(April 6, 2014 / JNS) Has the era of large-scale biblical epics returned? Not since “The Ten Commandments” has there been so much torrential water on the big screen (not counting weather-related disaster films such as “The Impossible”) than in “Noah,” the latest blockbuster from writer and director Darren Aronofsky.
“Noah” takes the traditional tale and splices it in an eco-friendly and psychologically driven plot. After Adam and Eve got booted out of the Garden of Eden and after Cain killed Abel, mankind split into three lineages—the descendents of Abel, Cain, and Seth. Cain’s descendents monopolize the world, building ancient industrialized cities with help from giant Watchers sent from heaven. Noah (Russell Crowe) grows up as the last of the line of Seth, has a family, and, thanks to a prophetic dream, takes it upon himself to build an ark. The ark will hold innocent animals (according to the Bible, two of every “unclean” animal and seven of every “clean” animal) and Noah’s family when the Creator floods the world to rid it of sin and evil. Noah’s family of wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth, adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), and a group of “Watchers”—stone giants who are revealed to be fallen angels trapped in stone—aid him in his cause.
This isn’t a strict adaptation of the three chapters in Genesis. “Noah” clocks in at around two-and-a-quarter hours long and uses the chapters as a backbone for the film, making the movie a slightly more believable, yet still fantastical version of the biblical story. Aronofsky keeps some character and plot details (a given), as well as some biblical themes, but chooses to delve more into the psychological underpinnings while adding in Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) as a brutal antagonist.
Even in a biblical setting, Aronofsky treats the characters as people, focusing more on Noah’s family rather than Cain. There isn’t much development for Cain, and what can be gleaned about him is evident from the outset: he’s brutal, a nonbeliever, and willing to do anything to survive. Noah, meanwhile, has immense responsibility resting on his shoulders. He’s a family man, the last descendent of Seth, and he interprets his prophetic visions as dogma, going so far as to not take on future wives for Ham and Japheth or innocents struggling to stay afloat because the Creator provided Noah’s family with everything they needed. Noah is as controlling and monomaniacal as Ahab, and he grows more crazed and abusive the longer he’s on the ark.
There are also the mystical elements that strain credulity. Then again, it is an adaptation of a biblical tale, so things like restoring fertility, angels made of stone, rapidly growing greenery, and rainstorms that cover the world in water can’t be explained by science. Chalk it up to magical realism.
That aside, “Noah” isn’t without its noteworthy moments of technical beauty. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, a frequent collaborator, fills the film with gorgeous silhouettes, time lapses, and desolate landscapes, which counter the shaky fight and chase sequences. The score from Clint Mansell, Aronofsky’s regular collaborator, is dark, moody, and brooding at the appropriate moments, thanks to the Kronos Quartet.
But for all its beauty and subtext, “Noah” is bloated. Everything pre-flood is drawn out, the rains and initial stages of the flood last at least five minutes, and the rest of the film (apart from after all the animals disembark) is spent in the crucible that is the ark. The film is perhaps too drawn out for its own good. Whatever good intentions Aronofsky originally had are lost in the flood, and overshadowed by audience discussions about the production’s biblical accuracy. The director veers from the defining tenets of his previous films, only to get bogged down by biblical storytelling conventions and the nature of sin, making “Noah” a mediocre big-budget biblical blockbuster.