By Alistair Ryder (@YesItsAlistair)
Just as the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have been adapted into films that show little resemblance to the dark and twisted source material, films based on biblical stories are never faithful adaptations. In fact, the only biblical movie that is translated to the screen verbatim from the bible is Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ”, the repellent anti-Semitism of which makes it one of the most easily hateable films in recent memory.
By now, you’re probably aware that religious audiences haven’t responded well to Darren Aronofsky’s effort to make a modern biblical epic, despite the fact the most controversial elements (the infanticide threatening final half hour) were present in the source text. This is a shame, as “Noah” shows that Aronofsky respects the source material and the reverence the audience holds it in, without ever condescending to them. He proves himself to be one of the few directors who can make a big budget blockbuster that doesn’t feel sanitised by the studio – the film is as comfortable asking the audience to question their own belief systems as it is delivering ridiculously enjoyable action setpieces.
Russell Crowe stars as Noah, who travels with his family to visit his grandfather Methuselah (played by Anthony Hopkins at his most Welsh) after nightmarish visions that make him believe he is a vital part of the “creator’s” plan. His grandfather gives him the last seed from the Garden of Eden, obtained after humans were banished from there by the “fallen angels” (whose brilliant stop-motion design is a highlight- even though the fact the main angel is voiced by Nick Nolte makes it harder to understand than Tom Hardy’s Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises”), which instantly creates an entire forest when planted. Now, Noah realizes what he was put on earth to do- build a giant wooden boat from the trees that will house every living animal.
Aronofsky’s films have always been concerned with unconventional family relationships, following the mother and son drug addiction of “Requiem for a Dream” and the suffocating mother/daughter relationship that was central to the madness of “Black Swan”. Here, Noah risks tearing his family apart due to his beliefs; after finding out his previously baron adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) is pregnant declares he will murder the child once born as it doesn’t fit in with the creator’s plan of saving nature- man has ruined the world once before, and he will stop at nothing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
So many biblical tales revolve around simplistic perceptions of the existence of “good” and “evil”, and Aronofsky’s adaptation of the story suggests all the characters exist in the grey area in-between. I viewed the film as a comment on modern day fundamentalism; Noah justifies his actions, that the drowning/murder of thousands of civilians was all part of a bigger plan, in the same way a terrorist would. He looks down on the land and sees a godless society led by a king who killed his father (Ray Winstone, who steals the film and even gets to deliver a “Braveheart” style-speech), and becomes convinced that the way to save society is to destroy it rather than help it. In this regard, it isn’t surprising that religious viewers have responded negatively- it openly acknowledges the difficulties in following a belief system whose needs conflict with what is morally right, and why people interpret those beliefs in different ways. Whereas Ang Lee’s adaptation of “Life of Pi” condescended to its audience with its simplistic view of religion, Aronofsky dares his audience to think about why they believe what they believe in a way that strongly resonated with me (for the record I’m not an atheist, I’m just indifferent).
There are low points- with the exception of the stop motion fallen angels, the special effects are somewhat lacklustre, and the opening title sequence looks like it was hastily edited on IMovie. The film also takes a while to find its tone- the first hour seems conflicted between Hollywood blockbuster and a typical Aronofsky family story. But when the high points come, such as the dazzling creation of the earth sequence, “Noah” becomes a film that (regardless of religious preference and in spite of the darkness surrounding the second half of the film) will make you believe there is a higher power in the universe. And his name is Darren Aronofsky.