By Jarrod Jones. This is RETROGRADING, where this is the beginning. The beginning of everything.
THE FILM: Noah
THE TIME: 2014. Darren Aronofsky had just cashed in all his awards-season cache to make the ponderous and visually daring biblical epic that had been gestating in his brain for years.
RECOLLECTIONS: Walking out from the theater of my friendly neighborhood multiplex, the April 2014 screening of Noah left a packed house of people wandering the lobby in a solemn, traumatized delirium. “It was… good?” One woman said/asked an aghast boyfriend, who looked so bewildered that his returned silence was probably for the best. The few children that attended the screening had muted frowns on their cherubic faces — they had seen something, sure, but their facial expressions emoted a confusion that heralded the night terrors they would be enduring in the very near future.
Which got me thinking – was Noah meant to be a feel-good Biblical epic? No. Was it promoted as such? Kinda. Who was this film made for? Not the casual moviegoer, that’s for damn sure, the sort that may be unaware of cinematic anarchist Darren Aronofsky, the man behind such ferocious works as Requiem For A Dream and Black Swan (and this week, mother!). The very man who swindled 125 million dollars from a major Hollywood studio to systematically blow each of our minds right out of the theater doors that Tuesday evening.
A literal interpretation of Noah and his ark may make for some pleasant Sunday School chit-chat, but Aronofsky’s Noah has zero intentions of glossing over the more ugly facets of the Old Testament; it almost revels in the bestial carnality of the descendants of Cain (personified by a brutish Ray Winstone), getting every inch of mileage the (barely) PG-13 rating can go. And while it spends much of its time establishing the wanton depravity of Man, the film roots itself in the humanity of Noah (Russell Crowe). A family man set in the ways of purity – he’s the sire of Seth, Adam and Eve’s more well-adjusted scion – Noah is a man burdened with visions that are interpreted as messages from the Creator, and they portend awful things for the future.
No one was prepared for the level of mind-fuckery to be had with Aronofsky’s creative re-tinkering of Biblical scripture, but every person involved was moved by it, for better or worse. As far as sheer spectacle and bold absurdity is concerned, Aronofsky defied expectations and made one of the decade’s most brazen and assured films yet. It may also be one of its most confounding.
THE DIRECTOR: “Noah has been turned into a nursery school story,” Aronofsky told the L.A. Times back in 2014. “And it’s not a nursery school story in the Bible. It’s the end of the world.” In order to tell the story of Noah and his ark in a manner befitting the filmmaker’s long-held ambitions (Noah inspired a creative spark in the director at age 13), certain licenses were taken, all of which infuriated religious groups — including the National Religious Broadcasters, a conservative Christian group, who threatened to boycott the film unless Paramount Pictures provided a disclaimer before the film’s release that stated Noah was not adapted from actual scripture. (The studio obliged, without the director’s approval.)
Of all the things Aronofsky put on film to make Noah’s creation (and later, his implementation) of the ark more, um, “practical”, the Watchers may have been the most divisive. Depicted as six-armed stone encrusted angels that looked a hell of a lot like what happened when Optimus Prime laid down with Treebeard, the Watchers are seen aiding in the construction of the vessel that would go on to shelter only the pure of spirit. The Watchers have a stunted movement that eerily recalls the stop-motion works of Ray Harryhausen, and whether that was intentional or not, they’re effectively haunting screen creatures. Though how much they work — or rather, fit — in Aronofsky’s overall epic is another story entirely.
THE CAST: As storm clouds begin to ominously collect over the world, societal agitations bring the feral Tubal-Cain (Winstone) and his people to Noah’s front doorstep, demanding refuge from the impending rains. Thus conflict ensues, and it is that very conflict between Tubal-Cain and Noah that drives the film into broader, Peter Jackson-esque territory. It’s here where Noah gets downright silly.
The film’s second act suffers most from all the film’s calamity and skirmish. Juxtaposed against Russell Crowe’s sincere performance (it’s the best he’s been since Gladiator), Aronofsky throws a lot of ham at Noah, embodied primarily by Anthony Hopkins (apparently still in the check-cashing phase of his career). Once the waters begin to rise (along with the body count), Aronofsky offers some respite in the form of Noah’s retelling of Genesis, a gorgeously edited sequence that pushes the film firmly away from debacle, and straight into cinematic bliss.
When Aronofsky keeps his focus on the story’s core themes of doom and rebirth, instead of allowing the film to mire in the muck of it all – Noah soars. It’s the genuine humanity offered from the majority of the cast – with an emphasis on Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson – that gives the film real heft. If it weren’t for all its broadening scope (not to mention a couple of casting missteps: seriously, Douglas Booth, get the hell out of here), Noah might have succeeded as Aronofsky’s thrilling allegory of the peril humanity places onto the world. This movie is so close to greatness, it hurts.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? Of all the films in Aronofsky’s repertoire, with its high-mindedness and visual splendor, Noah might be the easiest to recommend. But while its ideas provoke the mind, its action most certainly bludgeons the spirit.
RETROGRADE: 8.5 out of 10