Darren Aronofsky wasn’t the first person I would expect to make a serious Bible-based epic, but that’s exactly the task he has chosen. In fact he has been wanting to bring the story of Noah to the big screen for years. Now armed with a $150 million budget and a stellar cast Aronofsky has co-written and directed a large-scaled picture that has already been met with its share of controversy.
As a Christian myself there are certain things in the Bible where creative liberties have no place. That may not allow me to be the most objective critic of some Bible-based movies but it is a belief that is inseparable from who I am. On the other hand some stories from Scripture leave themselves open to interpretation while others may stir our imaginations by omitting many of the details. Such is the case with the story of Noah. The story of Noah and his ark takes up only a small portion of Scripture so there are definitely areas where our creative imaginations (in this case Aronofsky’s) may kick in. Yet you always look for respect of the spirit of the story and at least some type of adherence to the material.
Fans of popular novels or those passionate about a historical figure or account have always expected some degree of adherence to the source material from movie adaptations. That’s perfectly reasonable and why would the approach to this be any different? Instead Aronofsky has taken a well known Bible story and laced it with Tolkien-styled fantasy, weird mysticism, and one of the most heavy-handed environmental and animal rights messages you’ll ever see on screen. In essence he has chosen to tell a story about a man named Noah and definitely not THE story of Noah that many people may be expecting.
The main aim of Aronofsky’s version is recognized early in the film. Noah (Russell Crowe) shares with his three sons that the environment is the true apple of the Creator’s eye. He uses his son’s criminal offense of plucking a flower from the ground to show how callous men can disrupt the Creator’s beautiful and harmonious world. A situation then arises which allows Noah to tell of how animals are the Creator’s crowning achievement and how men endanger them, some going as far as actually eating them (which shocks his sons). All of this happens in one of the film’s opening sequences but it isn’t contained to it.
The main conflict throughout the movie is between the evils of mankind and the innocence of animals along with Noah and his family. In fact, Noah states that the entire purpose for building the ark is to save the animals and kill wicked mankind. Now the movie does throw a couple of bones to those who were hoping for a slightly accurate telling of the Bible story but the similarities between the movie and the Biblical account are strictly cosmetic. This is much more like a poor man’s Lord of the Rings installment filled with giant talking rock creatures, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) who is a strange hermit/wizard, and an huge CGI-heavy battle sequence. Spellcasting, odd relics, and bloody blades take center stage.
The Creator is also in sharp contrast to what some people may expect. At no point in the film does Aronofsky use the name God. Clearly this was intentional. Was it an act of respect in order to not offend especially considering the massive liberties he takes? I don’t know but the God of the Bible and the movie’s “Creator” couldn’t be more different. In the film the Creator is a cold and distant deity who speaks with veiled visions and sometimes not at all. Aronofsky shows him as an iron-fisted tyrant at times who watches mankind wallow in uncertainty and turns deaf ears on their pleas for clarity. And sometimes it’s the Creator who is portrayed as the villain. While Aronofsky never calls him God, it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider this his view of him.
I could go on about strange and perplexing diversions from the original text, but how does “Noah” stand up as a movie? Is it good cinema and is it good storytelling? The film does have some strengths. Whether you like him or not, Aronofsky has a great visual style that separates his movies from others. There are some stunning shots that were really effective especially when the rain starts to come. There are also several phenomenal performances. Crowe is in top form and he is perfectly cast. We also get great performances from Emma Watson, Jennifer Connelly, and Logan Lerman. And I have to mention Ray Winestone. He’s fabulous as Tubal-cain, the king of the evil meat-eating men.
But the film has several glaring flaws (aside from my concerns mentioned above). First off, while some of the visuals may be amazing much of the CGI isn’t. The rock creatures look like something out of an early 1990s film and the big climactic battle looked as clunky visually as it felt narratively. Then there were a number of unintentionally goofy moments which were often direct results of Aronofsky’s diversions. The film also grinds to a halt in the third act as a trumped up family drama plays out among those confined to the floating ark. The family conflict angle had a lot of promise, but here it drags the movie down and I began to check my watch.
I’ll be honest, Aronofsky’s decision to divert so wildly from the source material is an issue for me mainly because there is plenty of good story to tell aside from what we are given. But even aside from that, “Noah” is a film plagued with its share of problems. It’s a movie that teases us with what it could have been but ultimately stumbles because of what it actually is. This isn’t the biblical story of God’s righteous judgement of evil and His mercy towards humanity through Noah. But that doesn’t mean this movie isn’t preachy. Its sermon is on the evils of mankind and how the earth has been in a state of physical decay and animals have been robbed of their innocence since we came onto the scene. Who knows, whichever story you care about the most may also determine how much you care about this film as a whole.