Only a few pages long and with the barest of details, the Genesis tale of Noah’s Ark is one the original peaks of brevity. A succinct story of an apocalypse and its aftermath, one can easily see why the themes of death and rebirth attracted Darren Aronofsky to a film adaptation. But “Noah” is no mere second attempt at “The Fountain.” It is instead a grounded journey outwards on ideas of regret, mercy, and revenge, and at 139 minutes the film makes every attempt, coherent or not, to thoroughly address each one.
Living in tattered huts and fending off the vicious Wild Men (descended from Adam and Eve and turned wicked), Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family appear close neighbors to the barren wastelands of Cormac McCarthy in one scene, and the sprawling skies of “Walkabout” the next. They scavenge, living in constant fear of their surroundings—at least until Noah receives a nighttime sign from God warning of an Earth-wide flood and answers the call. Of course, the family is unusually scrubbed-up and clean for such a deprived state of being, but such is the odd struggle Aronofsky faces with his film. At every turn, the plot hinges on coincidence and the very definition of divine intervention; the “Black Swan” director then aims to carve a path dark and naturalistic enough while still retaining a mythical glow.
This approach serves to throw off the film in key moments. When Crowe—finely-tuned for Aronofsky as the pressure of his mission starts to mount—completes a moody scene with a bewildered look upwards as a flute flourish plays, it betrays the tone. Similarly so with Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah, an utterly useless character included only to dole out a plot twist, sleep and pick berries (also possibly the only joke in the film). However, for a good stretch the trio of Crowe, Jennifer Connelly as Noah’s wife Naameh, and Emma Watson as the orphan Ila steady the tonal balance terrifically.
Serene but sanded away to a nervous edge, Connelly conveys Naameh’s hesitant trust toward her husband with a steady hand. Concerned with Noah’s growing single-minded goal, her character slowly shifts into the role of protector for Ila and her sons Shem (a shockingly bland Douglas Booth) and Ham (Logan Lerman, looking lost). With Watson, the two women in fact assume the emotional core of the film—a challenge that both actresses easily match. Where Crowe’s performance fails, however, luckily Aronofsky’s trademark visual style fills in: since the main storyline focuses on Noah’s changing perspective to the world, the camera (executed with skill by DP Matthew Libatique) pins to the actor’s lumbering back as he witnesses the various horrors on earth.
Provided with studio support and a team of talented artists behind him (including production designer Mark Friedberg who worked on “Synecdoche, New York”), Aronofsky decidedly does not skimp on the exact nature of those horrors. Mens wickedness is glimpsed through a series of sequences—some real, some imagined—as Noah leaves the site of the Ark to the territory beyond: a bloody skirmish between starved mobs for a live animal’s meat, wanton murder, the savage trampling of a young girl as the flood nears. Later, after the flood has begun, what sounds like a sharp wind inside the Ark turns out to be the screams outside of drowning men and women; the next image—of a massive boulder barely above water and covered with people— ranks among Aronofsky’s most affecting feats.
After the flood passes though, and the film settles down into the claustrophobia of the Ark, Aronofsky reveals how quickly he can betray his lead characters. A quick narrative turn flips the character of Noah into such a laughable and left-field form that any tension or fear for him or his family quickly evaporates. Even as two family members approach their potential deaths, one is left wondering how we arrived at this melodramatic point only ten minutes before. And Clint Mansell’s deafening score doesn’t help: throughout, the usually reliable composer filters what sounds like unused score fragments from “The Fountain” and jacks it up to a deafening volume. In the latter half, his overbearing orchestral stabs only worsen the content.
As it happens though, the most impressive aspects of “Noah” lie in its two major deviations from the source material, and both, tellingly, are explored during the first two-thirds of the film. “Walkers”—fallen angels transformed into golem beings—are introduced early on, first as enemies then allies of Noah in building the Ark. Their creaky, almost stop-motion movements and Treebeard-esque speech dodge explanation; they exist simply because they do, and the untold fantasy dynamic works wonderfully. Their effect also helps to glide over the more contentious points of the Ark tale—its size and construction, the two-by-two animal storage of every species—but unfortunately they can’t mask the extremely poor CGI work on the wildlife, some of the worst I’ve glimpsed in a film this year.
Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), the forger of weapons and a descendent of Cain, is the other surprisingly powerful addition to the tale. Rather than let nature remain the sole obstacle in Noah’s path, Aronofsky (and co-writer Ari Handel) incorporate Winstone as an villainous, abandoned believer in God—one whose rage toward Noah comes from pure jealousy and self-hatred. It’s a seething, well-rendered performance, brought to life by some very smart choices by Aronofsky, including a one-take shot that follows Winstone whispering pitifully to God in his tent, and then out in the pouring rain to rally his scorned troops against Noah.
When focused on the natural world and the internal thoughts of its characters, “Noah” positively crackles with the energy of a filmmaker inspired by a new perspective on classic material. As Noah recalls the beginning of existence to his children, the screen goes dark. Then, Aronofsky charts the shifting and evolving environments of Earth through gorgeous time-lapse photography across continents and creatures, different in approach to “Tree of Life” but just as stunning; another standout sequence occurs as the flood first hits the Ark in four gargantuan waves—a perfect blend of tension, character, and visual mastery on Aronofsky’s part. But the latter half of the film, turgid and hamfisted throughout, cripples the film so severely that it makes one thankful for the added elements to Noah’s story. They may not fall in line with the source material, but they deliver a fine case for creative license when such a confused, uninvolving finish awaits. [C+]