Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” which stars Russell Crowe as the titular ark-builder, is nothing if not ambitious. It’s a film whose scope is matched by its fidgety experimentalism. It’s a movie that pretends to be a biblical epic in the style of something like “The Ten Commandments,” but features a sequence where the creation myth is reiterated while “Tree of Life”-style footage of the big bang and evolution zip by on screen, where Russell Crowe plays a (pre) historic hero who builds his wooden ship with the help of giant rock monsters that move with the herky-jerkiness of an old Ray Harryhausen stop motion marvel.
But for all the things that “Noah” attempts (and, trust me, it attempts a lot), there’s also something vaguely familiar about the entire messy enterprise. And it’s true – Aronofsky and his co-screenwriter Ari Handel have already wrestled with notions of immortality and the sensation of being chosen by a higher power (not to mention the seemingly limitless potential of love and, you know, the Genesis chapter of the bible), in their little-seen 2006 sci-fi oddity “The Fountain.”
In “The Fountain,” Hugh Jackman plays a man through the ages: first as a conquistador in Spain searching for the Fountain of Youth, then as a brilliant young neuroscientist looking for a cure for cancer in modern day New York, and then as a space traveler intersecting with a distant, exploding star in the deep future. And while, on a superficial level, the two might not have much in common, they are deeply, inexorably linked. “The Fountain” has biblical underpinnings (it opens with a phrase from Genesis 3:24) and “Noah” often has deeply cosmic concerns. And at the heart of both movies are men who are single-mindedly obsessed, to the point that their monomania has the chance to reroute human history. For Aronofsky, obsession isn’t a neurotic character flaw; it’s a vital trait that could end up saving humanity.
Early in “Noah,” Crowe scrapes moss off of a rock. Aronofsky lovingly photographs the moss – a tiny, microcosmic version of the great forest that will sprout up so that he and his family (and those rock monsters) can build the ark. Noah and his family are vegans, and so this fungal feast is what they survive on – not the animals that are mercilessly hunted down by “men.” Arnofsky loves moss. In “The Fountain,” a similarly early scene is devoted to Jackman’s Tom (in space man mode) scraping moss and bark off of an ancient tree. He too seems to be consuming the moss, and using the bark as part of his rudimentary, one-man tattoo parlor. One of the designs that he inscribes on his flesh is the Tree of Life, a central figure to both “The Fountain” and “Noah” (where very literal flashbacks to Adam and Eve and sprinkled throughout). For Aronofsky, moss means much more.
2. The White Flower
One of the first omens that a storm will come and wash away the earth is a single raindrop that sprouts a fully formed white flower. Noah witnesses the water droplet fall, and the flower emerge from the earth. This is it: the beginning of the end. Earth will be washed away; replaced by something altogether better and more wholesome. For a movie the size of “Noah,” the effect, too, of the flower is startling and ingenious (and seemingly accomplished through practical effects). The white flower is death… but also life. It is also, in the dialogue between the movies, the key to Noah’s immortality. That white flower signifies that he will build the ark and that his story will be told and retold, forever and ever. There is a nearly identical white flower in “The Fountain.” When Jackman, as the conquistador, discovers the Fountain of Youth in Latin America, he comes upon the tree with a hunger and ferocity. Not only will this deliver Spain from bondage, but it will also win the heart of his queen. When he plunges his dagger into the tree, it expels a milky sap that he promptly gulps down. At first the conquistador feels great; he’s cheated death, after all, and gained his precious immortality. But then he starts to feel ill and the he starts sprouting white flowers just like the one in “Noah.” Pretty soon he is transformed, entirely, into a bush full of these white flowers. Instead of immortality, the conquistador granted a quick, gorgeously realized death. (And like the “Noah” gag, it was accomplished mostly through uncanny practical effects.) The flowers look so similar that it couldn’t just be a coincidence. Aronofsky has the two films talking to each other, even if only a handful of people are listening.
3. The Score
Clint Mansell composed the scores for both “Noah” and “The Fountain,” and they share (with Noah and Jackman’s conquistador/scientist/spaceman) a single-minded heartiness that propels both films forward. Both scores are heavily rhythmic and fill in any blank space of the movie’s canvas (the “Noah” score album clocks in at nearly an hour and a half of music – that’s insane); they are as important a piece of the film as the actors or the visuals or the giant rock monsters. They pulse and drive and fuel the movie and act to reveal, through subtle orchestral downturns, the emotionality and sensitivity of the main characters. The bigness of “Noah,” the epic scope and complicated visual effects and blockbuster-style grandeur, should have required a more mainstream, traditional, easily digestible score. But instead “Noah’s” score is filled with an even more industrial pulse than “The Fountain;” it’s overstuffed with apocalyptic anger.
4. The Raindrop Shot
Now here’s where the parallels between “Noah” and “The Fountain” become too obvious to overlook, on both a formal and thematic/metaphoric level. In “The Fountain,” again during the conquistador section (this isn’t surprising given it’s the most biblically-charged section of the movie), Jackman is on the hunt for the Fountain of Youth in South America. He looks up, as a single raindrop falls from the heavens. Aronofsky, an undervalued visual fetishist, zooms with the raindrops towards the conquistador, taking what would be considered in film classes and comparative literature courses, a “god’s eye view.” For the conquistador, it means that they are close – the Fountain is upon them. In “Noah,” after the ark is nearly complete and all of the animals are snuggled up inside, a clasp of thunder rockets through the heavens and Noah looks up, skyward, as a single drop of rain descends. It’s literally the same shot, with Aronofsky re-purposing the dynamic cinematic skydive. Both shots are filled with ominous importance. For Noah, of course, it means that the flood is about to begin. A single drop of rain signals to both men that they are about to meet their respective destinies. And it’s a testament to Aronofsky’s confidence as a filmmaker that he came up with a shot so cool he decided to use it, verbatim, twice, in movies of wildly different scales and dispositions.
5. Repetitious Editing And Comic Book Framing
“The Fountain” is almost exclusively built around repetitious editing tics, with images repeating and overlaying in each section/timeline to creative an unforgettable visual tapestry that is also easy to follow. (The neuroscientist’s wedding ring is echoed in the bubble-like spaceship and the hanging lanterns in the Queen’s throne room, etc.) In “Noah,” a similar set of images are repeated, time and again, to signify that the flood really is coming and that Noah is righteous in his zealotry. They are images of the literal beginning of human kind – Eve plucking the forbidden fruit from the tree, Cain killing Abel, and the snake slithering through paradise’s tall grass. In a way, these images link two separate universes as well (the earthly and the celestial) with Noah acting as the conduit between the two. And again, it’s telling that Aronofsky, with considerably more resources and money, would choose to mimic something he already accomplished, on a much leaner scale, with “The Fountain.” Another thing that he holds over from “The Fountain” are shots of characters completely silhouetted, to the point that it looks like something out of a comic book (Dave Gibbons’ illustrations from Alan Moore’s seminal “Watchmen” spring to mind). It’s another instance when technical formality is bursting with metaphoric depth. In “The Fountain,” when Jackman’s spaceman is doing yoga, he is a black void against a starry sky; in “Noah,” various characters are seen on the horizon, pitch-blackness against setting or rising sons. They seem to suggest the same thing: that humans are a vessel, blank and easily pliable, in stark contrast to the infinite vastness of the universe. To Aronofsky, humans are interesting, but only when they’re pushed up against the mightiness of the cosmos.