By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
Review-ish: My Issues With “Noah” (plenty of spoilers)
I am on Team Aronofsky. I like where he goes. He is daring, thoughtful, passionate, and very smart.
But watching Noah was painful for me. It was the first time an Aronofsky film, for me, completely failed to connect story and artistic aesthetic ambitions. First of all, a number of the more interesting ideas were just plain in a different movie than the rest of the film. But in something I have never thought Aronofsky capable, you can see story-structuring devices from miles away.
I was fine with the establishment of where we were in the Bible story. But shortly after we get to adult Noah (played earnestly by Russell Crowe), his first encounter with “bad guys” has him taking out three of them with a bo staff like he was in a Bruce Lee movie. I am happy to go with the movie on the idea that he’s a tough guy, but good gosh a mighty, are we really expected to be invested in a raw, intimate, more human version of the Noah tale when he’s kicking ass?
Aronofsky, as a writer, seems a bit trapped into a corner with the idea that if “the city dwellers” – who represent the expanding evil of Cain that is forcing God’s hand to destroy mankind – meet with Noah’s small group, the inevitable result will be the murder or attempted murder (and rape, etc) of Noah’s vegetarian God-obeyers. So we never really get to spend more time than it takes to be a threat with the “city dwellers.” Or maybe there is another explanation for a basic lack of establishing the story of the people who are going to be wiped from God’s earth. There is a lot of talk. A lot. And very little insight into the world Noah and his family are leaving.
This turns every effort to discuss angles off of the main story into near-comedic cliches. The eldest son, who looks like TV Jesus, has almost nothing to do in the film, and gets to empty his seed into a barren hot chick who joined the family on the run when she was of a single-digit age.
The middle son, Ham, realizes that once Noah decides that bringing him a bride to the ark from “the city” isn’t going to work out, every day on the boat is going to be palm Sunday0. And he is so unhappy that he is driven to unspeakable evil acts threatening his entire family. (It’s kind of the anti-Spiderman, where Peter, after one too many lectures, sets up Uncle Ben to be killed and Aunt Mae to be raped by the thief he stopped from robbing the wrestling arena.)
Where is the story – that seems pretty real to me – that the younger son is jealous of his older brother, who got the girl they grew up with and has left him with no one to love/have sex with? There even seems to be a string from that when she – Ila, played by Emma Watson – is the one to go chase Ham down when he runs away from Ark. (Of course, that’s really a set-up to get Ila alone with Methuselah so an oblique threat from earlier in the film can be paid off… even if it never quite pays off beyond the magic trick of making her fertile.) But before we get into “that’s the movie YOU wanted, David,” it doesn’t have to be that story for me to feel better about the film… not the point. The point is, any layer of that kind of reality is missing.
So Ham, who Ila does not catch up with, goes to “the city” himself, putting himself and potentially his family in jeopardy, and then has the most horrible meet cute I think I have ever seen in any movie… in a pit of wrapped corpses. He falls in. She is already there, kinda hiding. He gives her food. She decides to trust him enough to eat it. And then he says something to the effect of, “I’ll just hang around here with you for a little while… if that’s okay with you.” Leap to them running back to the ark together, slightly ahead of the rain-turning-to-flood and the massive crowd of “city people” who are anxious to steal the ark… and she gets caught in an animal trap that was left behind in early Act Two. Noah, running the wrong direction, towards the city, endangering the entire mission God has sent him on, finds them and forces his son to come back to the ark, leaving the girl in the trap.
It is completely clear in the film that if they tried for another moment to save the girl that the ark would be overrun by “city dwellers” and the entire family would be murdered or worse. But the brooding teen is so upset about losing his conquest – whom he had met minutes earlier – that he gets a chip on his shoulder big enough to murder his own father and, in doing so, likely seeing his entire family killed or enslaved.
Maybe there is something interesting in there, in spite of all the Irwin Allen-level drama. Is Ham having doubts in God or his father? In the movie, as it is, his father. God is not really an issue. In fact, no one but Noah has a significant relationship with the deity. They are all following a man, not God. Another big problem. No one else has any well formulated ideas about God? Really?
Personally, in spite of having been brought up around Jewish Orthodoxy, I have no problem with artists being “unfaithful” to the text. I went into the theater wanting to embrace whatever points Darren was interested in making. I wasn’t there to take notes about what changes from traditional notions he had made or what “problematic” subtexts there were.
Having seen the film, I think the nitpickers are off their rockers. There is nothing anti-religious in the film… at least that I picked up on. Is it really an environmental or pro-vegetarian screed? I wouldn’t go that far. Noah believes that humans do not need to eat other living creatures. So his family is vegetarian. Not exactly a diatribe. When animals are eaten by “the bad guys,” it’s always something disgusting, whether it’s a living lizard or human flesh nearly right off of the bone. But I didn’t feel like the film was telling me that enjoying a t-bone was going to lead to me eating my neighbors. And as environmentalism goes, if you don’t think nature is precious and powerful, you are an idiot. That doesn’t mean we can’t argue over whether environmentalism must always win over technology… but the movie doesn’t go there. If anything, God appears to be fracking to ramp up the waterworks for the flood.
I didn’t even mind the animals coming to the boat and Mrs. Noah having some sort of drug that makes them sleep for many, many months. I’m all about giving a film its premise. Why nitpick that?
But… not an interesting discussion of religious faith, at least for me. Not an interesting discussion of family dynamics placed over a background of a cataclysmic religious and earth-altering event.
And then you get to the many problems with basic storytelling. How do you get past the idea of Noah and his three sons, adopted daughter, and wife building this massive ark by themselves? They need help. And it comes from half-a-dozen (or so) fallen angels turned rock people. The story of these angels falling from grace by allowing Adam & Eve to fall from grace, then being encumbered by rocks and earth, was cool. But there were a couple big problems. First, we saw these characters – not necessarily from the same background – in The Hobbit. And they are kissing cousins of the live-action Transformers. Great actors voiced them… but there are not-as-great but equally high toned actors doing the voices in Transformers.
And once again, as with so much of the film, when push comes to shove, these characters become minor in the overall discussion of the film, basically appearing, 1. to be a threat, 2. to be an ally, 3. to tell their beautifully realized story of how they came to be, 4. to rationalize how all that work got done, though you barely see them working, and 5. to be bouncers for Noah and his family and in the process, to be redeemed. Two of those five purposes, I feel, were well fulfilled. But the others were overtly expositional to the point of distraction.
I, obviously, was not in meetings on this movie. But you can practically reconstruct key questions: Why don’t the bad guys attack while they are building the ark? How can Noah and his family possible hold them off? How can that small group build this giant ark? Once the bad guys decide to attack how can Noah & Co keep them off the ark?
So Darren & Co. came up with a supernatural answer… rock men who were fallen angels. But for me, these characters were so little a part of the story when they were not at the center of the action, fulfilling their movie duties, that they seemed like an ace that was pulled out of the back pocket on demand. Magic bullets.
Tough guys with problem pasts who end up sacrificing themselves in the third act for the good people to get away is as old a movie gimmick as there is. And I don’t blame Aronofsky for using them for that. But they need to have their moments of vulnerability/humanity in order to give their willingness to self-sacrifice some resonance. And those beats aren’t in the movie. In fact, once the first rock man is killed by the bad guys and comes back as an angel of light, the others seem pretty happy to sacrifice themselves in order to become angels again themselves… which emasculates the heroic moment of self-sacrifice.
And then there is the third act… which is where things get really messy.
Noah has decided – without any input from God – that man is meant to end as a species because God has caused the flood to happen with no childbearing women on the ark (thought Jennifer Connelly looks young enough and vitalenough to knock out another brood upon demand). But it turns out there is one childbearing woman on board. So Noah, who is now looking for a sign that he shouldn’t kill the baby, if it is female, threatens to kill his grandchild.
This was a big problem for me, in that the movie itself shows us Noah receiving signs to take action. There is no sign telling him that God intends to end the human species. And why is Noah requiring a “do not kill” sign instead of a “kill them” sign?
And this is a moment where Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel could have made a fabulously offensive statement about organized religion… organizations which – at least in my view – often use the word of God (let’s not argue that point) to extrapolate and set some very harsh and judgmental rules about living. But, no. It just gets woven into the film as storyline, a point from which other characters act and emote quite powerfully, but never question in any way the legitimacy of Noah’s declaration of his absolute alleged insight into God’s will.
But it gets worse. The villain of the piece – whose dialogue sure sounds like it was written for Mickey Rourke – somehow manages to get to the side of the ark with a crushed leg, cut his way into the side of the ark, survive, and then seduce an angry Ham to keep his existence secret for 8-9 months as he plots the death of Noah (and as any smart person would surmise, the subjugation of the other good people – all of Ham’s family – on the ark).
Then, 8 or 9 months later, a boat appears in a kind of in-ark launching dock that you would see on a cruise ship or luxury boat over 50′, so that the eldest, most pretty son and his very pregnant wife can leave, so their child will not be murdered by its grandfather. How that happened without Noah already discussing it/fighting about it in great depth is unclear. And the dock itself is a little bizarre. As is the boat. But putting that aside…
Everything just happens to come to a head on that one day in the third act… villain healthy enough to fight… pregnant woman and husband ready to leave with no hopes of finding land… then the burning of the getaway boat by Noah (oy)… then the fight with the bad guy… then the boat hits a rock, which suggests that they are near land, even though the bird just came back without finding land… followed by the birth of the TWINS!… followed by Noah heading towards them to murder them in the name of God even though God never told him directly to do so (unlike Abraham… whose phone line was clear enough to not only get the call to sacrifice his son, but to call it off last minute)… followed by Noah deciding he can’t do what he has held over his family’s head for 8 or 9 months…
I have to spend some real time trying to think if there are any movies I think are good that have that many events that have been percolating over that long a period come together at the same moment in the third act.
And the problem for Noah is not only the number of things that come together at the same moment, but that in handling the story that way excludes the opportunity to really consider the issues that are at hand. I know that the goal of a dramatist is to show, not explain, but it’s The Bible, darn it!
The world is coming to an end for all of humanity… except for 6 people. This is a rather enormous idea. And for me, Noah never really engages the issues.
And if you want to argue that it’s a movie about one man’s experience, from the title, down through the film, I don’t think the film succeeds on that level either. In part, it’s because there is no real conflict built into his personal drama… meaning that no one in the film ever challenges his faith and the decisions that spring from it on a level above a personal, selfish one.
There is a great moment in the film – one of a number of them – when Noah realizes his own self-interest and the self-interest of each of his family members… that they are not above those who will die, just in a different situation. That is the kind of insight missing from the vast majority of the movie.
Instead, we get cartoons. We get one-note bad guys, an unrealistically rageful teen (who also goes off on his own in the end… when there is no one and no place to go… which may be in the bible, but never referenced), rock angels, eating the head off live things, cannibalism, glowing snake skin.
I cannot say that I have the answer in my imagination of how to make Noah a great, compelling, thoughtful movie for adults. And I am sure that Darren thought he did or he wouldn’t have made it.
Maybe there is a better movie that we aren’t getting to see. I guess that’s possible. The difference of the release version of Kingdom on Heaven vs the Director’s Cut is remarkable with just a few extra minutes offering all kinds of layering that the release version seemed to be lacking.
But Noah lost me early and kept kicking dirt on itself for me. Nothing was quite a shocking to me as the meet-cute in the pit of corpses. I mean… God.
I was hoping for some good blasphemy. I would have settled for a straight pitch with some beautiful images (which this film like all Aronofsky’s has). But I almost never felt challenged… which is shocking for a filmmaker who had challenged us in film after film to keep up with where he was running at full steam.
Every time he repeated the snake coming out of his skin, jumpcut to: the apple/pomegranate writhing, all I could think of was another jump cut to Roy Scheider looking in the mirror opening his jazz hands and saying, “It’s showtime, folks.”