Friday, March 28, 2014

Noah



NOAH: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, directed by Darren Aronofsky (137 min.)

I admire many things about the work of Darren Aronofsky, but what I love the most is his ambition, and the passion in each and every moment in all of his films.  You can feel his heart and soul being poured into his pictures, regardless of the scope of his story.  And now, after the success of Black Swan, Aronofsky was given $130 million, an all-star cast, and The Old Testament in order to make his first epic.  Noah is a wildly ambitious, inventive take on a biblical legend, and a story that will certainly ruffle the feathers of a few purists along the way.  But Aronofsky clearly set out to challenge his audience, and challenge he does.  This is a robust film, one deep with ideas, powerful in imagery, and moving in performances.

Everyone knows the story of Noah, the man whom God sought out to build an ark and safe all species of life on Earth before he wiped out the wicked.  But this is not your father's Noah.  This version, played by Russell Crowe in some of his best work in over a decade, is an environmentalist at heart who uses the land only as he needs to.  This version of the planet is nearing armageddon as it has been overrun by the wicked descendants of Cain, the first murderer, armies of rapers and pillagers who devour meat because they think it gives them strength.  In their minds, "The Creator" as he is called in the film, has turned his back on man.  Noah lives away from the evil hoards with his family, his dutiful wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and his three sons.  His family also takes in an orphan girl named Ila, who as an adult is played wonderfully by Emma Watson.

The Creator reaches out to Noah in a number of ways early on, most notably in some hallucinatory dreams where Noah is shown the destruction of the world.  He seeks out advice from his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who assumes fire with cover the planet.  "Not fire," Noah informs him.  "This is death by water."  He figures out his mission: build an ark for The Creator's animals and Noah's family, and survive the annihilation.  This is the basic story as told through time, but what is not covered on a regular basis is the impending hoard of wicked men, led by Tubalcain (Ray Winstone),  direct defendant of Cain himself.  What is also left out of most retellings are The Watchers, fallen angels who have been encased in gangly rock and lava bodies for eternity.  These Watchers, with the gravelly voices of Nick note and Frank Langella, protect Noah on his quest and help him construct the ark.

The ark was actually built in New York State, and is an impressive set piece.  The animals traveling toward the ark in two-by-two formation is some effective CGI, and the flood itself is more furious than the stories may have ever described before.  What I found so fascinating about Noah is the fact that the ark is built, the flood occurs, and the family is set adrift merely an hour into the film.  What happens next in the narrative is an unexpected dose of psychological turmoil within Noah, and a family drama unfolding with wonderful tension and emotion.  Noah becomes conflicted about what The Creator has told him, whether or not he and his family are part of the plan moving forward, and his decision on this matter upends the passengers.  Connelly as the hard-working supportive wife, has a scene where she confronts Noah and his decision that is among the most intensely powerful moments in her career.  And Watson digs deep in her role as Ila, finding new levels as an actress.  The three central characters are fantastic, and Winstone the perfect antagonist.

One of my main concerns going into Noah was the fear that a big studio and a big budget would neuter Darren Aronofsky.  More meddling compromises auteurs like Aronofsky who consistently challenge their audience.  Fortunately, the picture is not compromised in that way, never homogenized, and I cannot imagine it pleasing Christians across the board.  What keeps the sharp Aronofsky "feel" of the picture is the fact he was able to team up with two very important people who have collaborated with him throughout his career: cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who does masterful work once again, and composer Clint Mansel, who strikes all the right chords of love, despair, and action in a score much broader than anything he has done.  This team, sharpened by Aronofsky's desire to tell his own biblical tale, keeps Noah moving and active just as much in ideas as it does in action.

There are so many timeless ideas, and criticisms on modern culture.  Man is to blame for the destruction of the world in the film, Noah is a staunch environmentalist and vegan, certain aspects of modern culture that fit seamlessly into a story older than time.  Is the film itself something great?  I don't quite know.  It's hard to say here on opening day.  What I do know is it is a busy film that somehow never feels crammed full or rushed, a picture that is always moving forward while taking time to breathe.  Noah is a picture that will take time to properly judge.  That doesn't mean it will weaken over the years, that is merely speculation as to how brilliant it may seem a decade down the road.

B+