There’s something missing from Noah, and it’s not God.
Contrary to the complaints from early naysayers, this is a movie deeply concerned with the spiritual implications of the Bible story, in which God calls Noah (here played by Russell Crowe) to house the creatures of the earth in an ark while humanity is wiped out in a global flood because of its evil ways. Theological thoughtfulness is not in short supply here. Rather, what’s missing from Noah is the element that I found most intriguing about the project: director Darren Aronofsky.
From Pi, his grainy black-and-white debut, to Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler and Black Swan, Aronofsky has specialized in intensely distinctive and strikingly imaginative films. Even The Fountain – his bigger-budgeted, 2006 mindbender, in which Hugh Jackman plays three different men in three different historical eras – seemed to burst from Aronofsky’s subconscious. The ungainly, unwieldy Noah bears little trace of any of this.
This isn’t to say that Aronofsky and screenwriter Ari Handel don’t put their own spin on the tale. Seemingly adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien as much as the Bible, Noah features a wizened old man with magical powers (Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah), rock giants who aid with the construction of the ark and a covetous king (Ray Winstone) who storms Noah’s vessel/stronghold with his troops. This is much more of a fantasy epic than a Sunday school story.
What’s missing from Noah is the element that I found most intriguing about the project: director Darren Aronofsky.
And yet it’s still largely anonymous. Noah suggests that perhaps some directors aren’t meant to work with blockbuster material. There have been those who have made the transition from indie idiosyncrasy to Hollywood tent pole: Peter Jackson imbued his Lord of the Rings saga with the visceral energy of his early horror comedies, while Christopher Nolan gave a gargantuan contraption like Inception the intimate intricacy of a personal pocket watch. If no one but Nolan could have made Inception, plenty of others could have made this Noah.
The movie admittedly has a few sparks of individuality. Just before the rains come, Noah sneaks into a nearby camp of desperate refugees, where men are trading their women and daughters to the king’s soldiers in exchange for meat. Noah spots a man crouched and gnawing on a raw animal leg; when the man looks up, he bears Noah’s own face. It’s a crazed, disturbing image straight out of Aronofsky’s Black Swan – a movie I thought devolved into camp, yet if nothing else had its own wild streak. Noah could use a lot more of that.
What’s interesting about that jarring shot is that it also gets at one of the central questions of the story: how to meet the good and evil inside all of us – with fear, justice or grace? Aside from this disturbing image, Noah mostly explores such notions through dramatic dialogue scenes. Noah debates the topic of mercy with his sons. He gets into a screaming match about justice with his wife (Jennifer Connelly). During the movie’s especially awkward final section, the story seems to have come to a standstill until Noah’s adopted daughter (Emma Watson) gives an inspirational speech that paves the way for the requisite rainbow.
Especially in this finale, and to a lesser degree throughout the film, Noah feels like a project unsure of itself. It’s at once too big for the intricate ideas it wants to explore and too small for the saga it’s taken on (the animals themselves barely get cameos). I was surprised and puzzled when I first heard that Darren Aronofsky had signed on for a project like this. I still am.