Noah, to put it simply, is a frustrating film. It’s a film that shows flashes of real audacity and grace, but those flashes are surrounded by a dark, gritty tale of destruction and renewal which never feels fresh and doesn’t pack enough of a punch. For its technical skill and its high points, I give it a guarded recommendation, but it definitely falls short of its full potential.
The descendants of Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth, are few in number and live simply, taking from the Earth only what they need (they do not eat meat), and avoiding the descendants of Cain, who have spread across the planet and formed a sort of industrial society with the help of the Watchers, fallen angels who are now lumbering rock giants. Noah’s father Lamech is killed by the king Tubal-Cain (played for most of the film by Ray Winstone), and as an adult, Noah (Russell Crowe) lives in the wilderness with his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and his children Ham (Logan Lerman), Shem (Douglas Booth), and Japheth (Leo Hugh McCarroll). After Noah is forced to fight off and kill a trio of poachers, he decides to move his family into ever more remote territory. He has an apocalyptic nightmare showing the destruction of the Earth by a flood, and sets out to seek the counsel of his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). En route, he rescues a wounded girl named Ila (Emma Watson), who has a wound which presumably makes her infertile. They are joined by a Watcher (Kevin Durand), who becomes their guide and protector.
Methuselah gives Noah a seed, which Noah plants and grows instantly into a forest, which Noah decides will be used to build an ark. Construction of the ark takes some years, and as it nears completion, Tubal-Cain and a band of his now-desperate subjects come to claim the ark for themselves. Although Noah turns back Tubal-Cain, Ham has already begun to fall, however gradually, under the king’s sway, just as a rift between him and Noah grows over Noah’s order that he not marry. Meanwhile, the animals–first birds, then reptiles, then mammals–begin boarding the ark, and a soporific incense conveniently keeps them docile for the duration of the Deluge. Tubal-Cain rallies his troops for battle as the storm clouds gather, and Ham sneaks into the enemy camp, where he meets a girl named Na’el, whom he forms a bond with. Ila, feeling that her barrenness makes her unworthy of Shem, goes looking for Ham, and encounters Methuselah, who gives her his blessing–making her fertile. She and Shem find each other in the woods and make love, while Ham and Na’el begin running back to the ark as the rain begins to fall. Na’el is caught in one of Tubal-Cain’s traps (bascially a bear trap) and Noah, finding her and Ham, takes Ham with him and leaves Na’el to be killed by Tubal-Cain’s forces. A standoff, with the Watchers killing hundreds of Tubal-Cain’s warriors, ensues, and as the waters rise, the Watchers return to Heaven and Tubal-Cain is able to cut a hole in the ark’s side and sneak in. The last of the warriors are repelled, and the Deluge wipes out all life on Earth.
The final act deals with Tubal-Cain’s plot to seize the ark and found a new, post-diluvian order, and Noah’s increasing conviction that God’s intention is for the human race to end with his children, which becomes so extreme that he announces he will kill Ila’s child if it is a girl. These two plots collide at the climax, after which we have Noah, drunk and naked (he does not curse Ham, rather Ham sets off alone to make his own destiny), and the finale, which looks forward to the rebirth of the world and a hopeful future for humanity (symbolized, unsubtly, by a rainbow).
While the story of the film is unnecessarily dense given the simplicity of the source (some embellishment was required to help it reach feature length, but the film is well over two hours long), that is, ultimately, not what keeps it from achieving greatness. There isn’t one singular flaw that really damages the film as a whole, but a seemingly minor point might actually explain a fair amount: the animals that board the ark are almost all CGI. Not only that, but the animals feel like something of an afterthought here, and the use of some mysterious smoke to put them under for the duration of the voyage comes off as a mild cop-out. The film is not without grandeur; the ark set is quite impressive (and was actually built), and there are other impressive moments I’ll touch on later, but this sense of awe and wonder is all too rare, and while I realize Aronofsky is approaching the material from a non-religious stance (Aronofsky is himself not religious), the film only intermittently feels like an epic.
John Huston’s 1966 The Bible: In The Beginning… has its issues, but the Noah sequence is quite strong (Huston himself plays Noah, which works quite well), and, as the clip below shows, they used real animals, and for my part, I find the earlier film more powerful because it is real. Obviously using all real animals would’ve been prohibitively complex and expensive (as was shown by the troubled production of Evan Almighty), but the use of a little more reality, rather than CGI masses, would have given the film some of the weight it otherwise troublingly lacks. Here’s the clip from Huston’s film:
Of course, some of the film’s lack of impact also has to be blamed upon the script (by Aronofsky and Ari Handel). Many critics have argued the film is thought-provoking and explores issues of faith in a more complex manner than the average blockbuster. Perhaps it does, relatively speaking, but the film is not as deep and complex as it wants to be. Again, it has moments that work in this regard: Noah’s allowing Na’el to die, or his increasingly psychotic determination to stop the extension of the human race, do make one feel just how great a price was paid to wipe the Earth clean and start again. The sight of wailing masses on a peak, being washed away a few dozen at a time by the waves, is an affecting one. The Deluge (or the Flood, if you prefer) was no simple matter. And yet, can one take away anything from that?
Some reviews have cited a speech Tubal-Cain makes shortly before the big battle, where he speaks to God and argues that, in his use of power to end life or perpetuate it, he is quite like God–why, then, does God not favor him? It’s a fair point, but it’s sort of tossed off in the film as it is (it’s not really emphasized, and is sort of lost in the ensuing battle scene). More effective, I think, is a later scene on the ark, where Tubal-Cain seizes a lizard and begins eating it; when Ham protests, saying that he and his family are the animals’ protectors, Tubal-Cain replies that God made Man because, having populated the Earth with beasts, God was unsatisfied and wanted beings that could subjugate the beasts and take dominion of the Earth. It’s probably the most philosophically interesting argument the film offers, but it’s a talking point for the audience, not a matter that necessarily bears dramatic fruit.
Too much of the film just feels drab and grim. I can’t easily name antecedents for the film’s style, yet I still found the tone familiar, even tiresomely so. It rarely felt truly dark–just Hollywood dark. When it tries for something more transcendent, it’s also only intermittently successful. Moments like the depiction of creation or the recounting of the Fall of Man (the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge pulses like a heart) are handled cleverly and with a pleasing directness (though the special effects are uneven, seemingly trying for a stylization that looks a lot like underbudgeted ineptitude). But the final rainbows (a sort of radiating pulse in the sky) are fairly silly, and for every great shot (there’s a shot of Noah and Naameh silhouetted against the dawn that’s quite beautiful), there’s a lot of handheld tedium that just feels…familiar. There’s a lot of blood and dirt, but it doesn’t add up to much.
To give credit where credit is due, the film’s aesthetic is quite intriguing, and a great deal of credit must be given to production designer Mark Friedberg and costume designer Michael Wilkinson. Tubal-Cain’s society is a weird mix of Biblical and post-apocalyptic styles, with some fairly modern metalwork alongside animal skins and ancient weaponry. (There’s some type of glowing mineral that’s used for general industrial purposes; what is and what exactly it does the film never makes clear, as far as I recall.) Noah’s family is somewhat similar, though less martial. The ark is an intriguing design; rather than a standard boat, it’s a giant rectangular box, looking like a modern industrial framework more than anything else. It’s an interesting approach, and one that I think works pretty well without overwhelming the rest of the film.
Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is a mixed bag, as I’ve mentioned. Clint Mansell’s score is fine, and has some strong cues, but it’s not terribly memorable. The special effects, as noted, are variable, but the Watchers are excellent, even if they seem to be cut from the same cloth as the aborted rock monsters from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Aronofsky’s direction is fine, but that’s about all I can really say for it. I do not feel compelled to lavish more words upon it.
The cast is a strong one, but the performances tend to be a bit overwrought. Crowe is good, and he’s especially effective at realizing Noah’s fanatic inflexibility in the final third, but there’s not quite enough to the material to make it one of his best roles. Winstone is fine as Tubal-Cain, and is convincingly assured of his right to rule all that he surveys, but again, there’s not a ton to the role. Connelly’s Naameh is solidly subdued early on, but she tends to substitute shouting for intensity as the film progresses. Ditto Watson, though as I recall, some reviews singled her out for overwroughtness, which isn’t really fair. Lerman is good; actually, he’s quite good, as he gives one of the film’s more nuanced performances–Ham is kind of a prototypical adolescent, torn between the values of his parents and the values of the world, and Lerman plays that inner struggle, hampered by his own lack of maturity, fairly well. Hopkins gives the film some of its more human elements and most of its humor (though he’s stuck with a weird, silly running bit about wanting berries). The other performances are there; none of them are particularly worth mention, and Durand (along with Nick Nolte and Frank Langella) is wasted as the Watcher, since his voice was remixed to the edges of intelligibilty.
I must also mention an issue a friend of mine raised–that the cast is white through and through, despite the fact that the film takes place in a world that developed completely differently from our modern one. And in a film like this, which could have challenged Hollywood’s tendency to whitewash and been totally justified in doing so, the choice to use an almost totally Anglo cast is a massively disappointing one. It’s just another way in which the film fell short of its potential.
I’m not sure how to sum up my feelings on Noah. I could argue it has more virtues than I’m giving it credit for, or I could argue it’s more flawed than I’m pointing out. I was decently compelled during the viewing of it, though I knew I was not watching a great film. And it does have its redeeming factors. But it is unquestionably a flawed, and in many respects underwhelming work. I wouldn’t tell anyone not to see it, but I wouldn’t easily recommend it, either. I’ve given you my take on it, but really, use your own judgment in deciding whether to see it or not. This is one case where I find myself at a loss for words.