Monday, March 31, 2014

Noah

Alternate Title:  Not Your Grandmother's Genesis

One sentence synopsis:       Noah and his family must create an ark to save the Earth's wildlife in the face of God's intention to destroy the entire world.



Things Havoc liked: I should have seen this coming. I should have expected that a movie written and directed by Darren Aronofski, a man who has never met a story he didn't think could be made more insane, was not likely to be your bog-average late-March studio-castoff. This is the man who brought us Pi, Black Swan, The Fountain, and one of the shortlist candidates for the "Best Movie I Never Want to See Again" award, Requiem for a Dream. Nevermind that this is a major studio film in March, Doldrums season exists not for studios to dump terrible movies, but for studios to dump movies they don't know what to do with. Often these are the same things, but sometimes they are simply films too challenging or complicated for the dullards who run most Hollywood studios. And if nothing else Aronofski has long ago proven that he simply doesn't have a simple movie in him.

It is the distant past, or perhaps it is a far-flung, post-apocalyptic future (the movie actively hints towards the latter). The Earth is overrun with evil men, the descendants of Caine, the first murderer, whose children are nomadic scavengers, seeking to survive in a world whose natural resources have been utterly exhausted. Once, they ruled great empires and mighty cities, but all has crumbled to dust, and they have been reduced to cannibalistic savages, desperately seeking any means of survival as they wander a barren earth. Dodging these wandering bands are Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family, including his wife (Jennifer Connelly), his three sons, and a young girl (Emma Watson) taken in after being found abandoned and half-dead in the middle of the wastelands. A series of apocalyptic visions convinces Noah that the end of the world is coming, and he takes his family on a fantastically dangerous trek to a lonely mountain, where he builds an Ark to survive the coming storm. This much is the biblical narrative, and yet Aranofsky's vision for these events seems drawn from some mad mish-mash of Christian eschatological films such as The Rapture, Roland Emmerich disaster films, and Cormac Macarthy's "The Road". The world that Aranofsky has produced is nothing like the standard visions of biblical tradition, in which robed and sandaled men roam vast deserts to the accompaniment of string orchestras. Wrapped in ragged coverings like neo-apocalyptic barbarians, Noah's family passes the charred skeletons of skyscrapers and the rusting remnants of once-vibrant civilizations, bearing witness along the way to mad bacchanalian meat-markets in which the last desperate remnants of humanity devour one another in orgies of mass-cannibalism and barbarity. Barren, incinerated wastelands stretch across the screen as far as the eye can see, even before the first of the many apocalyptic events commences. When finally God pronounces his judgment, the imagery is terrible and bloody, as teeming masses of the damned are swallowed up by the cataclysmic flood, explicitly sparing neither the innocent nor the just. The weight of an event like the Deluge is front and center here, as is the immensity and inhumanity of what is, ultimately, the wrath of an omnicidal deity. In theory, the Flood was a purgation, a cataclysm that selectively punished the wicked and spared the righteous, yet Aranofsky seems to regard this notion the way we might regard the apocalyptic pronouncements of Jim Jones. God is sparing Noah and his family not because they are the righteous and the just, but because of reasons that may be completely arbitrary. Though the film never comes down one way or the other, it is unstinting in presenting an end-times that may or may not have anything to do with higher justice. It may well instead be a simple matter of indiscriminate, purposeless death.

All of which is well and good, but what does this mean for our main characters? Aranofsky's viewpoint is, a great deal. Noah spends the majority of this movie simply crushed by the weight of the responsibility that he has been entrusted with, a responsibility he doesn't even understand the nature of. Having had a hand in the virtual annihilation of humanity, an annihilation that is neither clean nor short, Noah is left a stunned, emotional wreck, desperate to prove somehow to himself that everything he has done was not in vain. Indeed, much of the second half of the film concerns Noah's desperate attempt to comprehend the intent of the Creator in sending the flood, an attempt which leads him to conclusions and actions that may make sense (at least to him), but are inescapably horrible. Noah's eventual conviction that God intends the extinction of humanity, and that he and his family were spared merely to steward the fauna of the world through the catastrophe and to enable them to recolonize the world leads him to a cold, almost psychotic abandonment of the rest of mankind. When his son rescues a young girl from the camp of the cannibals, Noah abandons her to die as "impure" despite her impassioned pleas and the anguished screams of his family. When the floating ark is penetrated by the anguished cries of the dying multitudes, he refuses to allow his family to save even the smallest child from the waves. His embrace of the terrible, yet ruthlessly logical consequences of such things visibly corrodes his sanity, leaving him a wild-eyed fanatic of a sort familiar to anyone who watches the news. Despite his awards and accolades, I've always felt that Russell Crowe is an actor who thrives in very specific types of roles, but the tormented obsessive is plainly one of them, as movies as divergent as A Beautiful Mind and LA Confidential can attest to. Here, he is perfectly on point, riding the line between satanic and stoic, until finally he falls apart entirely. The Bible records that following the Deluge, Noah became a winemaker and a drunk. This film shows us why.

But Crowe isn't the best thing in the movie. The best thing in the movie is Ray Winstone's turn as Tubal-Cain, the king of the aforementioned nomadic band of cannibalistic scavengers. Winstone is clearly meant to be the villain of the piece, lord of a group of bloodthirsty savages that engage in unspeakable acts, and yet the film gives Winstone a surprising amount of time to establish himself and his motivations. Rather than a raving psychopath, Winstone plays the character as a harsh man in a harsh time, who does what he feels he must do to survive, and does not apologize for doing so. Tubal-Cain inhabits a world with an active, hostile God, one that has pre-determined that he and all his people are corrupt and evil, and deserving of death, thanks to their heritage from the line of Cain. His response is almost Nizchean, as he rejects God's authority to judge him and his on such terms, thunderously denouncing God and Noah alike for the casual extermination they are party to. In defense of life, he is even permitted acts that would, from any other character, be heroic, leading a charge against biblical monsters ten times his size in a desperate attempt to save some fraction of his people. He also forms a bond, of sorts, with Noah's middle son Ham (Percy Jackson's Logan Lerman), the one who had to watch his father abandon an innocent girl to be trampled to death, explaining his philosophy of unapologetic survival and his rejection of Noah's conviction that his lack of blood purity should condemn him to die. If I'm being brutally honest, I identified far more with Winstone's character than with Noah, as a sane, if harsh man, confronted with a death-wreaking god and his mad servants, surviving in spite of the odds to rage against the dying of the light.

Say what you will about Darren Aranofsky, he knows where to point a camera. Noah is a beautiful, stark film, shot in loving long takes of desolate ruin. Combat sequences are a bit frenetic, perhaps, but do not employ shaky-cam, and manage to keep everything in focus. But the best sequences of all are a series of slideshow montages of the events before the film, either the biblical account of Eden, Caine, and Abel, or (of all things) the evolution of life itself, in a progression that could have been lifted straight from Cosmos. Insofar as it posits any theology, the film seems to run with evolutionary creationism as a basis, and consequently indulges in a retelling of the famous seven days of creation to the accompaniment of a Nova documentary on the origins of the solar system. All we're missing is Carl Sagan's voiceover.



Things Havoc disliked: There are some... questionable decisions on Aranofsky's part in regards to what else he includes with the film. The movie has angels in it, voiced by everyone from Frank Langella to Nick Nolte, but these angels (fallen angels, to be precise), come in the form of gigantic four-armed rock monsters that have an uncanny resemblance to the Ents from the Lord of the Rings. This serves to throw the movie back from epic, biblical awe into more mundane fantasy, cheapening the effect that Aranofsky is going for. Worse yet, the cosmology of these Angels makes little to no sense. They are angels cast down from the heavens for the sin of having interfered with mortals, fair enough, yet we see sequences later on of them being slain by mortals in fairly large numbers, until suddenly something changes off screen, and they are immortal once again... I think. Everything else in the film works in such an obvious and unstated manner, that the inclusion of these rejects from Middle Earth really begins to muddle everything up. I know the original story spoke of Giants, but perhaps there's a better way to represent that than raiding the Neverending Story's costume closet.

Sadly though, that's not the end of matters, as not all of the actors are up to the task of portraying what they are intended to portray here. Jennifer Connelly is simply not a very good actress, never has been in my mind, despite her turn in Aranofsky's Requiem, and when she's called upon to deal with events of this magnitude, she rather unavoidably comes across like a housewife who think its "just such a gosh-darned shame" that the entire planet had to be destroyed amidst horrific scenes of suffering and death. Meanwhile, Noah's elder son Shem (Douglas Booth) is wooden and uninspired, and his dialogue sounds rather like someone reading off a cue card. This isn't helped by the general tone of the writing in the film, which is way too direct and on the nose. Noah narrates his own actions repeatedly within the first hour of the film, describing his intentions in detail to people who already know what he's about to say, including the audience. I mentioned the flashback montages before, but there are also others, including one at the beginning of the movie that is done in a strange, almost Milleresque style, one that doesn't fit at all, and gets the film starting on the wrong foot. It improves, granted, but the first few minutes of a movie are the most important, and not the ones to drop flat on. Finally, there are some special effects issues in this film, particularly with the animals that Noah is saving (or attempting to). Several of the wide shots are bad enough to fit right into an Asylum film, as if the Scorpion King was coming to join Noah on the Arc.



Final thoughts:   Noah, a $130,000,000 Hollywood biblical epic, is one of the strangest movies I have seen in years. It is a film of contradictions, scrupulously accurate to the biblical account of Noah, yet daringly subversive of the prevailing Christian narrative, built around characters and settings simultaneously everything and nothing like most people's assumptions about scriptural stories. It deals with its biblical source material with what appears to be both scrupulous reverence and thunderous contempt. It defies easy characterization. It is madness.

Did I like it?

It took me several days to figure out an answer to that question to be perfectly honest. I was ready, at one point, to give it a fairly low grade, as the writing was stale and several of the actors weak. Yet the film is so at odds with what I expected to see, so self-aware of the contradictions inherent in the story of Noah, that it almost has to be seen to be understood. Over the course of the days since I saw the film, my position on it has improved steadily, to the point now where I regard it as some kind of mad artwork. It is not a great film, nor a flawless one, and will not likely be gracing my list of classic films to be remembered throughout the ages. But it is a unique film, with a unique vision, unlike anything I can recall having ever seen. And when you see as many films as I do, a unique, yet coherent perspective is something to be savored.

Final Score:  7/10

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