By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on Movies: Noah
NOAH (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Darren Aronofsky, 2012 (Paramount)
“God gave Noah the rainbow sign.
No more water, but the fire next time.”
Old spiritual (Ralph Stanley)
I. The Flood
Will Russell Crowe ever again get a part that so suits his special screen persona and gifts — that natural genius he seems to have for projecting awesome tormented heroics and mad obsessions — as the one he plays in his new film: Noah, the lord’s visionary deadly servant in Darren Aronofsky’s sometimes crazy and often wonderful version of the biblical story of The Great Flood? Or a film that so stupendously sets those gifts off ?
Maybe he will and maybe he won’t. Crowe, it seems to me, has long since ascended to Burt Lancaster’s old throne as the brainy movie swashbuckler and later leonine old man; the only major things he lacks for the job are Lancaster’s world-devouring grin and his acrobat’s physique. But Crowe has the same kind of looks and range and ambition and the same virile appeal. Like Lancaster and George Clooney, he’s a thinking woman’s (and man’s) hunk with good taste in scripts, and, with this project, he’s lent his movie magnetism to the kind of rich, story, drenched in narrative grandeur, that might have made a great opera or epic poem and that, on the screen, tends to overwhelm us and overflow its boundaries.
Crowe, who has played warrior-rebel-heroes (in Gladiator, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar) and madmen, who talked to themselves and answered (in A Beautiful Mind) and bedeviled nerds who blew the whistle on their bosses (in The Insider) — here gets to be heroic and mad and the ultimate outsider (a man who really does have almost the entire world against him). His Noah starts out as a decent family man, idealistic, religious, generous, a good person in every way, with a loving family whom he loves.
Then comes the message, the obsession, the instructions, he believes, from God — a dream of drowning and of a big boat, a vision that he interprets as a Heavenly order to build the boat and rescue the animals of the world, and his family (at least temporarily) from the approaching Flood — and eventualy , to watch as the sinful world, condemned by God, is swallowed up in the mother of all tsunamis.
When the rains come down and the waters rise and rise, and the doomed masses of humankind outside the ark crawl over each other in a writhing, toppling tower, consumed by their frenzy to escape the inevitable cataclysm, and when Crowe’s Noah — huddling with his family on the huge deck of the ark — stares at the burst, pouring skies with melancholy acceptance and sorrow, it’s the kind of scene that almost cries out for a Richard Wagner or a Verdi to compose for it, a Bosch or a Turner to envision and paint its magnificent tumult. The movie does have composer Clint Mansell (Aronofsky’s regular musical collaborator) and production designer Mark Friedberg — and real-life, bleakly overpowering beginning-or-end-of-the-world scenery supplied, in Iceland, by The Creator. (For this movie, that may be enough.)
And it has Aronofsky, of course. And Russell Crowe. And a supporting cast that includes Jennifer Connelly as his warm but conflicted wife Naameh, and Ray Winstone as Noah’s brutal antagonist Tubal-Cain, and Anthony Hopkins as his sage, sly grandfather Methuselah and Emma Watson as the seemingly fragile, threatened Ila, one of his son‘s wives or wives to be. They’re all good, better than good. But the Flood blows them all, at least temporarily, off the screen. It’s the kind of super-theatrical disaster (masterminded here by special effects supervisor Burt Dalton), that movies were invented to give us (at least occasionally). That may disturb many Los Angeles residents or movie workers, awaiting and dreading the big quake — or other acts of God that may level the Earth and remind us how puny and tiny we really are.
The script, by Aronofsky and his collaborator on The Fountain, Ari Handel, is a dramatic elaboration and expansion of the tale from Genesis — following Noah from (briefly) his youth and the beginning of the great enmity between him and the man who killed his father, the evil and worldly Tubal-Cain (a weapon maker and descendant of Cain and a figure barely mentioned in the Bible), to the nightmare that Noah interprets as God’s message that he must build an ark (300 cubits long, 30 cubits high, and 50 cubits wide) to rescue the animals (two of each) and, at least temporarily his family — which also includes his youthful sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). (In those stranger days, “youthful” means 100-years-old or so; according to the Bible, Noah was pushing 600 and Methuselah had passed 900
Noah is aided in this mountainous, seemingly impossible task — building an ark that has three different levels for the various species (mammals, reptiles and birds, with the fish, I guess, left to the ocean) and, when finished, resembles a huge aircraft carrier — by monstrous but helpful beings called The Watchers, or Nephilim. Black and bricky, these giant fallen angels and one-time allies of humankind look like beings dreamed up for Transformers, The Lord of the Rings or The Fantastic Four, — thrown together with charred-looking stony blocks, and lurching like flexible rocky Godzillas over the terrain — they are probably among the only reasons Noah could build the damned thing in time for the Flood. That, and an obliging Creator who, when Noah needs wood for the boat, gives him a forest.
Wen that task is done, we get the spiritual and dramatic meat of the story: the Flood and its prologue and aftermath, with Noah apparently determined to complete what he regards as The Creator’s (the name God is never used) intended massacre of all his human creations, his own family included, and with Tubal-Cain (played by Winstone with the kind of effortless, raw unfiltered evil that suffuses his many great gangster portrayals) determined to become once again top dog. In the movie’s major flight of fantasy and fiction, Winstone as Cain‘s fierce descendant has sneaked aboard and stowed away on the ark, equally hellbent on killing Noah, stealing his family and taking over what‘s left of the world.
II. The Fire
The story of Noah and the Flood is one of the most compelling and terrifying in all of the King James version of the Bible — one of the many prose-poems that make that Holy Book qualify as great English literature as well as the word of God. And out of it, Aronofsky has fashioned something strange and marvelous and full of dramatic-musical-cinematic shock and awe. It’s not a great movie perhaps — I think it’s flawed, among other things, by the nearly exclusive use of digital and sculpted animals instead of at least a few living, breathing God’s creatures. But there’s greatness in it.
And controversy as well — as there was with Martin Scorsese’s furiously attacked 1988 film of Kazantzakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ.“ I remember seeing one of the “Temptation” protestors — a young woman who had obviously neither seen the movie nor read much if anything about it — being engaged, in respectful debate, by some people in my party outside the movie in Century City, and the way she suddenly cried out, in what seemed like real anguish, “I don’t want to go to Hell! I don’t want to go to Hell!”
Noah has apparently already offended some religiously over-protective countries. The governments of Indonesia, Qatar, The United Arab Republic and (perhaps appropriately) Bahrain, have all banned it. And a number of fundamentalist or sometimes right-leaning organizations here at home have piled on too, some of whom demanded that Paramount put on the film a credits note stating that the movie‘s script was not factual or biblical — which Paramount seemingly, eventually did. Buried in the credits is the usual disclaimer, stating that the characters in the film are fictional and not based on real-life — not based, in other words, on the real Noah, the real Naameh and the real Methuselah — which seems to me an odd not really happy compromise.
Aronofsky, who has made movies about secret mathematical messages and the mysterious presence of God (Pi), the narcotic-induced nightmares of bedeviled outcasts (Requiem for a Dream), quests for life to the end of the universe (The Fountain), a battered, fallen hero on his last stand (The Wrestler), and dances of good and evil set to Tchaikovsky (Black Swan), here gathers up all the dark, wild fragments of his own obsessions, and jams them together in a 139 million dollar aberrant Hollywood spectacular: a vast, deadly-serious, thunderously beautiful biblical epic that plays like a fever dream of humankind’s sunset (and sunrise). It’s an operatic film poem about the edge of madness and the end (or almost end) of the world, — an ode to the apocalypse, with a universe askew, a Creator enraged, and ex-rock ‘n roller Crowe’s Noah as a sad-eyed front man, building the ark that will be battered for forty days and forty nights, which may save or destroy them. But we know the story. SPOILER ALERT, It ends with sunlight and water. And land. And white doves. (I won’t say “and with a Crowe.”)
III. The Rainbow
Noah is one of several movies recently, including the comedies This is the End, and The World’s End, that have imagined or dealt with, the end of the world (or, in this case, with the near end of humanity and what could have been the end of the world). Obviously part of this trend stems from widespread international worries about the threat of global warming and of the damaging of the ozone layer. Aronofsky’s Noah, as you might expect, is a very ecologically-minded movie; that’s another thing it’s been attacked for. But it seems to me that the story of Noah has always been a tale with a built-in warning: If this goes on…
I sometimes ruminate on the end of the world too. Noah, at its best, makes you see and experience it (or its cinematic counterfeit) — and see it through the eyes of the tortured man called upon to cope with the chaos and the dark. The power of the movie emanates from that warning, and from that vision, and from the drama of Noah’s great dilemma: Can he still love a God who has destroyed all living people and creatures, save the ones on his boat? And must Noah, the last remaining patriarch, destroy all that he most loves, to fulfill God’s wishes and pay penance for humanity‘s flaws and crimes? Like Abraham, with his blade poised above his son Isaac’s head, Noah is a man, a good man, rent in two by what seems the necessity of violating his heart’s dictate to fulfill the Creator’s plan. And Noah the movie, torn between Genesis and the rules of the movie box-office game and Aronofsky’s personal vision, is similarly transfixed and at times similarly tormented, somewhere hovering above the abyss, somewhere over the rainbow.
“And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
“And what did you hear, my darling young one?
“I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warning.
“”I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.
“And it’s a hard…
“It‘s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”
– Bob Dylan.