidance. They’re accompanied by giant rock creatures, the Watchers, who agree to protect them in the hopes that this act will redeem them in the eyes of the Creator as they were once angels but were cast down to earth where they were changed into the awkward, hideous creatures they’ve become.

Once Noah determines what his purpose is, much of what follows adheres to the traditional telling of this tale, albeit with a few significant changes. He and his family, including his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), his sons Shem and Ham (Douglas Booth and Logan Lerman), and their adopted daughter, Ila (Emma Watson), set to building the ark that will shelter them and two of each of God’s creatures from the coming apocalypse. It is a massive undertaking but with the Watchers lending their big, bulky hands to the job, it goes quicker than expected. Bad enough that Noah has this huge job on his hands but he also has to contend with Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), descendent of the original Cain and leader of a tribe of mostly vicious nomads who rape and pillage the earth for their own needs. That they begin to eye the ark covetously as storm clouds gather is a burden Noah doesn’t need.

Without question, this is a visually spectacular film that, at times, takes your breath away what with the sheer scope of Aronofsky’s vision. The ark and its interior is meticulously detailed and becomes a garden of visual delights once the animals find their resting places and prepare for the worst. The storm itself is a marvel that’s rendered in such a way that you can feel God’s wrath, while a shot in which the camera pulls up to the heavens to show us Earth engulfed in hurricanes and storms is breathtaking. But the moment that sent a shiver up my spine was when all of the four-legged beasts emerged from the surrounding forest to gain admittance to the ark. I knew what I was seeing was a complex bit of computer trickery, but watching polar bears, elephants, horses, camels and so many others striding as one toward salvation, I couldn’t help but be moved, as well reminded of the potential power of computer generated effects.

To be sure, the film plays fast and loose with the traditional tale found in the Bible and whether you consider this blasphemy or an accepted interpretation of the tale is a matter of personal taste and belief. I have no problem with Aronofsky’s approach of making this a cautionary tale in regards to the environment but some of his other choices undercut his best intentions. The Watchers seem to have stumbled in from a bad piece of 1950s science fiction. They’re rendered in a purposely awkward way that was meant to underscore their fall from grace but they instead prove to be nothing more than a constant distraction. Meanwhile, a key conflict between Noah and Ham is never explained or resolved in the way it should be, while having the title character go psychotic in the final act and threaten the lives of his family seems to be a desperate attempt to pad the film’s running time, as if it needs it.

More than anything, Aronofsky’s Noah comes off as an intriguing, ambitious, flawed bit of movie magic that at the very least has the nerve to sail by its own compass, daring to alienate a core audience that already has one foot out the door. Say what you will about the film, but it’s never boring. You sit on the edge of your seat wondering if the next scene will be an inspired sight or a staggering blunder.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.


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