Rainy Signs From Above
It’s pretty easy to tell God has something planned in Noah, director Darren Aronofsky’s provocative, artistic, problematic Old Testament epic. When the first raindrop falls onto the scarred volcanic earth, it punctures the ground with a sizzle and instantly births new life. A small flower springs from the gravel, a microcosmic foreboding of imminent destruction and environmental cleansing. Later, a large forest will consume the land and geysers will spout fountained fury from beneath. Humanity has failed its Creator, so the Creator must fail humanity.
God’s red pen markings aren’t punitive suggestions though. They’re written in crimson Sharpie with the permanent ink of man’s blood, which is spilled quite frequently before weather’s overthrow. Blood also haunts Noah’s dreams, divine interventions that spell mankind’s end, filled with recurring scenes of Eden, creatures drowning, and, of course, an arc, that Noah is tasked to build. Russell Crowe, as this bearded and ragged patriarch, heeds God’s desolate imagery through his subconscious in order to save himself, his family, and every pair of distinct animals that can cram themselves on board.
The imagery is quite stunning. Reptiles slither from obscurity and huddled masses of mammals emerge from the forest. The camera catapults from the thickets in through the multiple frames of the spacious vessel. Soon, legions of men, the poisonous remaining kin of Cain, will attempt to do the same. Their fates end more severely, blocked violently by fallen angels known as “The Watchers,” mechanical rock-formed giants with yellow glowing eyes and cores. They seem like stand-ins for the magma-infused monsters in Clash of the Titans. Their devotion to serving Noah’s prophetical commands grows as the sky falls.
Leave it for Aronofsky, along with co-writer Ari Handel, to find some artistic room to wriggle between the short biblical confines of Genesis. His creation is at once devotional and practical, a simile of his own creative work. From his beginnings in Requiem for a Dream to his most recent efforts in The Wrestler and Black Swan, he has consistently struggled with and challenged implementing his vision through the blockbuster lens. He remains imprisoned to Noah’s search for answers and miraculous signs and still attempts to subvert his narrative burdens. Noah says things like, “Strength comes from the Creator.” The arc meanwhile is a less glowing interpretation, a hulking mass of rectangular kindling.
What you get is a mixed media collage of great ideas, shtick dialogue, and occasional brilliance. Aronofsky animates the satanic snake and an apple pulsing with temptation and later uses a stop-motion photography technique to rejuvenate Russell Crowe’s gravelly narrated stories about the world. Crowe is the gravity to this at times self-serious and others humorously self-aware tale of surreal survival. He, the remaining descendant of peaceful Seth, must provide safety and assurance to his loosely tethered family with wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly, playing Crowe’s spouse for the first time since A Beautiful Mind). Together they raise three sons, the eldest of whom Shem (Douglass Booth) and Ham (Logan Lerman), aim to find wives, and eventually children. Ila (Emma Watson), Shem’s woman, is adopted into the family but is barren. Ham resents his father after he refuses to save the wife he’s chosen.
Most of this movie is volatile negotiation between father and sons. Special incense puts the animals aboard to sleep, which allows for a spiritual family drama to unravel. Watson impressively, incrementally finds ways to cry hard and then harder, and Connelly steals a scene desperately arguing with Crowe, before falling victim to her own tears. These emotional outbursts are precipitated by Noah, whose constant struggle is battling his inner conscience with God’s.
Ham, the middle son, has a deeper struggle following his father’s vision while being tempted with an opposing perspective by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), the ruthless leader of Cain’s army. Noah sees a punished future devoid of man. Tubal-Cain sees man as the only end, chest pumping his troops with misogynist fervor. Their polar beliefs become clever devices to elucidate interpretation of man’s place and dominion. At one point a graphic adds historical punch to this debate. A warrior’s silhouette begins with Cain’s rock and evolves into enhanced weaponry, a split-second history of aggression.
That’s what Aronofsky provides: doses of psychological horror with overt intent on self-reflection. One moment beautiful wilderness surrounds playful lust, the next, the slums hosting Cain’s army provide slaughtering savagery. Tragedy and beauty are never carefully defined or far apart. Think back to Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler making his suicidal final jump into the ring, or Natalie Portman falling gracefully possessed in Black Swan. Crowe is just as determined to fulfill humanity’s intended destruction, ready for his Arc to become a sacrificial tomb.
Noah doesn’t rely on religion as much as it does on the spirituality of specific shots. The first raindrop of the flood, which the camera follows speeding down to earth, hits Crowe’s softly lit nose. Later, Aronofsky jets back up the same airspace and we observe a world enveloped by hurricane masses. It’s Aronofsky doing his best Terrence Malick. The universe’s origins are pictorialized again underneath the biblical exposition, graphics unconfined to seven literal days, resembling a cosmic vision closer to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s liking.
By the end of this seasick trip Noah has gone considerably crazy. He relies on looking to the sky as his only confirmations of sanity, which are sometimes reinforced, and other times sorely disregarded. Then the dove finds it branch and the clouds display every color of the spectrum. Noah is good for that. Its happy-ending story invites multiple analogies, ones that seep into present day environmental catastrophe, and others that speak to the intimacy of man’s responsibilities. For Noah, it’s about finding that balance between personal conviction and selfless saving. For Aronofsky, it’s about negotiating artistic vision and commercial pandering. Each proves that both can be attained, and that both have their merits.