Tuesday, April 1, 2014

'Noah' (2014) directed by Darren Aronofsky

Noah is completely bonkers in the best possible way.  The Biblical epic has fallen out of fashion in mainstream cinema and, buoyed by a love of The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur, Aronofsky is determined to bring it back with style. He does with an incredibly earnest, largely humourless, crazily imaginative and idiosyncratic ecological fable by way of some of the most symbolic and densely written portions of The Bible.

Everyone knows the basics of Noah.  God, like someone wrestling with a malfunctioning iPhone, has thrown his hands up frustration at the immoral shit infesting his creation and decided to 'Reset to Factory Settings'.  He's basically sticking a paperclip in the back of the Earth and trying a hard reset - starting again from scratch.  Well nearly from scratch anyway. He instructs Noah to build a big boat and load up two of every animal on it, the idea being that they'll survive the flood while everyone else dies horribly and when the waters recede he can have another stab at creation. I guess everyone, even God, gets at least one do-over.

What you might not remember from Sunday School are the gigantic murderous rock monsters, the post-apocalyptic industrial civilisations, the guns, steel and welding masks, the generous lashings of incest and Noah going totally nutso and setting his murderous sights on newborn babies. But hey, The Bible is a crazy book full of chatty snakes, donkeys and bushes so the odd rock giant and baby-stabbing really shouldn't be so surprising. Aronofsky clearly finds a perverse freedom to make a crazy film by sticking as close to the text as possible - it's hard to think of a better defence than to refer directly to the text themselves when making a Bible film.

The end product is a defiantly individualistic film with few obvious antecedents.  There's elements of Lord of the Rings in the grubbily plausible fantasy world, the wrecked industrial landscape recalls the Fallout series of games, the gangs of grubby raiders are lifted from Mad Max, and the way the giants move and fight are peculiarly reminiscent of Michael Bay's Transformers.  Being tossed into this world is a dislocating experience that Aronofsky exploits to the fullest, placing himself in the position of introducing us to an exciting 'new' fictional landscape within one of the most familiar stories of our civilisation.

The weight of myth lies heavy in Noah, blanketing every single decision and action in the film with incredible significance.  This intangible element is largely why the film works, arising from a combination of committed performances, excellent production design and weighty cinematography.  To various degrees of success the cast throw themselves headlong into the material, and though the younger members of the cast like Emma Watson and Logan Lerman occasionally come a bit unstuck they at least put in the right amount of effort.  But Noah is ultimately a film about grizzled old badasses, the performances from Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins and Russell Crowe redefining roaring, confident machismo.

Winstone, playing Tubal-Cain, King of men and direct descendant of Cain, hurls himself into the role with barnstorming gusto. Who wouldn't when you get to stand in front of an army and give a rousing speech vowing vengeance against God? Later on, when he's charging at fallen angels, spear in hand and roaring a throaty cry of rage it's difficult not to have a sneaking admiration for the guy, even though he's obviously the villain. Hopkins as the 969 year old Methuseleh is a little more restrained, interpreting the role as a playful Yoda type, shot through with the steel of countless past battles.  

But it's Crowe that utterly dominates Noah.  He's so burly, so bearded and so macho that him being able to build a boat to contain all the world's animals begins to seem oddly plausible. Impressively Crowe takes Noah from idealised, kindly all-father right through to homicidal maniac without ever losing the character's thread. He excels in subtly externalising the internal agony of the character, typified by a great shot of him sitting alone in his ark listening to the terrified screams of the hundreds outside being dashed to death on rocks by a vengeful God.  Later, when he reaches the coldly logical decision that all humans must die, he portrays a man out to stab some babies to death and still basically keeps the audience's sympathy.  There's not a huge amount of actors that can pull that off, even fewer with his astonishing level of physical commitment.

What does all this inspiration, artistry and effort add up to then?  In Aronofsky's hands, Noah becomes an ecological parable: a debate between misanthropy and philanthropy.  The Antediluvian industrial world of Noah is polluted and violent, threatened by rising sea levels that are the direct result of man's nature.  Sound familiar?  The meat of the movie is a battle between the idea that humanity is irrevocably destructive; even with the best intentions we destroy our environment and the world would be better off without us in it, and the opposing idea that humans are intrinsically worthwhile as a way for the universe to understand itself and add context to the chaos of nature.  

At stake is the beauty of the natural world, the 'innocent' animals the true victims of our unquenchable hunger.  Given the broad strokes of the fable it's not exactly surprising that Noah comes out in favour of animal rights, deliberating placing the worth of animals above even human life.  Refreshingly it even comes right out and says that eating meat is morally wrong - a position that I happen to agree with - though one I've never ever seen a mainstream movie espouse so plainly.

The film shares this spiritual/humanist intelligence with Aronofsky's earlier The Fountain.  I met Aronofsky after I saw Noah and asked him about this connection. He informed me that the two films comprise a loose duo - both dealing with the consequences of Eden - one with the Tree of Knowledge and one with the Tree of Life.  In addition the seed pod that's so significant in The Fountain reappears in Noah as the trigger to begin construction of the Ark. After their respective apocalypses both films conclude with the seeds of a brighter future being sown in the soil.  It'd be all too easy for both films to conclude that life is pointless and that humanity is a cancer on this planet, yet even after all the misery and pain Aronofsky proves an optimist, his films finding worth and purpose in the teeming, smelly, vicious mess of mankind.

Noah is far from perfect. Often it's frankly a bit of a mess, but a beautiful, intelligent mess packed with astounding visual imagery (that Creation sequence - woah!) and yet another awe-inspiring score by Clint Mansell and the Kronos Quartet.  It's nice to know that there's people willing to splash out tens of millions of dollars to realise Aronofsky's idiosyncratic vision.  The result is a fascinating piece of cinema that defiantly stands apart from the crowd and resists easy classification.


Noah is on general release from April 4th

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