Monday, March 31, 2014

Noah / *** (PG-13)

Noah: Russell Crowe
Naameh: Jennifer Connelly
Tubal-cain: Ray Winstone
Methuselah: Anthony Hopkins
Ila: Emma Watson
Ham: Logan Lerman
Shem: Douglas Booth
Japheth: Leo McHugh Carroll

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Aronofsky & Ari Handel. Running time: 138 min. Rated PG-13 (for violence, disturbing images, and brief suggestive content).

I remember learning the story of Noah as a small child in Sunday school. As a child it was a story that also existed outside of religious context. It was as much a fantasy as “Where the Wild Things Are” or Winnie the Pooh, although we were also asked to believe it as fact. At that time, there was no reason for me to question it as fact. I believed the Earth was flooded by God and that Noah and his family were the only humans to survive and that they gathered together two of each species of animal on the Earth and packed them into that Ark that was 300 cubits long and 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high. I didn’t even question what a cubit was. Obviously, it was a form of measurement, like a foot or a yard.

Then as I got older I began to ask myself. How could they have possibly gathered two of every species together? For one thing, that would mean spanning the entire globe to gather them. Plus, many of God’s creatures are ferocious. How could they have possibly survived penning tigers and rattlesnakes and black widow spiders? I hadn’t even picked up on the fact that Noah was already 600 years old when all this flood stuff began and over 950 before he eventually died. Of course, I’d also missed that God had decided to shorten the lives of men when he saw how corrupt they had become. But you see, none of that was really important to the story. The details were just ways to pick it apart. What mattered was the reasoning behind God decision to destroy all his creations and start again. Another matter of importance was why he chose Noah.

Darren Aronofsky has made an epic movie about Noah and his calling to build an Ark of salvation for God. Aronofsky has made movies about the religion of mathematics and its ties with Jewish beliefs, and about the painful world of drug dependency, and about the redemption of a soul that is all but lost for a professional wrestler, and about the ages long pursuit of the fountain of youth over the multiple lives of a couple truly in love, and about the corruption of the soul in the pursuit of high art in the world of professional ballet. Aronofsky is a visionary director, whose movies don’t merely tell their stories, but create an experience of them. It is no surprise that controversy has risen out of the release of this film, which is a shame since there was once a time when Hollywood made many movies from the stories of the Bible and people understood that the movies were as much about the message as the good book itself. Hollywood made blockbusters and Oscar winners out of stories that were only peripheral references to His word, and yet people didn’t need to be told that the movies weren’t literal translations of the Bible or even that the Bible inspired them. People knew and used their brains to see what the filmmakers wanted to show them.

Aronofsky wants to show us the spiritual journey of Noah, a man who valued his family as we all do, a man who valued the word of the Lord, a man who was good and was asked by God to perform a difficult task. It is not the actual building of the Ark that is most difficult for Noah, although even that is no small feat for a man and his small by Biblical standards family to pull off. No, it is what God asks Noah to do with his knowledge that the end of the world is coming that interests Aronofsky. How does a good man live with the strict instructions of God and remain a good man? If that isn’t a lesson in what it means to be Christian, then I don’t know what is. And I’m sure there will be many who say I don’t.

What Aronofsky and his co-writer, Ari Mandel, do here is set out to create a mythology around this tale of Noah. They use elements of the bible and add other religious dogma and fantasy aspects to flesh out a world in which such acts as a great flood might seem more plausible to the naysayers while keeping to the teachings and outline of the Bible. To some this is referred to as artistic license, but the truth is, it’s just good storytelling.

He gives us a Noah who truly is a man of God in a world that has become godless. There are even hints of Tolkien in Aronofsky’s treatment with the introduction of the Watchers—fallen angels sent to Earth to help man—conceived as large rock creatures not unlike Tolkien’s tree Ents. They inhabit a world of scorched earth, a world exploited and depleted by the descendents of Cain. There is a not so veiled environmental message to be gleaned here that some have expressed their ire toward. It seems appropriate to me.

Noah is the descendent of Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth. He experiences a series of visions that foresee a flood that will destroy the world. He travels to his grandfather, Methuselah, to find some clarity of vision. As played by Anthony Hopkins, Methuselah offers sage advice that might seem obvious to anyone but he who must receive it. These opening passages depict a magical world where the people are still enough in touch with the Creator that they can grab bits and pieces of His power to make fire, create their own visions, and destroy armies.

In the second act, Aronofsky shows us the construction of the ark. A remarkable timelapse sequence shows how the animals answer the call to send two of each species, and we’re introduced to what is likely the heart of the controversy over the film, the writers’ invention of the conflict found within Noah’s own family. As word spreads about what Noah is doing, Tubal-cain—who we first saw in the opening scenes killing Noah’s father, Lamech—comes to threaten to take the Ark away from Noah the moment the rains begin. I’m not so sure why he would wait until the last possible chance. But, needless to say Tubal doesn’t improve Cain’s reputation with his treatment of other people. He shows us the worst of human kind.

This convinces Noah that it is God’s intention to wipe out humanity all together. While his family will go on the Ark, Shem’s love is the barren Ila, whom Noah sees as a daughter. Neither Ham nor Japheth have wives in this telling. Ham is desirous to have what Shem has with Ila. Noah will not find him a wife. “God brings us everything we need.” This notion takes the film a little off message for its final act, which is the weakest. It’s also the toughest portion of the film to sell, without any more fantastical special effects and a family conflict that doesn’t say a whole lot for family values. However, the son’s do eventually show their true mettle. I’ll leave it for the audience to discover whether Noah reclaims his sanity. But, it fortunately doesn’t sink the whole ship, as it were.

It’s not hard to see how the controversy surrounding this film found its seed, but much of the filmmaking here is as spectacular as the material demands. It harkens back to the days of John Huston’s “The Bible”, Charlton Heston in “Ben Hur”, and other classic examples of Hollywood dipping its talents into the Biblical realms. Aronofsky’s vision is unique, beautiful, and filled with much of the spirit Noah feels for the Creator. He’s added a modern flair of fantasy—in approach rather than meaning—to make an appeal to more modern tastes in filmmaking. While not perfect, it is given up with the same weight of the works that inspired it. 

1 comment:

Amy said...

Here is another take on the film.