Reviewed by Noah Foster-Koth
Adapting a movie from a book is often — erroneously — seen as an easy path for filmmakers. On one hand, your screenplay is basically written, and the book’s fans provide a built-in audience for your movie. On the other hand, there are a million things that can go wrong when a book is translated from the page to the screen. The characters may no longer resonate. The book’s message may not survive intact. Inevitably, fans will complain that their vision of the book was different, and condemn the film for its perceived deviations from the source material.
One could argue that Darren Aronofsky’s latest project — a big-budget interpretation of the biblical story of Noah — was doomed to fail from its inception. The Bible has the ultimate fan following, and Noah is one of the most popular of all Old Testament heroes (some people are even named after him). Yet after sitting through Noah, what bothers me isn’t that the Black Swan director has taken reasonable creative liberties with a key passage from the Bible. It’s that those creative liberties don’t save the movie from being a loony mess.
The story gets started when God sees mankind’s wickedness and decides to drown them all, except for the virtuous Noah and his family. Noah and his clan have to load the animals onto an ark so that they may survive the storm and repopulate the Earth. Crowe is decent as the titular character, but the rest of the family is made up of dull archetypes. Emma Watson is forced to weep copiously in her one-dimensional role as Noah’s daughter-in-law (maybe all the tears help maintain the high sea level?). The only standout cast member is Ray Winstone, the superb British character actor who plays Noah’s nemesis Tubal-Cain (a deviation from the book, but a constructive one). When Tubal-Cain tries to justify mankind’s wickedness to Noah’s son Ham (Logan Lerman), he offers more twisted wisdom in a few minutes than Noah does for the entire film.
Tasked with saving the Earth while also damning its current inhabitants, Noah often questions what he’s set out to do. And so, in a way, does the movie. It feels as though Aronofsky can’t decide if he’s making Noah as an art-house mind bender or an epic fantasy adventure. When Noah visits Tubal-Cain’s village (where he sees animals eaten alive and women sold as property), it’s easy to get behind God’s decision to wipe out humanity. But one feels more conflicted about that choice when, in a later scene, we see the village’s inhabitants wailing for dear life as they drown in holy water. Moments like these are powerful, yet often the drama becomes melodrama.
The film’s self-serious tone becomes positively comical as soon as it unveils the gargantuan angels that protect Noah. Again, the issue isn’t that Aronofsky has deviated from the book; in the context of the film, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine God sending angels to help Noah fulfill his duty. The problem here is the angels’ appearance — they look like muddy Transformers animated by Ray Harryhausen. They would belong in Middle-Earth, but not on this Earth.
Granted, some of Aronofsky’s embellishments make for interesting images, particularly the apple of Eden beating like a human heart. But he consistently wastes the opportunities for visual flair already present in Genesis. The shot of the animals boarding the ark should be the most engrossing image of the movie. Instead, the creatures are shrouded in dust, and as soon as they’re onboard we never see them again. The choice not to show the ark land on Mount Ararat robs the movie of the grand climax it so desperately wants. Yet when the flood waters subside and the credits role, Aronofsky’s Noah is an original and sporadically insightful take on the biblical legend. I only wish it were also a good movie.