The studio system once accommodated filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky. It’s hard to remember how many genres the Hollywood majors used to churn out, supported by myriad writers, executives, producers, directors and craftspeople who knew how to make romances, melodramas, slapstick comedies, musicals, psychological thrillers, moody film noirs, biopics, sword-and-sandal epics, historical adventures, swashbucklers, westerns, sports dramas, monster films, and ripped-from-headlines contemporary dramas. Most were made on reasonable production and marketing budgets.
Now the studios have boxed themselves into focusing on the one thing they think will lure audiences into theaters: big-budget event movies reliant on CG animation, not just pitched to mainstream moviegoers in North America, but all over the world. And so I find myself in theaters wishing yet again that I could see the smart indie version of a bloated popcorn picture. Except on those rare occasions when the studios do it right–usually the handful of studio-backed movies directed by A-list filmmakers like “Les Miserables,” “Gravity” or “Argo” that wind up in the Oscar race at the end of the year.
Take Aronofsky’s $130-million “Noah,” which opens on Friday. I discovered the filmmaker at Sundance with the brainy 1998 black-and-white mathematics drama “Pi,” and remember being struck at our first meeting by how ambitious he was. This brashly confident Brooklyn-born Harvard and AFI grad had no intention of staying in the low-budget indie realm. He wanted it all. And so he tried to move from surreal indie drug drama “Requiem for a Dream” in 2000 (which first showed what Jared Leto could do) to trying to cast Brad Pitt in his wildly fantastic three-period drama “The Fountain” at Warner Bros., which showed why he was not cut out for studio filmmaking. Take Aronofsky too far out of the real world and he loses his bearings. Intensify, push the boundaries of what’s possible in the here and now, yes. Go back in time or invent a world from scratch, even if the Bible provides some clues? Not good. (Check out Tad Friend’s excellent long profile in The New Yorker, which shows how access can inform a story.)
The problem the studios confront when they chase the big-budget scenario with indie-minded filmmakers like Aronofsky is how to reach a wide audience without losing the auteur’s signature voice. Finding that place where a director can be what The New Yorker’s Friend calls a “mainstream visionary” is tricky. He cites David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino as examples. I would argue that Fincher is a director-for-hire comfortable working inside the studio playpen, as are writer-directors Ben Affleck and George Clooney–who like to work with limited budgets to keep their freedom. But writer-directors P.T. Anderson, Tarantino, Woody Allen, Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers are like Aronofsky–defiantly indie auteurs who do not thrive inside the studio system. They are financed outside of it or by partnering with studio subsidiaries Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Features or The Weinstein Co. None of these filmmakers has ever been remotely mainstream. Neither has Tarantino, although he delivers genre entertainments that delight a wide smart audience all over the world.
Sure, Aronofsky brilliantly deployed visual effects in the service of his indie-financed drama “Black Swan,” released by Searchlight in 2010, which won Natalie Portman the Best Actress Oscar and grossed $330 million worldwide. But he placed that movie in a reality-based believable New York ballet world–even as his intense ballerina (Portman) crossed over to the mentally disturbed side and experienced things that were not real.
But it’s a far cry from “Black Swan”‘s CGI tweaks to bringing a primeval Old Testament myth to life with a $130-million budget including ILM VFX that dwarf the entire cost of the ballet thriller. In “Noah” guardian-angels-turned-six-armed-rock-giants called “The Watchers” are so fictional that Paramount did not include them in marketing materials. The 300-cubit long, three-story ark is packed with 1200 pairs of CG animals who are conveniently put to sleep via magical incense. The murky brown movie gets off to a lunky start with an animated preamble that tries to explain the rules of this mystical place in the space-time continuum that has a recurring animated apple, creeping serpent and Adam & Eve, magic explosives, glowing snake skins, bad sons of Cain and good sons of Seth, etc. Was Noah a cave man? An early Israelite? It’s gibberish.
What Aronofsky does know how to do is to wrangle high-octane movie actors into submission–in this case, Russell Crowe, who is in his element as a grizzled and tortured hero. “He’s going to destroy the world,” he after receiving a portentous vision from The Creator. “It cannot be averted… Death by water. A great flood is coming. We will build a vessel to survive the storm. We will build an ark.” And when the flood comes: “It begins.”
Crowe earns his salary and holds the screen as a powerful man on a mission–at least Noah interprets what he thinks The Creator is trying to tell him, right or wrong. He decides that he’s supposed to save the animals and allow humankind to die out–even if it means killing his first grandchild. This adds considerable domestic tension to the ark family dynamic.
Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah brings welcome humor–which is hard to come by in an Aronofsky picture. Brawny Brit Ray Winstone also does yeoman service as a son of Cain trying to influence Noah’s son Ham –“if you are a man, you can kill.” He literally hacks his way into the ark–which isn’t in the Old Testament either.
Luckily, in the end Paramount and financing partner Regency allowed Aronofsky to hang onto his cut of this whacked-out Biblical epic, complete with environmental message, which is a helluva lot more entertaining than their vanilla-Christian version would have been. And tested better. In our last “Black Swan” interview, Aronofsky told me: “you gotta give people something they’re not going to forget.” Even with this misguided quest to prove himself as a would-be Spielberg, Aronofsky can’t help but remain true to himself, and upholds his creative mantra: “never bore an audience.”