Damned if Darren Aronofsky doesn't commit to an idea, then attack it full bore in his films. The director -- widely considered one of the best working in Hollywood right now -- is not a personal favorite of mine, but as the ambitious Noah proves, it's downright impossible not to hold him in high esteem, even if you don't feel the same about every piece of his work.
Even among the types you might consider his peers -- the Christopher Nolans, Wes Andersons, David Finchers and Guillermo del Toros of the world -- Aronofsky stands apart. Who else would have the stones to spend a rumored $125 million on a (mostly) straightforward biblical epic? It's not so much that those talented gentlemen couldn't deliver something as provocative and captivating as Aronofsky's Noah, it's more that it's hard to see any of them actually trying. For better or worse, most other directors tend to stick to a predictable comfort zone (mileage of said zone may vary). Not so with Aronofsky.
Of course, giving in to grand ambition is one thing. Fashioning something worthy of it is another thing entirely -- a thing that, at least in this case, Aronofsky manages to get mostly right.
The Noah tale in Genesis is short and, well, not sweet, but certainly to the point. God decides to hit the reset button on humanity once the descendants of Cain and Abel prove themselves thoroughly unworthy of redemption. In so doing, he unleashes a great flood on the world, entrusting Noah to preserve life on Earth, pair of species by precious pair of species, in his Ark. It pulls forward the idea that wickedness is an inherent part of human nature. Even more than the creation story, it also establishes God's devastating omnipotence -- the first (but hardly the last) lesson that the God of Abraham can take us out of this world just as swiftly as he brought us in to it.
Aronofsky's version is just about the exact opposite -- a sprawling epic that, while not removing God entirely from the equation, renders him nearly silent as it focuses instead on the man at the center of the story. To the people concerned that this is taking too much poetic license with the Word of God, I would say that it is just about the only option unless you want God to remind people of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. To everyone else -- even the Godless like me -- I would say that this should be welcome news.
Russell Crowe plays Noah, and does so almost as he might any character descending in to madness. He is given his marching orders from God. At first, building the Ark at the foot of a mountain inhabited by his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) and amid a forest sprouted from a seed from the Garden of Eden, he and his family have purpose. But the burden of his duty grows as the flood nears and as the corrupted descendants of Cain, led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), press for their own place on the Ark.
It becomes unbearable when he interprets God's will as wanting to eradicate humanity entirely. It's an interpretation that is questionable given God's unclear messaging and one that pits him directly against his family -- his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), his sons Ham (Logan Lerman), Shem (Douglas Booth) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), and his adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson). They have followed Noah to the ends of the Earth, never doubting his word or his conviction, and they mostly just want to be happy. Ila's pregnancy, discovered once they are shut up in the Ark, brings about a horrifying revelation; Noah pledges to kill her child should it be female to ensure that humanity's line ends with the group that boarded the Ark.
As you might expect, this makes the Ark a tense home. It's never really a place of refuge -- not with the moaning, screaming deaths of all of humanity audible just outside -- but it goes from being a vast, impressive feat of construction before the flood to a dread-filled, cramped prison. It is hazy and dark and exponentially more terrifying as Noah's moral resolve strengthens. Aronofsky hones in on the faces of his actors during this part -- the film's best -- conveying Noah's questionable sanity by focusing more and more on Crowe's unsettling, angry, disturbed eyes and conveying the horror of his family through the weeping desperation of Connelly and Watson.
Pairing stunning visuals worthy of a Discovery Channel special and a soaring score pre-Flood with the cramped quarters and creepy vibe of the dimly lit Ark post-Flood, Aronofsky is able to encapsulate what is most interesting about this story: in a catastrophe, no one comes out looking all that great. God lets Noah in on his plans to destroy the world then is conspicuously absent when it comes time for his confidant to determine the fate of humanity. Noah himself is an increasingly unlikable madman, his righteous streak so powerful that his own family and innocent children become targets. Humanity seems unworthy of saving, but, paradoxically, individuals deserve mercy.
Humanity's relationship to God is parallel to Noah's with his middle son Ham, a sensitive soul who is the first to question the path his father is dragging the entire family down. It is selfishly motivated, but in the mildest way. He wants a wife and, more generally, happiness. It's not so much to ask, though his father doesn't see it that way.
This dynamic gives Aronofsky the space to try to understand the complex, often strained relationship between humans and their creator, and he explores it with enough sincerity that it's hard for me to see how anyone but the most humorless Christianist could take any sort of offense.
This is what I mean about his commitment as an artist. He's dealing in big stuff -- the biggest stuff, maybe -- and he is unflinching and genuine in his approach, unwilling to cower behind a distinct but limiting aesthetic or the arm's length that an overdeveloped sense of irony could provide.
Aronofsky's vision works better in some areas than in others. I liked the Ent-like creatures that helped Noah build the Ark, but didn't care for the trite drug-inspired sequences where Noah experiences a vision of the future. I think the point is that all of it fits in to a bold artistic vision that, while not perfect, is something to behold.