The road to hell, as we all know, is paved with good intentions. Darren Aronofsky, an indie director who became famous for his impressive ability to strip viewers of their joy of life (See the closing montage of “Requiem for a Dream”), had dreamed for quite a few years of adapting for film the biblical story of Noah and the Flood. In the wake of the critical and commercial success of his most recent film, “Black Swan,” Paramount Pictures agreed to entrust him with a generous budget of $125 million, which swelled to $160 million in the course of filming. After a series of well-publicized arguments between the studio and the director, “Noah” was released in theaters in Israel and the United States last weekend.
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Did J.R.R. Tolkien write the Bible? Judging by the trailer for “Noah,” that would seem to be the case.
And the result? Well, “Noah” belongs to the dubious category of awful movies that aren’t quite bad enough to turn into cult films (despite the fact that the gap between its infinite earnestness and its didactic dialogues creates a few camp moments). His adaptation of the story of Noah, which Aronofsky himself, in an interview with The New Yorker, called “the least Biblical Biblical film ever made” two hours-plus of a conceptual mess, without a single credible moment. The screenplay, which Aronofsky co-wrote with his all-but-constant writing partner, Ari Handel (who also has writing credits on Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” and producer credits for "Black Swan"), tells the story of Noah (played by Russell Crowe), a righteous man who is chosen by God to build an ark in order to save his family and the animals from the first apocalypse in human history. In the current version, Noah is not only the only righteous man on the face of the Earth, he is also an awe-inspiring combination of Tarzan, Conan the Barbarian and Neo from “The Matrix.”
After an opening montage that reminds anyone who forgot why the first man was banished from the Garden of Eden, the movie starts with a scene, a la “The Lion King,” in which young Noah sees his father murdered before his eyes. From there, the move jumps a few decades ahead in time, and now Noah is the proud father of three sons: Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman, in the best acting performance in the film) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). Later on the nuclear family, which also includes the fearless mother, Naameh, will be joined by an orphan named Ila (Emma Watson) whom Noah saved from death and raised as his own daughter.
In addition to Ila, Aronofsky and Handel throw into the pot quite a few secondary characters, the first of which is the cruel King Tubal-Cain, descended from Cain (Ray Winstone), and digitally created stone creatures called The Watchers, who are based on Aronofsky’s exceedingly free interpretation of the Nephimim who appear in the Bible shortly before the Flood and are described in the Rabbinical literature as angels who fell to Earth. The first, antediluvian half of the movie depicts the attempts of Noah and his family to survive in a ruined and cruel world controlled by Cain’s immoral, bloodthirsty descendants. After they manage to build an enormous ark, with the generous assistance of the Nephilim, Noah and company survive the interminable flood that sweeps the sinners from the face of the earth.
Taking care to avoid spoilers with regard to the second half, it seems safe to say that the disarray and the stylistic disunity – which includes some very impressive scenes of the animals making their way to the ark alongside boring dialogues and disappointingly pale “dream” sequences – only intensifies as the movie approaches its end and turns into a kind of a family melodrama in which Noah must decide whether to persist in his mission at any price. The result is particularly disappointing in light of the fact that Aronofsky owes his (justified) fame to his ability to draw moving performances from his actors (an ability that brought Mickey Rourke an Oscar nomination for his starring role in “The Wrestler,” after years of being a persona non grata in the industry, and that helped Natalie Portman to win the golden statuette for her star turn in “Black Swan.”) But now, for the first time in his career, it appears that Aronofsky managed to make even talented actors such as Anthony Hopkins (playing Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather), Watson and Connelly seem like one-dimensional caricatures.
Throughout, “Noah” is a morbid, melancholy movie that is suffused with unfathomable seriousness. Aronofsky, who is known for his fondness for on-screen suicides, is not exactly a screenwriter with a well-developed sense of humor (unless you consider the self-trepanation scene in his “Pi” to be comic). But his commitment to gloom served his previous films well, from the psychedelic journeys of “Pi” and “The Fountain” to the effective psychological drama of “Black Swan.” In “Noah,” in contrast, there is something tiring and awkward about the apocalyptic atmosphere and in Aronofsky’s insistence on shooting the entire movie in various shades of gray. This earnestness creates a feeling of superfluous pretentiousness, beyond the inherent pretentiousness of any Hollywood big-budget adaptation of a Bible story. In addition, Aronofsky’s attempt to translate the Flood story into a political allegory about global warming and environmental pollution (an interpretation that he repeatedly emphasizes in interviews) ends with a bizarre epilogue and a contrived linkage between the biblical episode and the ecological agenda.
With a budget of $160 million, “Noah” should have at least given viewers two hours of polished, visually impressive Hollywood entertainment, but here too the movie doesn’t deliver. The Nephilim, or The Watchers as they are called in the film, despite the months of hard work that Aronofsky and his digital team spent on their creation, look like a bad hybrid of the Stone-giants which starred in the latest installment of the “The Hobbit” movie franchise and the “talking trees” in from “The Lord of the Rings.” If Aronofsky and his crew hoped to design digital characters that audiences could identify with, they failed completely. In addition, with the exception of the scene in which the animals move toward the ark, most of the scenes look as if they were assembled from cutting-room floor sweepings from “Waterworld” (1995).
There is a danger in being tempted into clichés such as “The indie producer who sold his soul to the Hollywood Satan,” but it is difficult to watch “Noah” without wondering how Aronofsky would have approached the story with the budget of “Requiem for a Dream” (under $5 million). It could be that Aronofsky’s original artistic vision was more successful, and got lost in the exhausting battle over editing and versions with Paramount. (At one point, Paramount edited its own 86-minute version, but after a chilly reception in test screenings it was shelved and Aronofsky’s two-hour version was chosen for commercial release.) The result now being shown at a theater near you is a clumsy, disappointing conceptual salad in which nothing works. More than anything else, watching “Noah” made me want to go back and see Aronofsky’s filmography, which includes five earlier features, each one of which is much more fascinating, well-formed and satisfying than his epic adaptation of the story of Noah’s Ark.