Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Noah (2014) – Review

Review: Noah is a visually impressive and character-driven adaptation of the story found in Genesis (which is very similar to other flood narratives from other comparative mythologies, predating the Book of Genesis). The film is about the world of men coming to an end. First there were Adam and Eve and they had three sons: Cain, Abel, and Seth. Cain killed Abel and his descendants have built the empire of man, spreading man’s dominion over the world, but also corrupting and destroying the world with their greed and desire to consume everything without regard. Seth’s descendants, however, have been at peace with nature, living off the land and trying to be good in the eyes of the creator. Many years have passed; Noah and his three sons are the last descendants of Seth while Cain’s descendants have all but ruined the world. The creator speaks to Noah, giving him a task. He must build a great Ark to shelter the innocent (the animals and his own family) as the creator is sending a flood to cleanse the world of all other living things and their wickedness (except animals that live in salt water, they are fine, but all fresh water life is doomed as they have no place on the Ark and cannot survive the salt water). For Noah, this task is a great undertaking that will test his resolve and faith in the creator.

Let me start this review by first saying that like any other film adaptation based on something previously released, I base my review on the film alone and not on its relation to the story it is using as its inspiration. They are two sole and separate things (something people tend to forget and get upset when adaptations are different than they imagine they should be). Noah the film is not beholden to Noah the story in the Book of Genesis in any regard whatsoever. Writer-director Darren Aronofsky has his license as a storyteller to do whatever he wants with its characters, themes, and narrative, to adapt them to the narrative he wants to tell (the story of Noah is merely the base from which to build his own narrative), as any other filmmaker has with any other story they may be adapting. Again, each is its own completely separate thing with its own merits (and/or faults). I specifically and explicitly say this here because this story holds significant meaning to many who may or may not like this interpretation solely because of the way it compares to (their own interpretation of) the source material (although, one might argue that the story of Noah’s Ark in the Book of Genesis, like many other stories throughout the Bible, is an adaptation of other narratives that predate it, like the Sumerian flood in the Epic of Ziusudra or the Mesopotamian flood stories in Epic of Atrahasis and Epic of Gilgamesh texts, taking, leaving, adding, and changing story elements to fit its own purpose).

Aronofsky’s narrative has a lot going on, and speaks to today’s audiences and addresses modern concerns. The film is in a way timeless, as these characters could exist in the past or far in the future (or even on a different planet). Aronofsky never explicitly refers to it as Earth (although, it is more or less inferred). The world of man is a dark and ugly one. Their cities are a stain upon the earth and they use everything without regard for the future (strip mining, butchering animals, and so on). Meanwhile, Noah and his family live solely off the land, only taking what they need and they are vegetarians. Aronofsky is clearly equating the world in which Noah lives to our own, one that is ravaged by decades of pollution and seemingly irreversible slights against nature. One in which we still value today above tomorrow, disregarding the long-term consequences that our actions have on the planet. Noah lives in harmony with his world while Tubal-cain (the King and descendant of Cain) and his people have destroyed the world around them. The creator favors Noah while wishing to eradicate everyone else. This could be read as a cautionary tale, in a sense. If we, as humans, do not change our behavior, our Earth may forever be ruined and become a barren wasteland that no longer supports life (as it is shown in the film). I am not much of an environmentalist; but from what I have read, the Earth’s climate has already been profoundly influenced by our current way of life, and while this may not be catastrophic in our lifetimes, or even the lifetimes of our children, it will be cataclysmic one day, a day that is being ever accelerated forward by are disregard today. Noah is a warning maybe? The great flood may not be immediate for us; but as the polar ice caps melt (at frighteningly alarming rates) and sea levels continue to rise, the great flood very well may eventually eradicate many of today’s major metropolitan areas gradually (apparently, this review is going to be a little preachy…happens).

The world of the film has an adventure fantasy feel to it, filled with monsters and magic (something I always felt too when I watched the cartoon stories at Sunday school, as if the world once had magic and other fantastical things and creatures, but they were all lost in time). Aronofsky, however, does a good job making these elements feel at home in his narrative. The animals are all slightly different from real animals (for example there is a dog looking animal that has scales or armor of some kind – like a dog mixed with an armadillo, but it works given the harsh conditions of the world in which it lives). Again playing into the notion that this may be like our world but is not our world (either in terms of taking place on a different planet or so far in the past or future that it is unrecognizable).

The aesthetic for the film is fairly dark and muted, as the world is mostly just a wasteland. Yet, when Aronofsky does use color, it creates something quite striking visually, juxtaposing the bleakness in which most of the narrative exists. I really like the manner in which he displays the story of creation and Adam and Eve (and so on). Along with Noah’s visions of the coming flood (which can also be taken as his conversations with the creator), these sequences seem to play almost like hallucinations with wonderful silhouetted figures and magnificent time-lapsed photography. If nothing else, Noah is visually impressive.

Like Aronofsky’s other films, Noah too is at its heart a character piece. Yes, the visuals and scale make this an epic, but Aronofsky is much more interested in the mental strain that Noah being chosen to carry out the creator’s task is having on the man and his relationship with both his family and mankind as a whole. It is a great burden – to be the one ultimately responsible for allowing mankind to essentially cease to exist. Noah believes that it is the creator’s intent that all men should die, leaving the world for the innocent (i.e. the animals, bugs, fish, and so on). This creates terrible tension in his relationship with his family. Noah seems to descend into madness and the film becomes very claustrophobic upon the Ark, almost as if the film has taken on the tone of a horror piece. Yet, Aronofsky does this to allow Noah the ability to make a profound choice between the love he feels for his family and the responsibility he feels he owes the creator. Love versus pain and death, in a sense. While the building of the Ark and gathering of all the animals is grand and epic, it is these emotional questions that make the film truly interesting and compelling on a deeper level.

I also found the dichotomy between Noah and Tubal-cain to be very interesting. Noah is obviously the hero of the film and Tubal-cain the villain (there is even a scene of Tubal-cain murdering Noah’s father in the prologue), but it does not always feel that way. Tubal-cain gives a rousing speech at one point, rallying his people to take the Ark and live, preserving humanity. This speech plays in such a way that it almost wins over the audience too. Humanity has its faults, yes, but as selfish beings we always root for our own preservation above all else. There is a part of us that wants to see humanity continue, because there is always hope that tomorrow will be better (even if we seem to only act in a manner that champions today). Plus, Noah is half-crazed and unlikable by this point in the film. We too find that the ambitions of the creator (to cleanse the world) are secondary to our own survival, and thus for a moment, we may root for Tubal-cain (even though he is mostly despicable). And later, when Noah is on the Ark, alone with his family, vowing to carry out what he believes is the intention of the creator for all human life to end, splintering his relationship with his family, we again find ourselves rooting against Noah. But in the end, he chooses humanity, hope, and love, thereby redeeming himself in the eyes of the audience, finding his way through the madness and coming out the other side willing to start again, hopefully forging a better world.

Overall, Noah is a grand film experience with wonderfully illustrious and impressive visuals and a gritty and emotionally compelling central character-driven narrative. Noah must endure great personal strain and sacrifice that takes a mighty toll on the man. That said, parts of Aronofsky’s film are a tad heavy handed and the pacing is at times a bit slow. This is an epic blockbuster-style film that features all the flash and bang of other blockbusters, but lacks the overall entertainment, instead creating a deeply gritty emotional character journey. In this sense, it is a blockbuster that is not actually a blockbuster at all. It is very ambitious, and for all its little faults, still manages to be something quite spectacular.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Noah is very much in the same vein as Darren Aronofsky’s other films (it is his sixth feature). It is dark and gritty and at its center features a character falling prey to seemingly un-yielding outside pressures (it reminded me of my favorite of his films, Black Swan, in moments). Noah allows Aronofsky to look at the darkness in man; but unlike Black Swan, this time the protagonist can find his way out the other side, allowing the audience to also see the good in man, the redeemable quality of man, and that man ultimately has choice/reason – the thing that sets him apart from beasts (who are presumably ruled by instinct and not reason). It is not just that the creator rules the world and men are but his pawns to do with what he will; man ultimately has to make his own choices, to be good or bad (simply put), for himself alone, as it is man who must make his home in this world. This was my take away from Aronofsky’s film at least.

As stated above, the aesthetics in the film are fantastic. Clint Mansell’s score very well might be the best part of Noah. It is powerful and not what I was expecting, featuring very dark overtones (I should have remembered who was directing the film). The score accompanies and accentuates the emotional journey of Noah and his family, while also giving an even more epic feel to the grand scale of a few of the sequences. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is very good. The film is almost void of color, as Noah’s world has regressed into such a state that it is seemingly no longer habitable. It is barren and lifeless. This juxtaposes wonderfully with the beautiful greens that find their way in once the forest to build the Ark is generated. The mountain where Noah’s grandfather lives also is strikingly juxtaposed to its surroundings. Once on the Ark, when the film becomes rather claustrophobic and takes on more of a horror/thriller tone (trapped in a floating rectangle with a bunch of sleeping wild animals and father’s gone a bit crazy – it almost feels like The Shining), the photography is very gritty, again complementing the intended emotional experience. My favorite photography, however, came during the sequences that involved the characters silhouetted against the colored sky – very beautiful. Mark Friedberg’s production design is impressive as well. The most astonishing visual in the film is the completed Ark (which they built to scale, using the measurements in the Book of Genesis). The interiors of the ark are cool as well.

 The cast overall is very good. Douglas Booth, playing Noah’s oldest son Shem, is probably the weakest, appearing in the film as not much more than a pretty face. Logan Lerman, playing Noah’s second son Ham (who named these kids), has the difficult task of being the rebellious and envious son. It is an upward battle (in our modern culture in which audiences are sort of fed up with “emo” as a thing) that Lerman never quite wins, but he is decent. Emma Watson, playing Noah’s adoptive daughter Ila, is very good, and in some ways is probably the second or third lead. Ila’s journey is much more emotionally compelling than Shem or Ham’s. She was left for dead when Noah found her and raised her as one of his own. There is a special bond between them, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when Noah and Ila come into direct confrontation. Watson is able to hold her own in her scenes opposite Russell Crowe’s Noah (when he is very intense). Anthony Hopkins plays Noah’s grandfather Methuselah with sort of a whimsical hamminess, but it works in the context of fantasy troupes (he feels like he might be out of The Princess Bride to some extent). Ray Winstone is very good as Tubal-cain. He is in moments the villain and the hero. He is ruled by his own self desire (but who is not). Given the fact that he knows that his world is about to come to an end and Noah has the only means of potential survival, it seems only human for him to do everything he can to survive. Winstone, however, does a good job reminding the audience that he is despicable overall though – that he is indeed the villain. Jennifer Connelly is also very good as Noah’s wife Naameh. Connelly brings a lot of strength to the roll and can go head-to-head against Crowe in the very dramatic moments (she has maybe the best in-scene performance of the film when she tells Noah how it will be if he continues down his intended course once on the Ark). Crowe is great as Noah, a deeply conflicted character. There is so much turmoil and pain in his eyes. Crowe is able to exude such love and affection in one moment and then utter conviction and madness in another. The film would not work without his strong work at its center.

Summary & score: Noah has imposing and thrilling visuals, but its character moments make it something compelling and not just a fleeting popcorn blockbuster. Noah’s internal struggle with the seemingly impossible task he is asked to perform results in a film that is intense and emotionally involving at its core. 7/10

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