Tuesday, April 1, 2014

In Theaters: NOAH (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Darren Aronofsky.  Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel. Cast: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, Leo McHugh Carroll, Marton Csokas, Madison Davenport, voices of Nick Nolte, Frank Langella, Kevin Durand, Mark Margolis. (PG-13, 138 mins)

Biblical purists aren't going to go for Darren Aronofsky's revisionist take on Noah's Ark, which is faithful to the point of including Noah and an ark.  At times seeming like J.R.R. Tolkien's The Bible, Aronofsky's NOAH succeeds as epic cinema and as part of the bigger picture of the filmmaker's work as a whole. One of Aronofsky's recurrent themes, from PI (1998), REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000), THE FOUNTAIN (2006), THE WRESTLER (2008) all the way to BLACK SWAN (2010), is the obsessive, frequently maniacal, and all-consuming nature of their protagonists.  In that respect, Russell Crowe's Noah is cut from the same cloth as Ellen Burstyn's Sara Goldfarb and her diet pills in REQUIEM, Mickey Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson in THE WRESTLER or Natalie Portman's Nina Sayers in BLACK SWAN. To some degree, Aronofsky's characters are perpetually in a head-on descent into self-destructive madness.

Such is the case with Noah, a descendant of Adam & Eve's third son Seth.  Though "God" is never invoked, "The Creator" supplies Noah with a vision of the world's flooded end as punishment for man's sins.  Noah is entrusted to build an ark, to which The Creator will direct all of the world's animals to begin life anew after its watery destruction.  Noah spends ten years building the massive ark with his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), their sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), and adopted daughter and Shem's love interest Ila (Emma Watson), left barren from injuries sustained in a massacre of her people and rescued by Noah and Naameh years earlier. He also gets assistance from a group of fallen angels known as The Watchers, stone giants who resemble ancient Transformers with the voices of Nick Nolte and Frank Langella.  As the animals make their way to the under-construction ark (and a steam potion puts them in a state of hibernation), warrior-king and Cain descendant Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) decides to kill distant relative Noah and orders his army to take control of the ark in an attempt to survive The Creator's extermination of mankind.

But the massive flood is just the beginning, as middle child Ham is resentful of his brother's love of Ila and angry enough to be privy to the manipulation of Tubal-Cain.  And as the situation grows more dire, Naameh's request of a gift from Noah's grandfather Methusaleh (Anthony Hopkins) disrupts Noah's single-minded drive and pushes him to the point of homicidal mania.  So yes, to say Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel take some liberties with the source material is an understatement.   But a straight Biblical adaptation was never in the cards anyway, even before Paramount added disclaimers to the advertising that stated as much.  Obviously, one's devotion and attachment to the story will likely dictate the response, but personally, as someone who has no commitment to the Bible and whose church of choice is the big screen, I found NOAH to be exciting, ambitious filmmaking.  With THE WRESTLER and BLACK SWAN, Aronofsky kept things relatively low-budget after the brilliant THE FOUNTAIN proved to be a costly (and mismarketed) flop for Warner Bros.  Given the power granted to bottom-line-obsessed execs and focus-group mouth-breathers, the fact that Paramount gave Aronofsky $125 million to make NOAH and largely left him alone to make the film he wanted to make and disregarded the test audience feedback and released the director's preferred cut is a major miracle itself.  Aronofsky had been toying with the idea of helming a mega-budget epic, but turned down MAN OF STEEL and left THE WOLVERINE during pre-production, opting instead to wait until the time was right for NOAH.

"What a fool belieeeeeeves...."
Aronofsky takes a huge gamble in making Noah extraordinarily unlikable and practically deranged in the second half as he'll stop at nothing to follow through with The Creator's request (as the years go on, Noah's hair grays and at times, Crowe resembles a feral Michael McDonald).  Utilizing CGI and some of the same sort of minimalist visual trickery seen in THE FOUNTAIN, Aronofsky creates a visually stunning world in NOAH. The sequence detailing the onset of the flood while the ark is under attack by Tubal-Cain's men is terrifying to watch and jaw-dropping in its scope and a must-see on a large screen. Some of the stuff involving The Watchers is a little goofy (but I'm always up for some Nick Nolte grumbling) and sometimes, it feels a little too derivative of the LORD OF THE RINGS, but in an era when most multiplex movies are bland, uninspired, and interchangeable, NOAH is unique even when it's borrowing an occasional element here and there.  It's the strangest Biblical epic in years and so much of it could've gone so horribly awry, that even on those rare instances where something doesn't work, you're still admiring the chutzpah of the whole endeavor.  Even if you vehemently disagree with the out-of-the-box approach Aronofsky takes--and nothing's going to change your mind--the fact that NOAH even exists is proof that Hollywood might still give a shit about artistic vision.

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