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Darren Aronofsky's 'Noah' overcomes its cinematic flaws

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Noah (2014)

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Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” is a movie I have conflicted feelings about. On one hand it is a deeply flawed effort with moments that I think belong in another movie, but on the other hand it brings up questions which are inspired by the actions of the characters that I found endlessly fascinating, and those same questions stayed with me long after the movie ended. With “Noah,” Aronofsky has been handed the biggest budget he has ever had on a movie, but what amazes me is how much of his vision ended up on the big screen. You’d think that the studio (Paramount Pictures in this case) would have the last say on final cut, but Aronofsky has managed to graduate to the big leagues without losing his unique voice as a filmmaker.

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The movie gets off to a shaky start as we watch a young Noah being initiated into manhood by his father with what looks like a magical snakeskin, but then his father is brutally murdered in front of him by Tubal-Cain and he runs like hell to get away from him and his followers. For a moment, I thought that this would suddenly become a revenge movie with Noah going after Tubal-Cain to where the ark becomes a secondary story. Fortunately, that was not the case.

The story then leaps forward to many years later when Noah (now played by Russell Crowe) is a husband to Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and a father of three boys: Shem, Ham and Japheth. However, it’s not long until Noah starts having frightening dreams about a great flood that swallows up every living and breathing thing on earth. Eventually, he comes to discover that he has been giving a mission: to build an enormous ark and fill it up with animals so that when the great flood comes to wipe out the evilness of humanity, the animals will survive to restart civilization anew.

One of the big stumbling blocks of “Noah” comes when we are introduced to fallen angels known as the “Watchers.” They are these enormous stone creatures that tower over all humans, and they kept reminding me of those big tree creatures from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” Furthermore, the “Watchers” almost took me out of the movie completely and had me thinking about those stone creatures William Shatner wanted to put in “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.” While watching “Noah,” I kept thinking about what Shatner must have been thinking when he saw it on the big screen. He’s probably thinking, “Damn you Aronofsky! My film had biblical themes in it too! Why didn’t I get to put any stone creatures in my movie?”

When all those animals start making their way to the almost completed ark, you can tell they were all created using CGI effects. Then again, I can’t blame Aronofsky for going that route as directing real life animals must feel like next to impossible especially in a movie like this one. Plus, if he did get access to real animals, how would deal with all those animal droppings he and the crew would have spent hours trying to clean up? Imagine the smell that would have created. Yucky! All of a sudden I had Bill Cosby’s classic routine of Noah talking with God and venting his frustration over what he has had to deal with:

“Sick and tired of this mess here, had enough all this stuff for you runnin' around. You supposed to know all and see all. Like I said before, you let me go out there and do all this stuff here and you never even looked in the bottom of that Ark! Have you looked down there? NO! Who's gonna clean up that mess down there?”

As “Noah” continued on, the things that bothered me about it started to make sense, and the film really hit its stride just before the ark sets sail in the flood. I figured the movie would end at that point, but it goes on to look at how Noah and his family deal with issues like survivor’s guilt and questioning the motivations of “the creator” (the word God is never mentioned). Aronofsky does terrific work in giving all the characters complexities that make them far more fascinating, and the challenges they face come to define who they are. This is not a good guy vs. bad guy story as all the characters inhabit a morally grey area, and it gets to where we’re not sure who to root for in the end.

Since his Oscar winning turn in “Gladiator,” Russell Crowe’s career has kind of been all over the place as he has given terrific performances in “Cinderella Man” and “American Gangster” and suffered through cinematic misfires like “A Good Year” and “The Man with the Iron Fists.” As Noah, Crowe does some of the best work he’s done in a while as he humanizes a character made famous through biblical tales. When Noah ends up threatening a course of action that threatens to tear his family apart irrevocably, Crowe still makes us feel for the man as he struggles to remain true to what is asked of him.

Jennifer Connelly also gives one of her best performances in a while as Noah’s wife, and no, she does not play Joan of Arc (Keanu Reeves got that wrong in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”). As Naameh, she plays a character that is in ways similar to the one she played in “A Beautiful Mind;” a woman very much in love with her husband and yet deeply afraid of what he is capable of doing. Connelly is no stranger to the Aronofsky universe, having given such an earth shattering performance in “Requiem for a Dream,” and she is not afraid to go to emotional extremes. Watching her trying to reach her husband, Connelly sucks you vividly into the fearful state she has been thrust into, and she makes us share in her desperation to protect what is left of humanity.

“Noah” is also well served by a strong supporting cast which includes Ray Winstone, Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman and Emma Watson who shows there is more to her than what she showed us in those “Harry Potter” movies. In addition, Aronofsky brings along his longtime team of collaborators which includes editor Andrew Weisblum, cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell. Speaking of Mansell, he gives us yet another great film score with “Noah.” While it might not be on a par with his work on “Requiem for a Dream,” he gives the scenes Aronofsky comes up with a great emotional power, and he continues to be one of the more unique composers working in movies today.

So again, “Noah” has some glaring flaws that I could have done without, but its strengths eventually outweigh its weaknesses to where the movie had a strong impact on me. I’m not sure I will ever forget hearing all those screams from people begging to be rescued while Noah and his family sail away in the ark, Aronofsky is fearless in questioning the audience as to what they would do if they were in Noah’s position. Also, this movie shows that even the most biblical of characters have dysfunctional families to deal with, so we have no business being surprised when we have to deal with the same thing.

When all is said and done, I’m glad that Aronofsky managed to get his vision of “Noah” to the big screen without too much studio interference. All the same, I hope he thinks twice about putting giant stone creatures in his next film.

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