Darren Aronofsky has wanted to film the story of Noah for a long time, but it’s been hard to grasp why. Now I’ve seen the result, it’s still hard. A non-believer, Aronofsky was nonetheless captivated by the story and believed that Christian mythology was so potent it had plenty to offer non-Christians.
He’s right of course, and delivers some of the most arresting impressions of Old Testament iconography seen on screen. But despite implying an engagement with environmentalism, our relationship with nature, and how spirituality can improve and sabotage our lives, Noah ultimately doesn’t have much to say to a modern audience.
Aronofsky certainly excels at evocative world-building, and Noah’s sparse world feels as vivid and textured as the past and future realms in his underseen 2006 film The Fountain. This is a world only ten generations after Adam and Eve. The continents are still a single landmass and the earth is black and volcanic. Fallen angels roam, encrusted in rock and towering over humans. Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family wander the plains, avoiding cities and the destructive descendants of Cain. Despite the trappings, none of it feels overtly Christian: shorn of the quaint, didactic air of most biblical dramatisations, this portrayal becomes energetic and vital. Particularly with the rock monster angels, Aronofsky’s vision is closer to fantasy, but with an ancestral feeling of rediscovery.
Shifting a biblical story into the fantasy realm could pay off if it resonated universally, but Aronofsky never overcomes its unsettling problems. The characters struggle with the Creator’s decision to exterminate all other life, and the film doesn’t shy away from presenting the horror of that. Noah’s determination to fulfill the Creator’s wishes at any cost fuel the third act of the film, where he unexpectedly becomes the antagonist. This is where the film’s ultimate purpose might reveal itself. Noah’s actions are damning of religion’s tendency to inspire righteous violence, particularly against the defenceless and by men against women.
Aronofsky has naturally not been promoting his film as anti-religious, but the action Noah becomes committed to in the second half of the film is straight-up fanatical zealotry. It’s less pointed because God unquestionably exists in this world, but the lack of confirmation of what he wants Noah to do – and yet Noah is convinced anyway – essentially gives it the same real-world relevance as a contemporary story about honour killing. Aronofsky clearly enjoys the mythical components, but also seems to see the potential to criticise religious excess and righteousness under the guise of an intense but respectful version of the Bible story.
But just as Noah becomes relevant, the ending partially undoes that achievement. A tentative reconciliation is understandable – especially since there’s no-one else left on Earth – but the laughter and joy on screen is at odds with the harrowing events we’ve just seen. As a result, Noah doesn’t have much to say about spirituality beyond warning of the perils of blind faith. The Fountain, with its almost impressionistic narrative, was a more effective contemplation of the spirituality associated with love, life, and grief. Its portrayal of transcendence was also more evocative and meaningful than anything in Noah, particularly because it was divorced from any specific belief system.
The heralded environmental subtext of the film is fruitless too. The film takes an unusually clear stance against eating meat, presenting animal slaughter as hellish and barbaric, but climate change isn’t broached in any meaningful way. We don’t see the descendants of Cain abusing nature beyond eating animals, and any intended parallel between human-induced climate change and punitive climate change by a higher power doesn’t work. Adding the subjective catalyst of the Creator’s punishment is at odds with the tragedy of contemporary climate change: we are exacerbating the agent-less, automated tyranny of an abused ecosystem.
Noah does at least offer a grand, chilling vision of Genesis. The ominous opening titles present the Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel stories with a solemnity that doesn’t feel biblical at all. A later creation montage is tremendous, using time-lapse digital effects to present the rapid development of the Earth in seven days with unprecedented vibrancy. Having the fallen angel’s light encased in rock is an inspired decision too, giving their fall a tainted, visceral quality. This is a vision of the Bible that‘s pared back and raw, which almost overcomes the tweeness of the original story. Unfortunately, the animals scampering in two by two and the dove returning with an olive branch feel like intrusions from a Sunday morning cartoon rendition. While Aronofsky has done moderate justice to the horror of the flood, he hasn’t been able to iron out all of the story’s tonal inconsistencies.
The actors excel despite the often earnest and overwrought dialogue, reminiscent of The Fountain. Russell Crowe is typically strong in the role, managing to sell both Noah’s sensitivity to nature and his relentless determination. Emma Watson grows more impressive as the desperation of her situation increases, with an unrelenting climax that she rises to wonderfully.
Unfortunately, the script fails to find more identity and interiority for the female characters beyond their roles as wives and potential mothers. The story has to explicitly deal with the logistics of humanity’s survival, but the repeated references to women’s reproductive role with few counterbalancing scenes that reveal them as individuals is disappointing in this supposedly modern take on the Old Testament. If the film had done proper justice to its denunciation of religious violence against women, that might have been more forgivable.
Noah’s surprising financial success may be a direct result of it pulling its punches. While another box office victory for the idiosyncratic Aronofsky is welcome, what a shame that it’s due to the film not achieving its incendiary potential. But the project was arguably flawed from the outset, so with luck his next work will be urgent and essential down to the core.