Noah (★★★)

noah_ver13If there’s two things out there that I really don’t enjoy, it’s stories from the bible and fantasy epics in the vein of The Lord of the Rings franchise. So, it’s with some manner of surprise that I can report that Darren Aronofsky has been able to capture my appreciation with Noah, a presumably very different take (judging by the protests coming from the religious right, at least) on the biblical title character. Almost more of an environmentally centered disaster movie than anything else, and 100% not a film looking to preach, Aronofsky continues his perfect run in my book by keeping closer to his previous work The Fountain here than allowing things to actually get, well…biblical. There’s no mention of the word god (they refer to “the creator”), the opening line of the flick is the less religious “in the beginning there was nothing”, and overall this is a story that manages to be a moral tale without preaching as well as a bit of a look at survivor’s guilt as well. It also has a somewhat ambiguous setting, so one could even contend that this is a tale from the future, as opposed to the past. As someone who is almost completely nonsecular by nature, these are all pluses that I’m sure will be seen as negatives by some. Regardless though, if you strip Noah of all of that just look at it as a fictional film, it’s a well made action epic by Aronofsky that shows how he would handle a summer blockbuster. Armed with some very strong performances (notably from Russell Crowe too), Aronofsky and company have crafted something very unique. It’s not the best thing he’s ever done, but it’s probably better than many of you are expecting.

I have to imagine that all of you are at least somewhat familiar with this story, so I’m not going to really go too in depth on it, though I will cover the basics as the film tells it to us. Basically, after a prologue establishing how wicked most of the men inhabiting the Earth are, we meet an adult Noah (Crowe), who lives far away from the rest of mankind with his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and sons Ham (Logan Lerman), Shem (Douglas Booth), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). When Noah begins to see visions of an apocalyptic flood, he goes to see his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who essentially confirms to him that the end of the world is coming. Along the way to see him, Noah and his family rescue an orphaned girl named Ila (Emma Watson), taking her in as their own. Noah’s visions compel him to build an ark to protect the innocent animals, and he’s aided in this by the rock monsters known as The Watchers. When the vicious king Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) gets wind of this, he raises an army to take the ark for himself. This leads to an all out battle, and that’s just up until the rain begins. Once the flood comes, Noah and his family face a whole different set of trials, most notably Noah’s obsession with ending humanity after his lineage passes. I don’t want to get into too much of the third act, but in many ways it becomes a smaller and even darker film from there.

russell crowe noahI’m happy to report that even with a certified blockbuster budget to play around with, Aronofsky is still fully capable of getting winning performances out of his cast. While no one here is likely going to be up for Academy Awards, Russell Crowe is very good in the title role. He channels the intensity of this man on a mission, never letting you lose sight of the task he has at hand. It’s not always a likable performance, but it’s not supposed to be. This is the best I’ve seen Crowe in a few years. He’s best in show, but the rest of the actors and actresses on screen are no slouches either. The next best performance to me is from Logan Lerman, who plays Noah’s most impulsive son, a boy who potentially runs the risk of falling to the dark side, as it were. Lerman shows off some nice range here, continuing his run of strong work. Jennifer Connelly is mostly a supportive wife, but she gets to do more in the second half. The same goes for Emma Watson, who has a very specific plot development around the midway point that causes a lot of trouble for the family. She’s solid the whole way through, but especially good once the final section of the film begins. Douglas Booth more or less broods in the background, but he fits well as Noah’s son. The other notable performance to me is Ray Winstone’s, who shows off some realistic viciousness as the villain. Anthony Hopkins is fine but unspectacular in his supporting turn, while the voices of Frank Langella and Nick Nolte pop up as two of The Watchers. Also on hand we have the aforementioned Leo McHugh Carroll, plus the likes of Mark Margolis, Marton Csokas, and many more. Still, it’s ultimately Crowe’s show, and he handles it well. He’s fully committed to the character, and it’s one of the reasons why the movie succeeds.

Working again with co-write Ari Handel (they previously did The Fountain together), Aronofsky comes off a bit poetic at times here, so it’s clear that Handel brings out a softer side to the filmmaker. There’s some incredible intensity at times, but the final act is definitely a slightly hopeful message from Aronofsky. The screenplay is pretty solid, but it never particularly calls attention to itself in any truly notable way. Aronofsky’s direction is what you should admire, once again armed with some magnificent cinematography from Matthew Libatique. He also has a new Clint Mansell score on hand that’s among the best to come from their many collaborations. Technically, it’s a beautiful movie, with impressive visual effects (the rock monsters especially have a lo fi vibe of sorts that lends a distinctive look to the flick). Aronofsky doesn’t direct the action sequences in any groundbreaking way, though his choices sometimes reminded me of the ones that Christopher Nolan made during the final parts of his Batman franchise. It’s not a perfect film, given to some slower moments during the nearly two hour and 20 minute running time, but there’s a lot to like here, resulting in an often hypnotic and undoubtedly ambitious final product.

Awards wise, I think the very nature of this movie will make it too divisive for any real attention, but the technical categories should almost all be in play for Noah. Particularly, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, and Best Visual Effects are categories where Noah deserves nominations, at least early on in 2014. I don’t know if any will come about, but it deserves consideration. Production Design, Original Score, and Visual Effects are the ones with the best shot though, for what that’s worth.

In the end, Noah is a Darren Aronofsky film through and through, that much is clear. For me, that’s a good thing, but if you go in expecting chapter and verse from the bible, you’re going to be very disappointed. That’s not the kind of flick that Aronofsky and company have set out to make, so you need to understand that right off the bat. There are some flaws here and there, but this is a very good (if not great) theatrical experience that deserves to be seen.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!