Thursday, April 10, 2014

Noah Review

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Released in 2014

My favorite episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm is called “Palestinian Chicken.” In it, Juliette, the wife of one of Larry David’s so-called friends, gives Larry a mission: Keep her away from dessert, “no matter what.” She lost 65 pounds through a careful diet, so her request sounds logical, disciplined. After the meal, Juliette tiptoes to the dessert table, peers side to side and reaches for a cake. Larry comes out of nowhere to grab it from her hands, and when she tries to laugh off her earlier charge, Larry whines, “But you said, ‘No matter what.’ This is the what. That’s why you asked me and not these other people, because you knew I wouldn’t let you!” He refuses to relent and the two tackle each other to the floor.

Replace Larry with the Biblical Noah, Juliette’s request with the word of God and the cake with the lives of Noah’s wife and children and you have the conflict at heart of Noah, the new film by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream). I realize that is a rather flippant analogy with which to place aside an adaptation of a sacred, 2,500 year-old text, but A) this is 2014, “God Is Dead,” yada yada yada, and B) Aronofsky has no intention to make a sanctimonious Cecil B. DeMille film. This is a film that rebukes blind faith, esteems free will and, through meticulous time-lapse sequences, promotes evolution. And like Larry David, Noah is less a hero than a dogmatic asshole. Aronofsky secularizes the story of Noah to the point that you, whatever your beliefs, should glean a provocative message or two regarding faith, human violence, love and so on. You will just have to fight against an unfocused screenplay and a truly erratic visual style to appreciate the film beyond a superficial, hey-look-it’s-Emma-Watson level.

The film opens with a montage of the events between the Garden of Eden and Noah’s time, covering 10 generations, thousands of years and a whole lot of bloodshed. It’s a trite way to open a movie tackling the dilemmas of human existence, since it reminds us of Lord of the Rings or any “Previously On ...” TV recap. But it introduces us to the Watchers, angels cast from heaven and doomed to lumber about the earth as rock giants, whose disfigured appearance I’d like to call “Doom Rococo.” They partake in some CGI-heavy battles later on, so you sense their presence is motivated by blockbuster expectations more than any narrative or thematic necessity. Thankfully, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel justify their silly creatures with a subtle, melancholy conflict regarding the afterlife that comes to a head at a hectic scene of warfare right before the Flood. With Frank Langella voicing a prominent Watcher who helps Noah on his task, these beasts are more human than you would expect, which is a quietly impressive achievement.

Noah’s task is, of course, to build an ark in order to spare “the innocents” (a.k.a. animals) from the wrath of “the Creator” (not one use of the word “God”). He receives his mission through a pair of wordless, expensive-looking dreams that realize the terrifying image, “The waters of the heavens will meet the waters of the earth.” He has the assistance of not only the Watchers but also his immediate family, including his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), his put-upon son, Ham (Logan Lerman) and his adopted daughter turned daughter-in-law, Ila (Emma Watson). There is a lot of incest, implied and otherwise, in this film, and Aronofsky gives us no comment on it, which is weird. What he does stress is the ignominy of infertility, which a childhood wound inflicted upon Ila. And yet to be “barren,” might be part of the Creator’s will, given his plans to wipe his finest creation off the face of the earth. That question — should I kill my family? — taunts Noah for the second half of the film, as they pass time in their ugly brick of a boat.

Yet Noah dilutes the potency of that central question. For one, the screenplay wanders. As gnarly as the scene-stealing Ray Winstone (The Departed) may be, his character Tubal-Cain serves as a standard-issue villain who distracts us from the meat of this story. Which is ironic, since he is the carnivorous exploiter of the earth’s resources to Noah’s vegetarian, forager family. In a very Game of Thrones-esque sequence at a miserable village, the film conflates meat-eating with pollution, prostitution, even cannibalism — its environmentalist message is as sensationalist as Elysium’s health care politics were naive.

Then we get to the film’s visuals, which oscillate between spectacular and nondescript. Aronofsky delivers his signature hallucinatory montage (remember the eye-opening one from Requiem?), here a triptych of Eve plucking the apple, the serpent and Cain’s raised fist over Abel. It’s awesome. Nor will I forget the sight of Noah’s bare feet standing on a blood-soaked sea of volcanic ash, or the sight of green water lapping against a urine-yellow skeleton of some mammal that, presumably, snuffed its species before the rain begins. The most upsetting image calls back on European art, in particular Francis Danby’s The Deluge, as it depicts wailing human survivors hanging onto a mountaintop besieged by waves. There is beautiful stuff here.

And there’s the rest of the movie. For whatever reason, Aronofsky opted for handheld close-ups of not just Noah but everyone. It looks like The Hunger Games — the first one. He ignores the production design and restricts his mise-en-scène (lighting, costume, blocking, symbolic geometry) to his actor’s faces. I mean, they’re good looking, but come on. Perhaps Aronofsky sought to empower his female characters by allotting them more screen time, for Jennifer Connelly owns every second. Such is a noble aim, yet in this case it leaves Noah, perhaps the most troubled protagonist in any recent blockbuster, a puzzle unsolved. It’s one thing to plunge into his psyche and emerge with no sure diagnosis; it’s another matter when an analogy between Noah and Larry David sticks.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

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