At the Movies: Saving the World Is Never Easy

It usually only happens once in a director’s career. You make a small film that strikes a chord with the public, and the suits in Hollywood give you an unprecedented budget and creative control for the next project. They are so eager to work with the next big thing that they forgot how esoteric and…

Published April 3, 2014 5:00 AM
4 min read

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movie-thmbIt usually only happens once in a director’s career. You make a small film that strikes a chord with the public, and the suits in Hollywood give you an unprecedented budget and creative control for the next project. They are so eager to work with the next big thing that they forgot how esoteric and gritty your work is.

By Noah Gittell

Movie-Noah4 1It usually only happens once in a director’s career. You make a small film that strikes a chord with the public, and the suits in Hollywood give you an unprecedented budget and creative control for the next project. They are so eager to work with the next big thing that they forgot how esoteric and gritty your work is.

That’s what happened to Darren Aronofsky, who scored a surprise hit with the dark and edgy “Black Swan” in 2010. In a position to make any movie he wanted for the first (and perhaps last) time in his career, Aronofsky went the studio route and made “Noah,” a retelling of the Biblical story that functions as both a generic disaster movie and a deeply personal statement on spirituality and stewardship in the modern era. The result is appropriately mixed: the film never quite coheres, but its odd mash-up of the epic and the personal adds up to a singular whole that is worth watching, if only because there might never be another film quite like it.

As played by Russell Crowe, Noah is a simmering misanthrope raising his family on the outskirts of a hedonistic civilization. Because of his rejection of man’s world, it seems a natural fit when God speaks to him – through his dreams and a few small-scale miracles – and asks for help in damning mankind. After consulting with his grandfather, Methusela (a pitch-perfect Anthony Hopkins), Noah and his family commence work on the ark, an impressive structure built to scale for the film. In order to get around the logistics of having two adults and three children building something that size, Aronofsky enlists the help of the Watchers (known in the Bible as the Nephilim), fallen angels who are trapped in bodies made of stone and voiced by elder statesmen of Hollywood like Frank Langella and the impossibly gruff Nick Nolte.

The Watchers come in handy once the flood comes, and an army of sinful men try to gain passage on the ark. What follows is an impressively rendered but somewhat generic battle sequence that would not seem out of place in “Lord of the Rings” or “300.” These types of action scenes are a necessity in movies with a budget this size – how else to appeal to a widespread audience? – but it feels a bit like an aside (the fight scene is notably not in the Bible). It’s only after the ark sets sail that “Noah” finds its surprisingly dark soul, as Noah receives another message from God that his job is to end humanity completely.

It’s this last bit that comprises the film’s third, and by far it’s most compelling, act. Noah’s daughter-in-law is pregnant, and he interprets God’s latest message to mean that if she gives birth to a girl, he must kill the infant to protect the Earth from humanity. Mankind, in other words, is a failed experiment, a harsh truth for a Hollywood movie, and it is a testament to both Aronofsky’s sure narrative hand and Crowe’s acting that Noah’s transition from devout savior to murderous psychopath never feels less than credible.

MOVIE-noah-image03But this moral dilemma also belies a surprising and thought-provoking message: There are plenty of global crises to occupy our minds these days, from economic instability to climate change, but at what point does concern and activism turn into misanthropy? If mankind is unable to stop itself from destroying the planet, how are we supposed to feel about our own existence?

It is to Aronofsky’s great credit that he raises these difficult questions, although he is effectively hamstrung by his original source. This story has a happy ending, and Aronofsky, who seems more attuned to the darkness, never quite earns it. The bleak world that this director has previously worked in – “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” and “Black Swan” eschew anything resembling happy endings – is at odds with “Noah,” which ultimately reaffirms man’s essential goodness. The film never transcends the thematic conflict between the director and the material.

Still, it is hard to fault the film for aiming too high, when Hollywood usually does the opposite. In this case, the studio bravely gave Aronofsky the rights to one of society’s greatest stories and the money to make it his way. That kind of creative recipe won’t always produce the best final product, but it will occasionally reveal genius. We should all go see “Noah” in the hopes that Hollywood will keep trying.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

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