Thursday, August 7, 2014

Aronofsky Ambitiously Adapts Bible Story With "Noah"

Here's a picture of Russell Crowe running from bad guys, because there
aren't any good pictures of rock monsters (this article delves into why).
Darren Aronofsky makes a very particular type of film. The word visionary gets thrown around a lot when describing directors, but with someone like Aronofsky, the designation is warranted. He employs an artistic approach, one that is sometimes opaque, often impressionistic and always overflowing with ideas.

In general, Aronofsky doesn’t build films in predictable ways, concerning himself more with provoking reactions by ambitiously exploring various emotions, themes and concepts than with things like story, character and traditional structure.  He’s not afraid to go big, which is why he does things like include gigantic rock monsters in his adaption of Noah’s Ark.

Yes, you read that right. Noah, Aronofsky’s retelling of the well-known tale from the Book of Genesis, has rock monsters. I know it sounds ridiculous, and initially it certainly plays that way, but it actually has a way of making the story more plausible. At least, it helps explain how Noah (Russell Crowe) and his small family could build such a gigantic ark – when you’ve got a bunch of rock monsters to do most of the labor, it’s not so impossible. And really, if you’re willing to make the giant leap of believing in God, it’s just a small step to buy into the notion of fallen angels turned to rock as punishment for attempting to help humans after they were cast out of the garden.

That’s the thing about Aronofsky – at their most bizarre, his films are unexpectedly penetrable – even when he’s jumping down rabbit holes, he’s guiding us along readily, not leaving us in the dust and challenging us to catch up the way someone like Shane Carruth does with something like Upstream Color (which I reviewed here).

Honestly, the rock monsters aren’t the most surprising part of the film. Instead, I’d point to the reimagining of Noah as a stubborn and self-righteous brute who deems humanity unworthy of a second chance but is then tormented by survivor’s guilt in the aftermath of the storm. He condemns his middle son Ham (Logan Lerman) to a life of loneliness when he does not help him to bring a woman onto the Ark and threatens to kill the child of his eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth) if the baby is a girl since that would allow the possibility of repopulation. Like the rock monsters, this interpretation has biblical precedence, but it does clash strongly with the pious interpretation of Noah most are familiar with. It plays like a critique on modern day religious zealots, but it also humanizes the story, exploring the toll such a horrible task would take on even the most decent of men.

For the latter half of the film, Noah is very Jack Torrance-like, but early on, he’s portrayed as the one upstanding and honorable man in the world. He comes from the line of Seth, while the vast majority of humanity comes from the line of Cain, who killed their brother Abel. Although Noah is a vegetarian who forages only for what his family needs to survive, the descendants of Cain are meat-eaters who have destroyed the land with industrialism. And thus it is clear – Noah was the first environmentalist.

At one point, Noah tells his family the creation story – it’s a beautifully realized scene that visually combines creationism with evolution. In so doing, he indicates that when the creator looked out at what he had done, he saw that it was good and made man in his image to protect the world. However, the film’s antagonist Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) tells a different version of the story. In his version, the creator looked out at what he had done, felt something was missing, and so he made man in his image to hold dominion over the world.
There’s a clear distinction there, and Tubal-cain raises a worthwhile objection to the idea of saving mere animals while leaving woman and children to die. Unfortunately, he’s broadly drawn and undeniably evil, so his viewpoint isn’t given the fair shake it might’ve been given with a slightly less barbaric approach. I think the film is aiming for us to see a middle ground – to disagree with the wasteful and destructive ways of Tubal-cain and his kind but to be wary of the radicalism that Noah descends into – but it gets muddied a bit given the lack of nuance from the villain.
Noah is a very easy film to laugh off or laugh at. Ham could be dismissed as a pouty horn dog out for a piece of ass, the Lord of the Rings style battle scenes could easily distract, and I mean, come on, rock monsters. Oh, and I can’t forget about Tubal-cain randomly grabbing live animals and taking a bite (putting that appendix to use I guess) and Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah, a guy with super powers who just wants to eat berries. And did I mention the rock monsters?
However, there’s a clear effort to engage the material here, and Russell Crowe is more than up to the task of portraying the various shades of this complex and flawed Noah. The story of Noah’s Ark is so well established at this point that it barely has any impact for modern audiences – but somehow Aronofsky has adapted it in such a way that it actually registers. He digs deep to deliver a film that makes you think and makes you feel.
That’s pretty impressive. Even when the film seems a bit bloated, the CGI overwhelms the story and the script doesn’t live up to its ambition, Aronofsky is still doing his thing, provoking reactions with a big approach to big ideas. Sometimes this works like gangbusters (Black Swan), and other times, it’s a bit less successful (The Fountain). Either way, it’s always interesting, as it is here with Noah, and I’ll take that any day of the week in lieu of a more traditional, snore-worthy adaptation. B