Bible meets sci-fi in Aronofsky’s eco-parable ‘Noah’
Nobody named “God” ever appears in Noah. Darren Aronofsky’s massive drama is obviously inspired by the Bible story, but he handles it as sort of a non-denominational, philosophical disaster movie. Noah and his family retain their familiar names, and there are passing references to Eden, but no specific geography or time frame is ever suggested, while the mostly ravaged and desolate landscape could be either pre- or post-industrial, the ancient past or the distant future. This is the Bible as dystopian sci-fi epic.
And most of the time it works pretty well on those terms, especially in the first hour or so, as Aronofsky sets up his eco-parable about human folly and violence vs. the wonders of nature. It isn’t until much later that the narrative drive springs a leak and the movie starts to flounder.
Russell Crowe delivers his usual, reliable mix of dynamic screen presence and robust physicality as Noah. He and his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and their three young sons are reclusive stewards of the last green area in a world beset by warrior tribes who rape, murder, slaughter animals for food, and despoil the landscape mining for precious metals. (These tribes are descended from Cain, while Noah is a descendant of peaceful Seth.) Noah is justifiably wary of men, and when he starts having troubling dreams about the end of humankind, he packs up the family and journeys to consult with his ancient grandfather, Methuselah (a twinkly Anthony Hopkins, having a hell of a good time).
Noah plants a seed from Eden in the barren ground and up springs a forest, from which he understands he’s supposed to build an ark to preserve a breeding pair of each species of animal during the coming flood. As the building commences, his sons grow up, as does the foundling they rescued from a burned-out village, Ila (Emma Watson), who is now the sweetheart of son Shem (Douglas Booth)—to the consternation of son, Ham (Logan Lerman), who must face a depopulated future alone. But the forces of evil are lurking on the periphery, led by ruthless tribal chieftain and metal-forger Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone).
There are many exhilarating scenes of clouds of birds, rivers of snakes, and herds of animals coming to the ark. All of the fauna are CGI, and look just a bit off-kilter (like the armadillo-plated goat in an early scene), suggesting prehistoric or otherworldly creatures. Also eerie, but very cool are gigantic, soulful rock creatures called Watchers, who turn out to be fallen angels punished for meddling in human affairs (“Marooned on Earth in these stony shells”), and awaiting Divine forgiveness.
Nobody mentions “God,” but everyone acknowledges a Creator (referred to by one and all as “He,” of course), who made the world and all living things. He doesn’t have cozy chats with Noah, only sends dreams, from which Noah struggles to interpret His will. Indeed, interpreting Divine will—for better or worse—becomes sort of its own sub-theme throughout the film.
The villainous Tubal-cain asks for a sign of favor from the Creator, and when he doesn’t get it, he goes out and does whatever he wants anyway (at one point, pouring venom into the ear of gullible Ham, telling him, “A man is not ruled by the Heavens, a man is ruled by his will.”) But Noah, too, faced with what he interprets as his obligation to put an end to the human race once their job of saving the animals is done, asks the heavens if he must do this terrible thing. When he appears to get no response, one way or another, he just assumes that’s a “yes.” If nothing else, the film cautions us to be wary of anyone who presumes to know Divine intent.
Sadly, Noah loses its shape and its grip on our imagination in its final third. The battle to defend the ark against Tubal-cain’s army of marauders as the rains begin to fall goes on forever (although there’s a terrific effect when each Watcher, fighting for Noah, is accepted back into Heaven in an explosion of light). Aronofsky is overly fond of tedious repetitions of the same sequence of key images, and he should have ended the film before the oddly flat coda, a conclusion that’s not only silly and baffling, but a little creepy.
★ ★ 1/2 (out of four)
With Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Anthony Hopkins. Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. A Paramount release. Rated PG-13. 138 minutes.