Noah (2014) Review
This one threw me off a bit. So much so that I had to go digging to see what led up to it: Was it a studio-originated, studio-controlled blockbuster vehicle that Arronofsky was struggling to put his own voice into? Or was it a strange, mixed up direction the director chose to take all on his own? It’s not that it was bad, just…a mixed bag.
It turns out this was absolutely Arronofsky’s passion project, one he’d wanted to make since he was 13. He wanted an epic, and he pitched it to the movie studios that way. He wanted it to be based more on the telling in the original texts (Genesis 4-8, Enoch) than the one we all know from Sunday School. The difficult thing about that was that those texts contain only a few paragraphs about the flood story, and virtually nothing about Noah’s character. So the fact that Arronofsky chooses to embody the story’s lesson of the balance of justice and mercy in Noah’s character is inspiring. This director specializes in psychological explorations, in fact; all his films deal with characters whose obsessions lead them to a form of self destruction, and whether or not that means rebirth is usually left up to us. This story wants to follow in the same vein, and in the moments we see Noah “receiving messages” from an absolutely empty sky, we start to feel that psychological tension. “Is this real, or in his head?” we ask ourselves. And in my opinion, that’s the greatest success of the film, and should have been the greater focus. It should have come much earlier than when we see it, which is toward the end.
What we get instead is a mixture of fantasy, soap opera, and allegory. When giant creatures and armies of men and flaming swords show up, we suddenly feel like we’re in the next Lord of the Rings installment, bad CGI and all. When there are long stretches of weighty dialogue, we get a little impatient. When some characters, such as Tubal-cain, are overtly and wholly evil, and tempting others, we see an inner struggle exteriorized allegorically. More than confused identity, though, I think the main problem is narrative drive. Not every scene feels driven by what came before it. Some are just big, beautiful, episodic set pieces with some intimate close-ups thrown in to make them feel more “gritty and real.” Some tightening in the script and the editing room may have gone a long way.
Where the film succeeds beautifully is in Arronofsky’s areas of expertise: dream sequences and montages. From the creation of the universe to the fall of man to Noah’s dreams from the Creator, Arronofsky knows how to blow your mind in a few seconds of quick cuts. The performances are also strong for the most part, especially Sir Anthony Hopkins and Ray Winstone. World-building-wise, there's plenty to research once you’ve seen it, so it really succeeds in opening up conversation and exploration.
So do I suggest it? Well, I love Arronofsky films. But up until this one I haven’t really felt that I’d know how he could improve on what he’s done. I would say, however, that it absolutely merits a viewing, even if you think it’ll be a while until you can sit through it again. Mixed bag or not, this director is one of the most thoughtful, thought-provoking, visionary artists we have working today, especially at this scale, and I think that's reason enough not to ignore it.