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Noah Review: Epic Fantasy On A Biblical Scale
There’s one thing we should get out of the way first and foremost. Noah, as envisioned by director Darren Aronofsky, is not a retelling of a bible story. No, this film actually has very little in common with films like The Ten Commandments, The Passion of the Christ, or the recent Son of God. In fact, if it has any recent comparison (in concept, if not in quality), it would be 47 Ronin, which took a real historical event, and added dragons and witches. Similarly, Noah has no interest in maintaining historical or textual accuracy; its aim was to take a story from the bible and adapt it into a full-fledged epic fantasy film. And it succeeded.
Taken as such, and realizing that the film is presenting a story incongruous to the text, but doing so in an attempt to look at many of the themes, the film is undeniably fascinating. The film is divided up into three very distinct and separate acts, the first of which introduces us to this fantastical world. It’s a world where humanity has split, with the sons of Cain choosing to consume the world for their own benefit, and the solitary to the point of insignificant sons of Seth, who strive to protect the Earth, and who have a unique, magical connection to The Creator (the film only ever uses this title to refer to it’s omnipotent being). Noah, one of the sons of Seth, is a seer capable of receiving messages from The Creator in the form of often inscrutable dreams. After receiving one such dream in which he sees the world drowned, he heads out with his family on a quest to understand and carry out The Creator’s will.A lot of the first act is comprised of world building, and the film does an excellent job of it. We are introduced to the state of the world; desiccated, covered in ash, stripmined, hewn, and slaughtered into oblivion; this may very well be the first instance I’ve seen on film of a medieval post apocalyptic wasteland. The film really has to justify that humanity has to be wiped out for us to empathize with the protagonist, and it does a pretty solid job of it by presenting this ruined world they have made for themselves. This act also introduces many of the fantasy elements; a glowing combustible element called zohar, the giant fallen angels encrusted in stone called the watchers, and the myriad of abilities the sons of Seth possess due to their connection to The Creator (potions, hypnotism, healing, and fire swords to name a few). This section is also very reminiscent of old school fantasy films, with Noah and his family on a cross country trip in which they encounter various fantastical situations.
The second act follows the actual building of the ark itself, and the conflict with with local warlord known as Tubal-Cain. This is the section that the marketing has focused almost solely on, and it to some extent it makes sense, as it’s certainly the most dynamic. Between the encroaching hoard of people wanting what Noah has, the closer issues regarding his families internal conflict, and the logistical trouble of actually building this giant boat, there is plenty going on here. As the self-serving rabble leader, Ray Winstone puts his all into a fairly 2 dimensional role, but his gravitas sells it. His ideology of self-preservation above all else puts him into direct conflict with the selfless plans of Noah, and leads to one of the best battle sequences I’ve seen in recent years; it’s up their with any from Gladiator and Braveheart.
The third act switches gears, jarringly so, into what really amounts to a whole other movie. It delves into the psychology of the situation, asking questions about what it might do to a man to be asked to do something so massive, and so brutal, as wiping most of humanity. The question of humanities’ place in the world becomes a major theme here, as the weight of what incredible goodness and evil we are capable of becomes weighed against the fate of a planet. This section is far slower, more introspective, and more tragic than the rest of the film, but it will probably make you think about it the longest after you’ve left the theater.
The Sons Of Seth – The whole cast here is good, but Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins stand out above the rest. Hopkins, who actually has very little screentime, plays Methuselah, grandfather to Noah, mystic, healer, and old loon who lives by himself in a mountain. He brings class to the role while also being the films sole source of levity. Crowe, on the other hand, plays Noah as singularly dedicated, but with some major flaws. His dedication and zeal to perform his duties for The Creator and to protect the creatures of the land often clash with his sense of compassion and humanity, and watching those two sides wage war is always fascinating, especially when that conflict takes him to some very, very dark places.
Epic Fantasy – The film is full of fantastical elements, and for the most part these are not only visually impressive, but fleshed out and compelling. The best of these, and most important by far, are The Watchers, the giant, multi-armed fallen angels that look more like rock golems. They have their own tragic history that provides even more evidence for the destruction of the world, as well having their own journey and arc to go through. The culmination of that arc elicited a far stronger emotional response than I was prepared for, as well. I can’t believe I’m saying this about a movie adapted from a bible story, but the rock monsters were my favorite part.
Aronofsky Style – Let’s be clear, this is far and away Darren Aronofsky’s most accessible, mainstream film yet. There is none of obscurity of The Fountain at all. That being said, it is definitely an Aronofsky film; elements of the bleak tragedy of Requiem for a Dream, the tortured psyche of The Wrestler, and even some of the psychological terror of Black Swan are all identifiable in various spots. Mostly, though, his visual style is the biggest carry over. The whole film is gorgeous, shot amidst great sweeping vistas, and the stylization of many of the effects are clearly his; watching a stream make its way through the countryside in a rapid fire series of flash frames was captivating.
Family Conflict – Pardoning Jennifer Connelly, who was very good as the loyal but conflicted wife, the rest of Noah’s family was kind of a buzz kill. Logan Lerman, who I’ve seen be very good in other films, was dead weight here; he was supposed to present the ideological counterpoint, the just grown man who can’t help but want things outside of a selfless existence, but instead he came across as whiny and rebellious for the sake of it. Emma Watson was simply there for most of the movie, not providing much of anything, though she does have far more importance late in the movie and turns her acting chops up accordingly.
Act 3 Slowdown – The third act of Noah isn’t bad, it’s just far too different. After an intense, climactic second act, the films suddenly grinds to a halt to present us with something closer to a psychological drama than action adventure. It’s all very fascinating, but the sedate tone continues for too long, and a few too many new elements are introduced that don’t need to be there (the worst being Logan Lerman’s continued disillusionment with his father).
How you react to Noah will largely depend on what frame of mind you’re coming in to it with. It is certainly not an Anti-Christian film, but neither is it Pro-Christian. If anything, it’s only real message is one of conservancy and empathy, of taking care of the things around us vs. meaninglessly consuming for our own fleeting pleasure; which honestly, is as Christian a message as one is likely to get from a major Hollywood release. If you come at Noah with preconceptions of a biblical, moral, or political nature, you’re coming at it wrong. Instead, go to see Noah as a fantasy film, one with weighty, important themes and with more thought than the genre normally affords.