Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Passion of Noah

     Adapting Biblical stories is a slippery slope. The director or screenwriter is bound to piss somebody off: either the story stays too close to the source material (annoying non-believers) or strays too far away from it (drawing the ire of believers). The story of Noah and his Ark was bound to take certain liberties with the original story, since there isn't nearly enough material to keep viewers gripped for two hours and twenty minutes (the run time of this film). There is one reason that I was intrigued with this adaptation of the story: director Darren Aronofsky. And like all of his previous films, Noah has moments of tension, of fascination, of awe-inspiring visuals. And if you take it as a fantasy epic--part disaster film, part family saga, part cautionary tale (of climate change, of religious fundamentalism)--rather than a "true" story, you're bound to leave the theater completely satisfied. It's the best adult film so far of 2014 (though that's not saying much).
       Noah is quite a jump for Darren Aronofsky, but he makes the leap to big-budget spectacle successfully, maintaining plenty of the indie quirks and excitement that he has showcased throughout his career, namely in the haunting Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan. Aronofsky is a self-described Atheist, and ultimately that helps Noah become more than just a straight adaptation of a Biblical passage. An expensive movie about Noah's Ark starring big-name actors is going to have plenty of Wow! moments with computer generated animals and rushing/roaring water that blasts out of the theater speakers better than a Roland Emmerich film. He even inserts battles that fit more into Crowe's Gladiator than a story about a man possessed with an idea. But it's the smaller moments that truly give you goosebumps: Aronofsky's quick-cut directing (reminiscent of the drug use scenes in Requiem), the scenes with Noah, his family, and his descent into madness, like an ancient Glenn Beck who thinks he's acting out the word of God.
     Russell Crowe portrays Noah, and it's his best role in years, a return to form after films like Broken City, State of Play, and Body of Lies (let's be honest--he wasn't a stellar singer in 2012's Les Miserables). From the first moment we see him, when he's teaching his sons about not soiling God's creation (a thinly-veiled metaphor about environmental preservation that pops up now and then like flowers from the soil), it's easy to see that he's a good man. He loves his family: his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly, arresting as always), his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Leo McHugh Carroll), and Ila (Emma Watson), an injured girl they take in.
     What really sets Noah in motion is a vision that the titular character gets in the throes of a dream (showcased with typical Aronofsky flourish): a violent flood, corpses of people and animals in the water, a great wooden structure above that's bathed in light, a signal of safety. This prophecy begins the change in Noah's arc (his character, not the boat): he becomes obsessed with this vision, traveling towards a mountain where his grandfather, Methuselah (a charming Anthony Hopkins), resides. It's here that Noah meets the Watchers, massive CGI stone creatures (who are also fallen angels) that decide to help him with the mission at hand. Some might find these rocky beings corny or far too fantastical--but I thought they added to the spectacle.
     Though Noah has incredible willpower and the brute strength of the enormous living rocks, building the Ark isn't an easy task. Planting a seed from the original Garden of Eden (given to him by his grandfather), a massive forest intersected with streams is created, providing the supplies needed to build a damn big boat. Animals begin flocking to the area, a horde of many species walking (or slithering) in line to enter the Ark. But this draws the attention of other people too: namely Tubal-Cain (an entertaining-as-always Ray Winstone), who believes that the will of Man is bigger than an empty vision by a creator. And Tubal has a nothing-to-lose army--when the rain starts falling, thousands swarm (outfitted with jagged weapons) to jump aboard, battling with Noah, his family, and the powerful boulder-creatures in an action set-piece that's slathered in blood-and-rain-soaked excitement.
      And yet again, we go back to the smaller moments, the ideas that make Noah a really solid film. Crowe's growing tyranny grows to epic proportions, and it's haunting to watch a man (willing to go way too far) come unglued due to a vision that he's not positive he even interpreted correctly. Just like when reading a religious text, thoughts, visions, dreams, and ideas can turn into fundamentalist views that put mankind (and even more shocking, Noah's own family) at great risk. The climate change metaphor is there too: you can choose to bury your head in the sand (like a Fox News anchor) if you want to ignore it. But the true parable of Aronofsky's Noah, an adaptation of a Biblical story, is just how violently far people can go in the name of their unproven God.     (B+)

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