Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Visionary filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is an acquired taste. The Brooklyn-born, Harvard University graduate makes esoteric films with a film festival-oriented sensibility, and he dabbles in subject matter and story-lines that may strike some audiences as provocative but offensive. Most of the time, Aronofsky helms R-rated movies that are far from being family friendly. “Black Swan” (2010), “The Wrestler” (2008), “Requiem for a Dream” (2000) and “Pi” (1998) carried R-ratings, while the MPAA gave “The Fountain” a PG-13 rating. Despite his debatable subject matter and storylines, Aronofsky takes his movie-making efforts pretty seriously. Indeed, Aronofsky lives up to his provocative but offensive reputation with his sixth feature-length film. “Noah” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) should not be mistaken for a conventional Christian movie. Writer and director Aronofsky and co-scenarist Ari Handel draw not only on the Biblical Book of Genesis: Chapters 6-9, but also the apocryphal Jewish Book of Enoch. Mind you, Aronofsky has described “Noah” as “the least biblical film ever made.” This ambitious but uneven 138-minute Old Testament tale bristles with surprises that drastically differentiate it from most theatrical Christian films. According to Aronofsky, he wanted to explore the Great Flood as “an environmental apocalypse,” and he classifies Noah as “the first environmentalist.” Superficially, the “Black Swan” filmmaker’s adaptation adheres to the broad, general outlines of the Biblical saga of Noah and the Great Flood. This Paramount Pictures release, however, constitutes the first Biblical blockbuster to incorporate supernatural elements which have been confined traditionally to either science fiction or fantasy films. The supernatural elements in part come from the Book of Enoch, principally the fallen angels referred to as ‘the Watchers.’
“Noah” opens with the title hero as an adolescent. Noah’s father Lamech (Marton Csokas of “Kingdom of Heaven”) unravels a sacred snake-skin and tells Noah about it when Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone of “The Departed”) and henchmen interrupt them. No sooner has Tubal-cain shown up than he murders Lemech without a qualm. He smashes Lamech in the skull with a hammer. Decades afterward, Noah (Oscar-winner Russell Crowe of “Gladiator”) has grown up. He has a wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly of “Blood Diamond”), and three children, Shem, Ham and Japheth. Noah and Naameh have kept themselves busy raising their three sons. They behave like hermits and shun city-living. Since Adam and Eve have been exiled from Eden, the Earth has degenerated into a desolate, inhospitable Hell on Earth. Indeed, “Noah” resembles “Mad Max” because everything looks sun-scorched, and everybody dresses as if they were in a leather-clad, medieval movie. At one point, Methuselah appears as a warrior clad in full body armor with an extraordinary sword. As vast armies of men charge headlong toward him, Methuselah hoists his sword and then plunges it in the ground. Miraculously, when he sinks the sword into the Earth, the effect is comparable a modern-day fighter jet dumping napalm, and Methuselah incinerates the entire army! Much later, Noah has a dream. He finds himself underwater with thousands of corpses. When he awakens, he has his marching orders. He visits Methuselah, now an ancient man in a remote cave atop a huge mountain and explains that the Creator plans to destroy the world with water instead of fire. Along the way, Noah and company come across some brutal but sad looking hulks of giants referred to as Watchers. The Book of Enoch contains references to these Watchers. In this instance, the Watchers are fallen angels. They are mentioned briefly in Genesis as the Nephilim. Eventually, Noah recruits the Watchers to help him construct the Ark. For the record, it takes Noah and company ten years to construct the Ark. The novelization of the film is more explicit about the time factor than the film. Once the villainous Tubal-cain learns about Noah’s plans, he arrives with his dirty, filthy army to take advantage of this golden opportunity. Tubal-cain demands that Noah assure him passage aboard the ship, but our hero defies him. When Tubal-cain makes threats, the Watchers line up ominously behind Noah to defend him. Meantime, Noah and Naameh have taken in a poor girl left-for-dead, Ila (Emma Watson of the “Harry Potter” movies), and she becomes Shem’s playmate. Family tensions arise between Ham (Logan Lerman of the “Percy Jackson” movies) and Noah, when Ham is not allowed to take a girl for himself from Tubal-cain’s kingdom.
As historical Biblical films go, “Noah” is nothing like the earlier release “Son of God.” Moreover, little in “Noah” resembles the 1966 epic “The Bible: In The Beginning” that cast John Huston as Noah, with an ark that looked more like a ship more than a rectangular wooden cargo container box. Russell Crowe’s darkly-clad Noah qualifies as much as an action hero as a patriarchal figure who shuns meat as a part of his diet. He can wield a knife with the best of them, and he acquits himself admirably in close-quarters combat when he clears the deck of the Ark of intruders before the rain launches the vessel. In fact, Noah is terribly obsessed with the awesome duty that he must do for his 'Creator.' Initially, he believes that he must preserve the wildlife for a new world even though he thinks that his own family is condemned to perish! The performances are all above average with Ray Winstone making a thoroughly evil villain Tubal-cain. Anthony Hopkins shows up occasionally as Methuselah. Jennifer Connelly makes quite an impression, too, as Noah's long-suffering wife. For the record, nobody utters the name ‘God’ anywhere in “Noah,” and this crucial omission may be more than traditional Christians may tolerate. In the novelization of the film, the word Creator is substituted for the name God, too. Indeed, Aronofsky takes full advantage of poetic license in his interesting but awkward re-imagination of the Great Flood. Throughout “Noah,” the principals entwine the snake skin that the serpent shed when it slithered into Eden, and this birthright is deployed for its magical properties. The character of Methuselah provides Noah with a seed from the Garden of Eden that enables him to build the Ark. Aronofsky changes several things, eliminates certain characters from Noah’s family, and allows a treacherous stowaway to slip aboard the Ark. If you are a stickler for fidelity, you aren't going to like this beautifully lensed opus. Ultimately, the supernatural creatures that will spoil it for Bible purists. Secular audiences may enjoy “Noah” more than their spiritual counterparts for Aronofsky’s radical departure from the story and the new design of the Ark.