Based on the famous story from the Bible, Noah (2014) is director Darren Aronofsky’s latest magnum opus. It tells the story of a man who is called by his Creator to perform an important task – to save the innocent after a devastating flood washes the sin of mankind away from the earth.
I feel that any discussion of this film should be prefaced by a mention of the writer’s religious beliefs. I think any individual’s perception of this film will be coloured by their faith, for reasons which I’ll explain later. This makes sense since this is a Biblical story, and arguably one of the most famous stories from the Old Testament. Myself, I’ve been an atheist since very early life and probably haven’t opened a Bible since attending high school. When entering the world of this film, all I knew about Noah’s ark were the absolute basics of the story – the big boat, the animals, the flood, the dove.
This review contains a number of spoilers about key events and characters in the film. Please be careful if you haven’t seen the film yet!
The good news is that for people who know next to nothing about stories from the Old Testament (e.g. me), the film begins with an explanation of the clans of people who will be the main focus. Noah and his family are descended from Seth, and other clans are descended from Cain. This gives them a different perspective on the world, and different sets of morals. The film does seem to ensure that Biblical concepts are explored for people who might not know much about them. We are firstly given some background to Noah’s life, showing a moment of his childhood, explanations of the different clans and their ways of life. Further into the film, we learn more about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and how this event relates to Noah’s story. The film does not dwell too much on these though, and they seem to be included just to make sure that all bases are covered for those not ‘in the know’.
Russell Crowe was a great choice for Noah. Crowe portrays Noah as someone who is complex and distinctly human – a three-dimensional version of the man in the Bible. He plays the character with such passion and fire but also a lot of tenderness. Aronofsky’s Noah is a man who is driven by visions. He has unwavering faith in and commitment to the Creator, but at the same time, he occasionally struggles with the responsibility of his task and in interpreting the directions he is given; as any human would do when confronted with such a monumental project. This is one of my favourite things about this film. Noah isn’t just a chosen man and animal saviour in this film – he’s a human man with realistic emotions and internal conflicts. After the flood drains away, Noah experiences what could be described as survivor’s guilt, as he isolates himself from the family and drinks himself into a stupor. In all times during the film, Aronofsky seeks to bring the Biblical story down to a human level. Casting someone as artistically rough as Russell Crowe to portray a holy man was one of his better choices.
In terms of the supporting cast, I was firstly quite impressed by the child actors, who are only present for a short time. Jennifer Connelly is Naameh, Noah’s wife, and plays her with refined dignity. Although Noah is the real star of the show, Naameh also provides a grounding for some of the more emotive elements of the story, and does so in a convincingly desperate way. Emma Watson plays Ila, the wife of Noah’s son Shem, in probably her best cinematic performance. Meanwhile, Anthony Hopkins puts in a memorable performance as Methuselah, the world’s oldest man and Noah’s grandfather. Even though the gravitas of his role in the story is at times reduced to comic relief, Hopkins’ performance ensures that you won’t forget him once the aquatic drama sets in.
My favourite member of the supporting cast was Ray Winstone, who plays Tubal-cain, Noah’s adversary from an opposing clan. He is such a great villain, and sets up a fairly convincing ‘good versus evil’ element to the story. When the flood occurs, Tubal-cain sneaks on to the ark, and stays there for a while, convincing Noah’s son Ham to assist him in getting rid of Noah so that the world’s population can be re-established according to his clan’s way of life. He plays a role similar to the snake in the Garden of Eden, except instead of offering Ham an apple to bite, he offers the meat of a bird from within the ark (thereby effectively rendering that species extinct – one of the film’s semi-plotholes).
Where the supporting cast is let down, however, is in the performances of Noah’s sons – Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). Firstly, Japheth is never given enough screen time to be memorable or have too much of an impact on the story. Shem is a similar case. Although we see Shem’s love for Ila and him assisting in building the ark, beyond that, we don’t know much about him. Whereas Ham, who as I understand plays a pretty big role in Biblical history, never gets the kind of development that is needed for his character’s actions to be have a real emotional impact. If I could use one word to describe Noah’s three sons it would be underdeveloped. Which is a shame, because they historically play as much of a role in the developing story as Noah does. In particular, it would have been good to get a better insight into Ham’s mind as he betrays his father and assists Tubal-cain on the ark. As it is, we only got a few scenes of him sitting around looking worried about it.
Visually, this film is spectacular, which is a testament to the genius of cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who worked with Aronofsky on Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), and Black Swan (2010) – all of which are renowned for their mindblowing visuals. Some of the land elements of the film were shot in Iceland, and Libatique makes great use of the sprawling, bleak landscape to show how isolated Noah and his family are. The landscape and ruins that they discover almost make the film look like a post-apocalyptic thriller – some of the ruined structures that they find early on in the film look almost too modern and angular to be found in Biblical times. I once read an interview with Emma Watson where she said that visually, the film was meant to look like it could have been two thousand years in the past, or two thousand years in the future – the ambiguity of time and place is intended to give the film a sempiternal, mysterious quality.
Noah’s visions are also visually stunning and can be quite creepy, particularly the visions of drowning animals and humans. One of my favourite visual motifs of the film was its use of stop-motion animation to tell stories in a very stylistic way. When Noah plants a seed to grow an entire forest (not sure of the Biblical equivalent of this), we see a water source in the ground growing into a river, growing to run across the land and sprout trees and vegetation on a massive scale. We also see a really interesting recreation of Genesis, starting with the Big Bang, showing the evolution of species and environments. This evolution sequence was one of my favourite moments of the film because I loved the scientific undertones. It was very brave of Aronofsky to include this in a film that is undoubtedly of a religious nature. Noah tells his family the story of Genesis as they are shut in to the ark, just as the deluge has begun and we can hear the screams of people drowning outside. This moment as a whole was one of the best, and an excellent chance by Aronofsky to tell a story within a story. It reminded me of the flat-out amazing visuals in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011).
Another interesting tidbit about the Genesis sequence: I noticed that when Noah is telling his family about the beginning of the earth, that he definitively says there was nothing when the world began. He says that there was nothing, then there was light, earth, environments, et cetera. Just as man is introduced, then there is mention of a Creator. I wonder if Aronofsky was insinuating that God and religion are man-made phenomena. This is also one example of Aronofsky sitting on the fence with regard to the film’s religious themes.
There were some visual elements that I would describe as ‘sci fi’ in nature but for some reason it feels inappropriate to do so. The animals that arrive on the ark are very strange to look at. At the beginning of the film we see a dog with scales on its body instead of fur, like a dog-dragon hybrid. Also, one of the most ‘sci fi’ parts of the film is the fact that Noah enlists the help of big rock creatures, named Watchers, to build the ark. The backstory of the rock creatures is explained – they were once angels, but were doomed to stay on earth in rock form after assisting the people that left the Garden of Eden. However, they look and talk a bit like Michael Bay’s Transformers, so I found them extremely difficult to take seriously.
Also worth a mention is the costuming, which also seems too ‘modern’ to be Biblical. There were a number of moments where I actually coveted some of the clothes that the characters were wearing. Noah has some killer boots and one of the children in the first part of the film has an amazing coat that I would love to wear in the upcoming winter months. Even though some may say this detracts from the story and pulls you out of its universe, for me, it furthered my appreciation for the film as a work of art.
The visuals of Aronofsky’s films are never disappointing, and this film is no exception. Additionally, the score by Clint Mansell is incredibly beautiful.
However, there were a number of elements of the film that did draw my attention in a negative way. The script is at times completely clunky and the dialogue can be pretty cheesy. The dialogue makes use of too many modern phrases such as “I guess”, and “he’s in good hands”, that abruptly removed me from the film’s world. Although the modern costumes didn’t bother me, the fact that during the big fight scene of the film Tubal-cain’s clan had a working grenade launcher slash flamethrower weapon contraption… it was completely ridiculous. The story also develops in a stop-start fashion, mostly due to the big fight scene in the middle that some may see as necessary to provide a more concrete conflict for the story, as opposed to Noah’s internal conflict. I wonder, did this huge fight really have to take place? We’ve seen Aronofsky tackle the internal conflicts of his characters so well in Black Swan (2010) and The Wrestler (2008) – as well as all of his other films come to think about it – that the addition of this big clan versus clan conflict seemed really unnecessary. Although the conflict scenes are quite scary and brutal, in my view it would have been a much stronger film if it kept to the basics.
It makes sense that Aronofsky would stretch the boundaries of the fairly short source material in order to have enough ‘content’ for a full 2-ish-hour-long film. But at the same time, Aronofsky doesn’t seem to ever figure out who Noah‘s audience is. We never see the Creator directly talking to Noah, as Noah’s directions come in the form of visions. A religious person might call this direct communication, and a non-religious person might label the visions as delusions. To me, it seemed that Aronofsky wanted to make a film that was a full account of Noah’s ark without the traditional Biblical angle so that it would be accessible for a non-religious audience, but with enough religious content to please people of faith. In doing so, he misses both audiences, and paradoxically probably angers Christian people even more. If he had stuck to one of the two sides of the fence, he could have narrowed the film’s scope and made it even better. Noah is still quite a good dramatic film, but as it is undeniably a Biblical film, these debates are inevitable.
As you can see, I had a lot to say about this film. I think it’s absolutely due to Aronofsky’s skill at crafting a human narrative that even though I am a staunch atheist and generally a very cynical person, I can’t stop thinking about this story. There were elements of the film that I didn’t especially like, but on the whole, this is a very enjoyable film. The visual and creative elements of the film are stunning, and they looked amazing on the big screen, providing one of those cinema experiences that just don’t exist when you watch the film at home on the television. I would definitely recommend seeing it at the cinema.
Is it worth paying for a ticket?: Yes.
Watch the trailer here.
Note: If you want to read an amazing review on this film and learn more about its issues with Biblical accuracy, I would highly suggest reading Davide’s review over at Black Is White – an extremely informative review that I found so helpful in learning more about the source material!
Watch this film at Amazon!