Can a Darren Aronofsky film released by a major movie studio still feel like a Darren Aronofsky film?
At first glance, the concept of Noah was a fairly surprising and left-field move for filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. Having previously brought us films like Black Swan, The Wrestler, The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream, and Pi, Aronofsky seemed to specialize in movies that were gritty, low-budget fare, independently financed and critically-acclaimed. And then he signed up to make his first big-budget studio film - a move that certainly requires some relinquish of control in exchange for the financing - and decided to tackle, of all things, a well-known tale from The Bible.
After seeing Noah, though, it's easier to understand the connection threading these movies together. Aronofsky's "signature" seems to be in his protagonists. Whether they're chasing drugs, knowledge, a cure for death, the promise of a new career, or the revival of an old one, Aronofsky focuses on characters who are driven to the brink by a singular purpose. These characters skate, and often cross, a thin line between devotion and madness.
I'm not going to recap the story of Noah and his ark, because you already know it, but I'll elaborate on what it adds: Noah's struggle with his decision regarding whether man should be allowed to procreate and multiply after the flood recedes. Noah watches his fellow man brutalize animals, one another, and the land, and questions whether there is room for humans in Eden.
This is the largest liberty the film takes with the Biblical version of the tale, in which it's a given that mankind should continue its existence after the flood. Aronofsky portrays this choice as Noah's to make. This is the point in the story where the word "environmentalism" gets thrown around, but the story is more nuanced than one that tells us we should treat our planet with more respect.
More specifically, Noah's struggle focuses on the concept of anthropocentrism, a belief that man is the most significant and central species on Earth. On the other side of anthropocentrism you have biocentrism, a belief that all living things have equal value. In addition to questioning the "be fruitful and multiply" element of Genesis, and whether that idea came from God or Noah, the film's message also calls into question verse 1:26 of Genesis:
"And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth."
The word "dominion" here is key, and one that has been subject to some inspection, historically. Dominion implies rule and subjugation - supporting the concept of anthropocentrism - but some believe this word could more accurately imply that man should tend, shepherd, or care for animals.
The above concepts are fairly cerebral and make for an interesting movie, but Noah runs over two hours and spans decades. Noah's struggle regarding whether man deserves to procreate carries the last half of the film, but the first half takes on a broader tone. The movie feels a bit like a "biblical Lord of the Rings", documenting Adam and Eve, a battle between the descendants of Seth and Cain, and the fall of the Watchers, rock-like CGI creatures, angels who banished to Earth and bound in rock when they tried to help Adam and Eve.
Some of this stuff works (I personally loved the Watchers, even if they did look like Transformers), some doesn't (specifically the confusing battles between Cain and Seth's two lines, and the fairly one-note portrayal of Cain's evil descendants). The effects are decent but a little murky in color, infrequently escaping a brown and gray color palette. The music is much of the same - murky in most places and a little over the top in others, which surprised me, as I'm a huge fan of Clint Mansell's scoring. And, there were definitely a few uber-cliched portrayals of animals getting onto the ark in pairs, set to triumphant-sounding music. Some of the above bothered me, though not enough to disengage me.
The biggest flaws of the movie, for me, were:
1. The end: The graphic novel ends with more doubt, with Noah questioning why he can no longer hear God's commands, and surely fewer rainbows (literally: it ends with rainbows), which ends up feeling like a big studio compromise.
2. (Some of) The acting/casting: Aronofsky is incredible at taking actors that are part of the Hollywood mainstream but in the realm of average, and churning out Oscar-worthy performances (Natalie Portman, Mickey Rourke, Hugh Jackman: their first best performances, in my opinion, came from his films). Russell Crowe is elevated to a higher caliber than I expected and put out a solid performance, and Jennifer Connelly is as good as ever. But everyone else is fairly forgettable (Anthony Hopkins, Logan Lerman) or downright bad (Emma Watson, Ray Winstone).
There were also a lot of small, artistic moments in Noah that I appreciated, like when the film juxtaposes The Big Bang and the creation of the universe against God's building of the universe in 7 days, which looks beautiful. This movie isn't for everyone, and it has its fair share of problems, but I fell on the favorable side of the mixed critical divide.
I give it a B.