As absurdly ambitious as you might imagine, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is both a mad folly and a brilliant one. It is that most bizarre of things: The Biblical epic as personal filmmaking from a director who is nothing if not an idiosyncratic stylist. It is at once stunning and silly, thought-provoking and dull-witted, exciting and boring. It’s at least 15 minutes too long. There’s probably just as much wrong with it as right with it. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel inclined to watch it again, and the chances of it showing up on my 2014 Ten Best list are slim indeed. But I am very glad I saw it. I’m glad Aronofsky made it. And I am over the moon that a film this determinedly odd has been given a wide release. That in itself seems cause for rejoicing.
Unless you’ve simply not been paying attention, you’re probably aware that Noah has angered quite a few people because it isn’t a faithful account of what is written in the Bible. Let’s be honest, what’s actually written in the Bible isn’t enough material for a two-hour movie, so some embellishment was inevitable. This, however, goes somewhat beyond embellishment, but since much of what is added was taken from “The Book of Enoch,” it’s not as groundless as it might seem. Yes, even the giant rock creatures — the fallen angels known as The Watchers — are found in “Enoch,” along with a more detailed story of the flood. Whether or not this was a primary concern of Aronofsky is debatable. The changes don’t end there, and it’s clear that what he’s making is a wildly personal fever dream of a movie — not a religion lesson. In fact, at times, its mysticism makes it feel like a better title might have been Noah: A Biblical Odyssey.
Actually, Noah doesn’t stop at evoking Kubrick. There are traces of The Tree of Life (2011) in there, along with intimations of Aronofsky’s own The Fountain (2006), hallucinatory scenes that might have dropped in from Altered States (1980) and some effects that are straight out of Lifeforce (1985). If that makes it sound like Noah is a pretty trippy movie, that’s because it is — at least a lot of the time. It is devoutly mystical without being particularly religious. God is never exactly mentioned. He’s called, more vaguely, “the Creator.” Though Bible stories that lead up to this one are invoked, they’re also reinterpreted to the film’s purpose. God makes no cameo appearances and doesn’t speak to Noah. Instead, Noah divines what’s going on through dreams of what we might call the acid flashback variety. Noah’s grandfather, Methusela (Anthony Hopkins at his most Anthony Hopkins) is presented as some kind of shaman. At one point, the old boy even slips Noah a cup of hallucinogenic tea so our hero can obtain his next vision.
At the same time, Noah bears more than a passing resemblance to an action movie, with its showdown between Noah and The Watchers against Tubal Cain’s (Ray Winstone) grotty team of barbarians. In a sense — and it may well be accidental — what Aronofsky has done is fuse the two stories (the Biblical one and a WWI story) of Michael Curtiz’s 1928 Noah’s Ark into one story. Some of this works. Some of it is just plain clunky and obvious. (It was the second time this week I encountered a “Chekhov’s gun” variant, only this one was “Chekhov’s bear trap.”)
Clumsier, though, is the film’s final section, which is also where Aranofsky makes his biggest — and most thematically suspect — changes to the story. Rather than having all three sons have wives, the movie has only Shem (Douglas Booth) paired off with Ila (Emma Watson), and she is theoretically barren. This sets the stage for Noah’s peculiar delusion that mankind is meant to perish with them. When the theoretically barren wife turns out to be pregnant, it throws a monkey wrench into Noah’s latest notion, setting the stage for psychotic Noah. I understand (I think) why Aronofsky took this route. It has a point and is going somewhere. But it’s awkward, somewhat silly and, frankly, tedious. Fortunately, the film does right itself before the end.
Overall — and bearing in mind its very real missteps — Noah is too grandiose a vision to ignore. It’s epic (in the real sense of the word) and truly visionary. It’s crude yet sublime. But more than anything else, it’s unique, and it’s true to itself. We will not see its like again any time soon. Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande.