Unlike many epic motion pictures, Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” zips forcefully through its narrative, an ambitious retelling of the ark and the great flood that delivers on biblical proportions—cubits, floodwaters, perishing and all. There’s no room at the inn for the slow motion, sweeping cameras or blade-hacking carnage of Peter Jackson or his epic blockbuster derivatives.
In spite of its source material, “Noah” is an original tale unlike anything else really. Less biblical than fantasy, it finds a friendlier companion in 1963’s “Jason and the Argonauts” than Cecil B. DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah” (1949, now on the Blu-Ray). But even science fiction seems a better genre fit. The landscape of “Noah” has the derelict industrial plants, rusted utilities and crumbling roadways of the post-apocalyptic motion pictures that arrived in the 1960s with movies like “Planet of the Apes” and gained prominence in the 1970s with others like “Mad Max.”
“Noah” outdoes many of these genre pictures in short order though its chief cinematic antecedent is the lurid psychoses of the characters in Aronofsky’s other films like “Black Swan” or “Pi” (Composer Clint Mansell’s soundtrack and some of the movie’s visuals borrow too heavily from Aronofsky’s “The Fountain,” too). And it moves so fast.
After some notably abrupt cuts and a late father-son scene confusingly imbued with extra significance re: a magical snakeskin, you start to wonder whether we’re missing some large clumps of footage. Given Aronofsky’s pledge he would one day re-cut his movie, “The Fountain,” it’s not a poor guess to think he also has 40 days of “Noah” footage.
The film speeds through scenes, often only slowing to glimpse those lead-in or exit shots where a character silently eyes what’s around them. Did something else occur in the scene? Perhaps. Though it could just be Aronofsky’s nod to the brevity of the Bible’s mythic writing style. And “Noah” is packed with stunning, terrifying shots that could exist as stills—like a rocky peak not yet drowned in the flood and covered with the naked wicked from a Hieronymous Bosch painting—if the film wasn’t intent on moving along.
Breaking up the main narrative and reviving the movie’s quick pace are some terrific digressions provided through the oral accounts of the Watchers (fallen angels, Aronofsky’s version of the Nephilim) among others including Noah sharing the story of Creation in a time-lapse montage that’s equaled in the film only by another time-lapse sequence following the rivers of a second Eden crawling across continents to attract the animals of the earth.
Even in these spectacular asides, the movie’s frenetic pace is spurred by a subtle discontinuity of movement, or maybe it’s things moving too quickly, violently. The time-lapse montages skip frames to create an effect that scraps smooth passages of time in exchange for something fiercer—the waters before the Flood ripping through the earth (or a creature leaping and crawling through its evolutionary stages during Creation). The Watchers move almost like stop-motion figures (another time-lapse feat, I think). The few scenes of sword thrusting and Nathaniel Hawkeye-hatchet tossing are cut together to disorient. The springing up of a surprising second Eden is dizzying with a 360-degree shot spiraling down from tree tops to Noah’s face—and all of it out of focus. When the movie’s angels commute from heaven and earth, it’s not with wings pleasantly flapping but explosive with geysers of light.
Aronofsky’s movies have always entered an orbit centered around violence, and in the story of Noah the match feels right again: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.”
It’s clear nothing short of divine annihilation can end the unceasing brutality of man, which threatens to break inside the sanctuary of the ark and destroy for its own survival what’s left of creation.
Violence is always rising to a climax in “Noah,” which easily tops any Roland Emmerich global destruction flick for the personal aspect informing Noah’s mission. From inside the ark what sounds at first like howling wind becomes the screaming of men and women drowning outside in the flood. Noah’s family begs him to throw a rope and save those beating against the ark, and Noah, played by Russell Crowe as a calloused man torn between the demands of righteous zeal and father’s protective spirit, sits there silently and hard set to his task of meting out God’s judgment.
Whether it’s Noah or another character, Aronofsky can afford to make dust plowing through the story since he also develops a repetition or parallel shorthand to signify moral developments in the characters.
There’s an insert of Eve’s hand grabbing the—heartbeat?—forbidden fruit, which later finds its visual rhyme in an insert of Noah’s hand plucking a grape cluster from his vineyard to cue another fall of man.
When Ham tries to bring a young woman onto the ark to be his wife, her leg is caught in a beartrap and she’s trampled to death in a rush of Tubal-Cain’s thugs. Later, Ham brings Tubal-Cain onto the ark with a leg injury and nurses him back to health, substituting one mate for another.
When one of Noah’s sons pulls a flower from the earth, Noah reprimands him for doing so, then minutes later a heaven-sent raindrop falls and a new flower replaces it. It’s the movie’s first example of what Noah’s wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly reprising her role as concerned wife of a Russell Crowe crazy-man in “A Beautiful Mind”), calls “God provides what we need.”
A conflict stemming from what God provides and what God commands takes stage in the movie’s latter half with Ila, a character played by Emma Watson. Her character’s origin as well as a surprising narrative turn leave us wondering whether Noah can accept another “pair of animals” aboard the ark.
Considerations of the biblical text or Jewish mystic influences aside, the internal logic of the ideology at play here, that of Noah and Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), overlaps in peculiar ways and sometimes collapses. I’m trying not to think too hard about what use a vegetarian animal rights environmentalist like Noah had for a beartrap (maybe I misunderstood this bit), or why it’s okay to cut down living trees and not pluck flowers, or how these environmentalists decided and retrieved oil-derived petroleum pitch to caulk the the ark…
At first, Noah is a strong conservationist, instructing his sons to be good stewards of the Creator’s earth, only using those earthly resources necessary for survival. When God assigns him the task of building the ark, Noah interprets the vision with all the wisdom of a Bible chapter heading, muttering “destroy the earth, a new Eden, new life, new Creation….”
Noah sees his labor as the ultimate conservation effort, but that deteriorates rapidly when he visits the ark-encroaching settlement of Tubal-Cain, played with theatrical aplomb by Ray Winstone. It’s a terrifying scene that begins with the pursuit of wifable young women being kidnapped and traded before an unholy sacrifice and a nightmarish gnawing of sacred meat. From that point forward, Noah’s mission flips from survival and pursuing a New Eden to preserving Creation without mankind to ruin it.
It’s a thrilling development, one that lifts Tubal-Cain into a compelling anti-hero who like Noah’s family seeks the survival of mankind, or at least himself. Tubal-Cain, like the garden’s serpent (and denoted as such by his fanged beard and hissing living quarters), employs the righteous-y rhetoric of dominion in his deception of Noah’s second eldest son Ham (Logan Lerman). As this serpent would have it: nothing is off limits if man is made in God’s image. Godhood is in our grasp. Subjugate the world and make it in our own image.
There’s a real sincerity behind these characters’ existential struggles though it’s hard to draw out when they’re getting soppy about it, or with a scene’s blocking that’s too awkward like one with Ila and Noah above the ark, or when the movie just falls out in silliness.
There’s plenty of images that stand out in “Noah” but it’s Aronofsky’s reiterative use of the serpent, forbidden fruit and Cain’s stone, the fall of man in three shots, that strings together Noah’s nightmares and stories. That one ominously edited sequence of images and sounds lets us feel a little of the fear, not really madness, that afflicts Noah better than most of the movie’s expositional passages.