I’m not religious. Well, not religious in the sense that I don’t believe in a God or some other deity that made the world or is watching over us. So, if there’s a film that has even a passing resemblance to what is written in scripture, it has no impact on me as a piece of religion. I only see it as a work of art, first and foremost. The controversy surrounding Noah has, unfortunately, been unprecedented, with a seemingly legion amount of detractors calling it sacrilege and that writer/director Darren Aronofsky and star Russell Crowe are going to burn in hell for this. Or something. It’s unfortunate because it is selling short a fascinating movie. Noah is imperfect, but it is such a imaginative, majestic, heartfelt rendition of Old Testament text that it’s hard to not find something to admire. It’s a film that swings a lot of punches, and while not all of them land, at least it has the balls to clench its fists in the first place.
Noah is a descendent in the direct line of Seth, the third child of Adam and Eve. The children of Seth live in harmony with the world, working and nourishing the land to grow crops and live peaceful lives. However, Noah, and the children of Seth by extension, are something of an endangered species, as the children of Cain, Adam and Eve’s first son, have spread across the world. The children of Cain are industrial behemoths, abusing the Creator’s gifts and exploiting the planet, leaving desolation in their wake. They also may or may not be cannibals. When this planetary devastation reaches its zenith, the Creator sends Noah a vision. He is primed to wipe out humanity in an immense flood and tasks Noah with saving Earth’s innocent wildlife. To do this, Noah and his family set about building a massive ark to shelter all the creatures of the world and themselves when the storm comes. Such a task is impossible to keep hidden, and Noah’s venture soon catches the attention of Tubal-Cain, a direct descendent of Cain, and his army of savage men who, desperate to survive the coming apocalypse, take up arms against Noah and his cause.
That Noah plays fast and loose with “facts” of the story goes without saying. Bible movies these days worship the text of the book, often to the detriment of the film itself. Noah isn’t a bible movie. Here we have a glorious return to the days of Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Comandments, only with 100% less childish melodrama and 100% more rock monsters. Noah is, above all things, a sweeping fantasy epic, with grand spectacles of catastrophic destruction, titanic battles, and creatures both familiar and alien. It succeeds mightily in this. Aronofsky hasn’t really done a film on this scale before, but he shows a deft hand with everything he’s given to work with. Noah is an imposing figure, but he might as well be an ant compared to the things that Aronofsky throws at the screen.
There’s an action beat at the cataclysmic peak of the film that is, from a pure epic perspective, above and beyond anything that has come out in recent years, from 300: Rise of an Empire to Game of Thrones. It’s an incredible sequence that makes us privy to all the juicy money shots, but keeps up a strong sense of spacial relationship and danger. It’s also surprisingly brutal, and that goes for the movie in general. The Old Testament, for all the bible thumper’s claims, is a messed up piece of text, and the movie doesn’t shy away from showing the gory details. It’s PG-13, but it pushes it.
The scope for this kind of movie has never been bigger. You have to keep constantly reminding yourself that Aronofsky actually built the arc to scale for shooting. That kind of commitment hasn’t been seen since James Cameron sailed about in his own boat, and Aronofsky outdoes even him.
Thankfully though, the human element of the story is not forgotten. What is most remarkable about Noah is the respect that Aronofsky shows to both sides of the argument. This is perfectly exemplified in a sequence that sees Noah recounting the creation of the universe to his family. The words are from the old testament, with all the “Let there be light” that the purists could ask for. But the images are of evolution and ecology hard at work. The world is formed from fiery matter being mashed together and humans are shown evolving from monkeys from fish. It’s an astounding sequence that beautifully demonstrates complete harmony, the scientific and the religious co-existing without a single doubt.
The characters’ faith is also approached in remarkable ways. Tubal-Cain is a total bastard, yes, but he is presented as one who once had faith but has since lost it due to the Creator seemingly turning a blind eye to him. In a way, he’s just a kid craving the love of his father. He even, at one point, refers to all of mankind as nothing more than a pack of orphans. Noah as well is handled in ways you wouldn’t expect. For the first half of the movie, he’s presented as the classic soldier of the Divine, devout and true in staying the course. But then the film pulls an about face and uses him as a tool to examine pure, unwavering fanaticism. So convinced is Noah of the Creator’s will that he becomes as much a threat to his family as Tubal-Cain. It’s a ballsy move on the movie’s part to turn its hero into the villain in the third act, but it rings absolutely true and provokes plenty of thought on the actions that men take in the name of their Lord, from back then all the way up to today.
Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone both portray these men like the veterans they are. It’s easily the best work Crowe has done since A Beautiful Mind and just might be one of Winstone’s best performances ever. Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson provide the grace and Logan Lerman and Douglas Booth provide the voices of reason. Everyone works together harmoniously here. It’s a nice to Aronofsky return to a more ensemble driven film after his work in single character examinations.
The most recent pop culture touchstone that I find myself comparing Noah to is The Book of Mormon. That show is a scathing critique of Mormonism and religion in general, but it’s also a celebration of it. So much crap goes on today in the name of religion, from discrimination to straight up destruction. But religion can be a wonderful thing to have. Faith can save people, giving them the means to find in themselves the strength to overcome and rise above. Noah is a movie that criticizes the things people do in the name of religion, but it also has an undying respect for faith as a whole. The word God is never mentioned, and that’s because Noah isn’t about Christianity. It’s about all religions in general and how, in the midst of all the atrocities and bullshit, there is still beauty and wonder to be found.
Noah, the character, is portrayed here as well meaning but certainly more than a little nuts. The same can be said of Aronofsky. He’s insane to take a story like this and turn it into an epic spectacle whilst still retaining all the meaning that drew people to the story in the first place. And that’s a good thing. Only someone completely batshit could make a movie this ballsy and pull it off. Noah is flawed, yes. The overt message of environmentalism is heavy handed, and I didn’t buy some of the character beats, particularly anything that Lerman’s character did. But the films defies all expectations and delivers the message of the story in a profound and exciting way, while still being an incredible piece of fantasy escapism. Sometimes deviating from the source material is the best way to reveal what it’s all about in the first place.