The biblical epic has always been a time-honored staple of American cinema, with some of the earliest films ever made drawing inspiration from the timeless stories contained within the “good book”. In the latter decades of cinema’s existence, these biblical films tend to be marked by a high-profile controversy over their artistic interpretations– films like Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) or Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) have caused no shortage of consternation over their depictions of Jesus and the events of The Gospel. These stories dare to humanize their iconic protagonists, which naturally tends to generate vocal backlash from the people and organizations tasked with preserving their sanctity. The latest revisionist take to rankle the faithful is director Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH (2014), which seeks to expand upon the Old Testament’s classic, yet all-too-brief, fable of Noah and The Ark. Aronofsky had been interested in the story since the seventh grade, when he won a writing contest with his entry on the subject (1). After making his debut feature, PI (1998), Aronofsky partnered with his co-writer and former college roommate Ari Handel to write a screenplay exploring his unique take on the Noah story (1)– the crafting of which would ultimately take several years. Despite the success of his recent efforts, THE WRESTLER (2008) and BLACK SWAN (2011), Aronofsky found it difficult to convince studios to buy into his $125 million passion project. It was the age of “Intellectual Property” in mainstream studio filmmaking, and the world-famous story of Noah and his Ark somehow couldn’t quite cut the mustard. To prove that indeed there was a modern audience for his revisionist take, Aronofsky rather cunningly commissioned the production of a NOAH comic book in 2011, and used the project’s resulting fanbase to quantify the worth of his “IP”– in other words, he went out and built the necessary audience himself. Armed with Paramount’s financing and the collective resources of super-producers Arnon Milchan and Mary Parent, Aronofsky and his producing partner Scott Franklin soon found themselves embarking on the director’s most ambitious– and successful– film yet.
We’re all familiar with the biblical story of Noah and The Ark, but we’ve never seen it quite like this. Ten generations on from Adam & Eve, humanity has split into two distinct clans– the barbaric descendants of Cain and the virtuous descendants of Seth, headed by patriarch Methusaleh (Anthony Hopkins) and embodied in Russell Crowe’s Noah. Aronofsky seeks to deepen the sketch of a character that’s typically portrayed in The Bible, casting Noah instead as a reluctant man of faith with a horde of psychological demons tormenting him on the inside. When he begins having nightmarish visions of a world destroyed by a deluge of water, Noah seeks guidance from his grandfather, Methusaleh. Hopkins injects the role with an immediate gravitas befitting his career reputation, believably projecting the grizzled, magical aura of a man who is reported to be many hundreds of years old and is the last living person to have met Adam. Methuselah advises Noah that a great flood is coming– a means for an unhappy Creator to purge the Earth of his unsatisfactory creations and start life anew. What’s more, The Creator has tasked Noah with building a large ark in which to shelter two of every animal and his small family so that they can start over when the waters recede. Despite his internal doubts and misgivings, Noah begins preparing for the Great Flood, constructing a massive arc with the help of several Golems– fallen angels whom God had transformed into hulking rock monsters when they came down to Earth to help humanity.
The first half of Noah is rather fantastical, adopting a LORD OF THE RINGS template in its approach to mankind’s origins– complete with a massive CGI-laden battle as Noah defends his ark from an offensive led by Ray Winstone’s Tubal-Cain, the brutal and vindictive figurehead of the Cain lineage. The second half is where the film gets really interesting, when Aronofsky treats Noah’s riding out of the flood in the ark as a simmering psychological chamber drama. Racked by a profound survivor’s guilt, Noah spirals even deeper into his obsession with fulfilling The Creator’s wishes. His wife Naameh — played by Jennifer Connelly in her second collaboration with Aronofsky after REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) — becomes the voice of reason, imploring Noah to come back from the brink. He also must contend with a rebellion from his two sons, Ham & Shem. Played by Logan Lerman and Douglas Booth, respectively, his two sons each have their own reason for turning on their father: Ham seeks revenge for the girl Noah allowed to be killed by her own people, and Shem seeks to protect his pregnant wife, Ila (Emma Watson), from Noah’s crazed crusade to extinguish humanity once and for all. While all of this is happening, Tubal-Cain is stowed away in the bowels of the ark, laying in wait to wrestle control from Noah and re-establish his evil leadership.
NOAH affords Aronofsky the opportunity to work with an all-star cast, which even extends to the voice-only roles, with Nick Nolte and regular collaborator Mark Margolis providing the voices for two of the golems. Behind the camera, Aronofsky’s core group of technical collaborators also return. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique injects NOAH with the epic feel of a big-budget Hollywood film, replete with an orgy of CGI creatures and epic battles that marks the film as one of the most technically-challenging for both Aronofsky as well as his computer effects team. Combining a mix of 35mm film and digital Arri Alexa footage onto a 1.85:1 canvas, Libatique and Aronofsky render their range of dynamic compositions in drab earth tones. Handheld close-ups complement an otherwise formal approach, with Aronofsky making a recurring visual motif out of a particular aerial/crane move that drifts up and away from his subject. Indeed, he often strings this same movement across multiple successive shots, achieving a hypnotic effect that also showcases the volcanic grandeur of his Icelandic locales and production designer Mark Friedberg’s cavernous Ark sets. Returning editor Andrew Weisblum faces a greater challenge than usual, with Aronofsky tasking him with the execution of a recurring motif that sees epoch-spanning timelapses rendered in a unique, rapid-fire snapshot style. Clint Mansell expectedly provides NOAH’s original score, which once again commissions the talents of Kronos Quartet and possesses a swelling, romantic flair reminiscent of biblical epics of yore as well as Aronofsky’s own 2006 feature, THE FOUNTAIN.
NOAH deals heavily in the themes and ideas that Aronofsky has spent his career exploring, the most prominent of which being the interior struggle between faith and reason. This conflict is no doubt what initially attracted Aronofsky to a revisionist take on Noah’s Ark, as it would enable him to apply a cerebral approach to religious ideas– an approach that previously had made films like PI and THE FOUNTAIN so intellectually resonant. A significant portion of the classic Noah’s Ark story finds Noah grappling with doubt from both within and from those around him regarding his outlandish visions of the end of the world. NOAH takes this template and runs with it, applying a compelling (and borderline-psychopathic) twist that extrapolates Noah’s desires for the end of humanity to the point that he’s willing to murder a newborn infant. He labors against all sound logic and reasoning, filled with righteous conviction that he is fulfilling The Creator’s divine plan. Additionally, Aronofsky obliquely explores this theme during a montage that incorporates the aforementioned propulsive snapshot-style timelapse technique to detail the origins of the universe and mankind. Noah recounts to his family the biblical story of creation found in the Book Of Genesis, but the images onscreen detail The Big Bang, the cosmic formation of the stars and planets, the beginnings of life on Earth, and mankind’s slow evolution from apes. Aronofsky then goes a step further, with Noah explaining the generations of violence between the tribes of Cain and Seth while rendering this conflict on-screen via rapid-fire silhouettes of figures engaged in combat throughout history– including the recognizable forms of Roman centurions, Napoleonic troopers, WW2 fighters and modern-day soldiers. It’s a stunning sequence that finds Aronofsky achieving something of a harmony between faith and logic by applying a figurative interpretation of the Bible that seeks to connect ancient ideas to immediate contemporary concerns. For whatever reason, however, Aronofsky temporarily ignores this scientific approach in his portrayal of Adam & Eve in The Garden of Eden, rendering them less as flesh & blood human forms and more as ethereal alien-types with a golden glow.
The dark side of the human experience is another theme that courses through the entirety of Aronofsky’s filmography, and the story of NOAH provides an opportunity to explore its very origins– murder, temptation, and the idea of Man’s Original Sin that led to his casting out from The Garden. More specifically, Aronofsky explores sin as a stain that runs down through the generations, marking an entire line of people with a predetermined fate. If The Creator made mankind in his image as a perfect being, then the introduction of sin marks the point at which we became imperfect. Sin is what separates God from his creations, and the protagonists of Aronofsky’s films are often found attempting to close that gap with logic while struggling to overcome their imperfections– PI’s Max Cohen labors to find the true name of God via mathematics; REQUIEM FOR A DREAM’s scraggly group of heroic addicts used narcotics to seek enlightenment and euphoria; THE FOUNTAIN’s Tomas believes science is the key to immortality; THE WRESTLER’s Randy The Ram puts his body through the thresher for the worship of his fans; BLACK SWAN’s Nina Sayers works towards godliness in her mastery over her body. NOAH continues this tradition by having its protagonist actually commune with his creator, risking the very future of humanity so that he can purge it of sin and start anew.
In both idea and execution, NOAH is most similar to THE FOUNTAIN— both are ambitious, big-budget indies about the cycle of death & rebirth as well as a direct reckoning between faith and reason. By making NOAH in the first place, Aronofsky was flirting with the kind of disappointing reception and aura of “failure” that THE FOUNTAIN initially met with upon release. Indeed, NOAH posed an even bigger risk, considering the significant creative liberties that Aronofsky took in adapting a section from what is easily the most scrutinized and sacred work of literature in human history. On top of the inevitable religious controversy, NOAH faced criticism for its perceived white-washing, perpetuating the long cinematic tradition of casting all-white actors in roles that, historically-speaking, would have most definitely not been Caucasian. The controversy might have even been of a higher profile, had Ridley Scott not stolen that particular spotlight with his release of EXODUS: GODS & KINGS that same year– a much more egregious display of white-washing considering his Caucasian leads were portraying ancient Egyptians. Despite these controversies, NOAH outperformed expectations, earning mostly positive reviews and posting big numbers at the box office. When all was said and done, NOAH had emerged as Aronofsky’s highest-grossing film to date, vanquishing any anxiety that it might be another disappointment like THE FOUNTAIN. With NOAH’s success, Aronofsky proved he could handle big-budget epics with the deft, assured touch that marked his indie thrillers. He had seemingly found his groove, and was now poised to consistently deliver more of contemporary cinema’s most visceral and strikingly original creations.
NOAH is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Paramount.
Produced by: Darren Aronofsky, Scott Franklin, Arnon Milchan, Mary Parent
Written by: Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel
Director of Photography: Matthew Libatique
Production Designer: Mark Friedberg
Edited by: Andrew Weisblum
Music by: Clint Mansell
- Via Wikipedia: Bailey, Sarah Pulliam (March 28, 2014). “A conversation with Noah director Darren Aronofsky”. The Washington Post. Retrieved April 6, 2014.