Three days ago marked the one-year anniversary of Roger Ebert’s death, and in thinking of how I’d write my review of Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, I keep returning to how I’d think Ebert would review it. I’d wager he’d have loved it, and possibly given it a four-star review. For one, it touches directly on subjects that he discussed over and over again, especially in his final years and mortality was on his mind; perhaps Ebert would’ve found some common cause with Noah’s willingness to face death, even if Ebert wouldn’t have shared Noah’s (Russell Crowe) bleak opinions of humanity. For another, Noah is a a religious film that focuses less on faith than it does on doubt; one can read Ebert’s glowing reviews of Terrence Malick’s two most recent efforts, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, for a possible template gauging his opinions towards works of great scope undergirded by faith but that raise more questions than they do answers. Best as I can tell, Ebert was an agnostic who never fully shed his Catholic upbringing, and these stories seemed to fascinate him throughout his career.
I’m an agnostic, too, and though I wouldn’t identify as a Christian though I was raised one, I think religion is a natural evolutionary tool (humans’ way of explaining the unexplainable) worthy of study and consideration. And I’m still someone who dwells quite frequently (and too heavily) on religion and bigger-picture (and open-ended issues) like existence, life and death, our place in the universe, and all that jazz. Because I can’t—and won’t be able to—tell you whether God exists, much less the form God would take whether God can communicate with us or whether we fit into some divine plan, I admire Noah‘s ambiguity on such inquiries. The film itself features fallen angels banished from heaven, left to roam Earth’s purgatory as rock monsters still inclined to protect “the Creation”; by contrast, the film depicts Noah kneeling in knowing acceptance of his Creator’s plan for him (and for all living creatures), though the God who has supposedly just confirmed Noah’s interpretation is shown to be a silent, ordinarily gray sky, the sun (and perhaps any divine edict, if there is one) clouded from view. And what Noah assumes are visions might just be dreams, their coming to pass either a ridiculous coincidence or a coincidence so beyond ridiculous as to be a communiqué from the Creator in whom Noah has placed all of his faith. This uncertain secularity elevates Noah above cloying fable, and its humanism is ironic because its title character believes his mission to be securing the death of humanity in the flood—his own family will have the added benefit of passing the storm in an ark they’ve built, but in Noah’s contemplation the species will die out with them, to beget no more. Even if Noah deciphers God’s message as one of preserving an idyllic state for innocent animals, “animalism” seems too cheeky a term to invent here.
I’d argue Noah nails down two main theses. The first is that our planet, though the product of an imperfect experiment, deserves conservation. Let me skip ahead through all the haughty global warming deniers’ whining to note that Aronofsky makes this point only tangentially and to remind you that whether you trust science or are ignorant, we share the world with a lot of other things that live and breathe but amount to shit on the living-being power structure. If you’ve read the New Testament, you’d recall that Jesus championed care for those marginalized by such power structures. It’s a small logical step from there to the recognition that we should protect that which was left to us, whether it’s our fellow women and men or the flora and fauna we like to gawk at on nature hikes. I use “left to” considering that even if there is a God in charge of all this, the dude checks in pretty rarely, and if so it’s usually to admonish the hell out of us, knowing we can’t retreat from our sinful ways. God gave us a shot, and like any good scientist didn’t destroy the evidence of nor tamper with the experiment. It’s just a stretch to say that Earth was “entrusted” to us—there’s not much to trust in Man’s duplicity.
The second is what comes after the flood, that even if humanity should survive and attempt an accounting of its imperfections, there’s not much hope that we can transcend our foundational sin. It’s quite an interesting point of study, I think, but while I like where Aronofsky is headed I’m a little befuddled at some of the story choices he uses to bring this argument to life. For one thing, I think this dilemma that Noah faces—he loves his family and thinks they’re better behaved than the rest, but understands God’s plan for Man’s death as encompassing even them—would carry more dramatic heft if some key plot points wherein Noah confronts what it means for his family to keep on living, like one involving Emma Watson’s character or another in which Noah’s son threatens to cash in on some antipathy for his father, had occurred after landfall rather than in the ark. It doesn’t help that the only truly riveting character to watch is Noah, once he becomes committed carrying the Creator’s plan out to extreme ends. (The other interesting character being God or, simultaneously, God’s absence.) Crowe is well cast, certainly, but the ark as locus for a lot of Noah’s hyperbole and violence adds the wrong kind of intimacy, hurrying up the conflict to a time that makes little sense in service of Aronofsky’s point, and leaving Jennifer Connelly (as Noah’s wife) and Watson (as his adopted daughter and love interest to one of his sons) with little to do but dart their eyes worrisomely.
Unfortunately, I spent too little time with Noah after the flood, and though the seeds for Noah’s radicalism were planted before the rains came, it was reductive of Aronofsky to permit his movie to devolve into a second-rate, Lord of the Rings-perverting orc orgy. The rock monsters I mentioned earlier are superfluous non-biblical inventions, really just plot devices for the building of the ark (which Aronofsky could care less about, frankly) and the fight sequence to come, as barbaric hordes descend on the ark’s door. Moreover, their rendering in CGI is not fearsome and in contrast with the rest of the effects’ commitment to naturalism—none of the animals look like creatures you couldn’t find at the zoo. Their presence also inhibits the film’s agnosticism. As intimated above, I found the film more powerful when, ironically, Aronofsky’s omniscience couldn’t confirm whether the God in which Noah believed existed, though maybe this quibble is more reflective of my own belief system than detrimental to the film’s ambiguity on this score. Still, if we’re not meant to know the true source of Noah’s visions, I’d posit that Noah would benefit from jettisoning the rock monsters.
I’d also posit that the film would benefit from using that void to shift focus onto other humans’ perceptions of Noah, which Aronofsky confusingly neglects. Those related to Noah evince no befuddlement at why he would embark on such a massive, crazy project. Okay, you might say, they’re his family, and the times would dictate obedience to their patriarch. But what of Noah’s friends and neighbors? In the movie, every non-family member is someone lower than the dregs of society, seemingly engaged in rape and violence all day and all night. More troublingly, I think, is that even all these barbarians believe Noah is right and that they must get on the ark. That strikes the wrong chord—remember the protagonist’s acquaintances in Field of Dreams or Take Shelter, who think the guy building the baseball diamond or the tornado shelter is a fucking NUTJOB. They’d view Noah, like many marginalized biblical heroes, the same way. I’d think Noah was crazy, too, because the ark is an absurd undertaking, and the grandfather he visits for advice (played by Anthony Hopkins) is a senile old man who hilariously just rambles on about berries in all his scenes. (NOTE: Anthony Hopkins’ scenes are not played for comedy.)
It’s probably saying something that Noah is probably not Aronofsky’s most grandiose or operatic movie. He is, after all, the director of Requiem for a Dream (a film I thought was awesome and DEEP when I was sixteen and find overwrought and pretentious now), The Fountain (I haven’t seen it, but it follows a couple in three completely different time periods), and Black Swan (like Noah, fascinatingly shot and with pangs of great feeling but, in my opinion, a lack of follow-through on its central conceit). My favorite film of his is The Wrestler, possibly because it’s his most private, preventing any larger distractions from lessening the film’s final heartbreak. (I also love Mickey Rourke.) I don’t want to say, though, that Aronofsky should stay away from existentialism or the unanswerable, because I think Noah indicates that his head is asking some beguiling and alluring questions, nor would greater minimalism be commensurate with his filmmaking scale. But I would caution him to take a lesson from his dramatization of Noah. People might think he’d be crazy for not leaning on fantasy and CGI, but I’d rather see a clearer and more confident articulation of the consequences of such destruction, shown or not shown, on the more intimate, individual level.