There’s nothing particularly awe-inspiring about Darren Aronofsky’s Bible-inspired epic Noah, says MacDara Conroy
When my better half found out Darren Aronofsky’s Noah would star Russell Crowe as the titular Ark-builder, she reminded me of that South Park episode (you know the one) and ever since I’ve had lodged in my brain the image of that bellicose Aussie fightin’ round the world. So I hope you’ll excuse me that I went into this film a tad prejudiced. That, and with the knowledge that the last time Aronofsky worked in the realm of fantasy, he produced the incomprehensible mess that was The Fountain. He’s proven he’s a far better filmmaker when he uses fantasy elements to flavour a story grounded in gritty reality, whether the mathematical mysticism of Pi, the drug-induced delirium of Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan‘s blurred lines between magical realism and madness, or even the oddball illusory life of The Wrestler.
Aronofsky reunites with his Fountain co-writer Ari Handel for this take on the Noah’s Ark myth, which plays fast and loose with the Biblical tale you know – and even the ones you don’t – stripping away its religious trappings (though keeping the mystical) and transforming it into a Star-Wars-meets-Lord-of-the-Rings parable, complete with magic glowing snakeskins and rites of passage, evil black-clad conquering overlords and gallant warriors of virtue, and a deity they call the Creator (no one uses the G word here). There’s even a band of giant rock monsters – earthbound fallen angels known as the Watchers – who lumber about growling solemly just like the Ents from The Two Towers.
They provide the muscle for Crowe’s grizzled Noah and his family – wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and sons Shem, Ham and Japeth – as they traverse a wretched landscape, ruined by years of untrammelled industrialisation by the descendants of Cain, to seek guidance from the wise old Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins as a human Yoda, or the dungeon master from the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon). Visions from the Creator soon compel Noah to build a great animal-preserving raft to ride out the planet-cleansing, humanity-eradicating floods to come. Indeed, Aronofsky’s quite unsubtle about the environmentalist subtext of his film, though his depiction of the blackened cities of Cain’s people spreading like a disease across what appears to be Africa could be taken another way; it’s a notion underlined by a cast that’s invariably white, in a place and time where people most definitely weren’t.
But let’s take it that Aronofsky isn’t going for historical verisimilitude here, rather striking his own parallel-universe interpretation of an age-old story, albeit one made in the image of almost every fantasy franchise blockbuster made in the past decade, complete with choreographed combat, good-versus-evil grandstanding (Ray Winstone chews the scenery as the Vader of the piece, the dastardly Tubal-cain) and teenage relationship drama (something Emma Watson, as orphaned tag-along Ila, is all too familiar with). So far so humdrum. Even the visuals struggle to impress for long stretches, as muted and featureless as Clint Mansell’s pleasant but unexciting score.
Where the film succeeds is in the stunning time-lapse sequences Aronofsky scatters throughout – compressing the growth of a forest that provides the wood for the Ark into mere moments, or following a life-giving stream as it snakes across the world, or flipping the bird to the Christian Right with a defiantly scientific illustration of how the earth and the heavens came to be – that reflect the most dizzying highlights of his filmography.
Noah is much less successful as an epic. There’s nothing particularly awe-inspiring about the Ark itself – it’s just a big wooden box – nor the teeming masses of animals that come to it, nor the floodwaters that come crashing on humanity’s party. Moreover, the plot takes a turn for the worse once the big boat’s afloat: trapped within its darkened walls, the film ignores the turmoil outside, and Noah’s character suffers an abrupt tonal shift from noble if obsessive godly servant to merciless, judgemental beast-man – and, as the film peters out, to miserable drunkard. An ignoble end for an effort that’s not without merit but doesn’t play to its strengths nearly enough, and fails to sustain that second hour. But hey, at least it’s not The Fountain.