It is not typical for one to go to the movies expecting to find psychological depth within the framework of blockbuster filmmaking. The very reason why so many of us appreciate the easy indulgence of CG-spectacles is because of the fact that they are so commonly unchallenging from an intellectual standpoint, even if they do challenge our auditory and visual senses. These sorts of movies are easy to produce and make easy money once released, and therefore the major studios are quite willing to keep them coming, pleasing the masses without ever reaching for a higher purpose.
This sort of “weekend epic”, if you will, has become a mainstay in contemporary cinema, as we no longer need the excuse of summer or budget to experience the sway of extravagant thrills and adventure. So when one of these faux-blockbusters does appear to carry some level of intellectual heft, such as Noah does, it can be a moment of happy reprieve and lighten the situation of movie-going in the eyes of some, even if the film in question invites themes of darkness and moral uncertainty into the undemanding, recreational escapism of a Saturday afternoon.
The story of Noah and his Ark is as epic as they come, and therefore easily lends itself to the spectacle-format of filmmaking. But director Darren Aronofsky (best known for his smaller-scale human dramas, such as The Wrestler and Black Swan) here uses the majesty of Noah’s situation only to investigate a more intimate conflict regarding issues of guilt, betrayal, love, and purpose. One of the faults in the Bible is that it never gives us the juicy details of the many juicy tales it tells. That is what Aronofsky has done with this film, and his inventions in character and action significantly add to the deeper meaning and human value of the myth.
I shall avoid a plot description because the premise is so well-known, and because any information regarding Aronofsky’s additions to the action would compromise the viewer’s experience. Let me simply say that the film is not merely a re-telling of Noah’s prophesies and the building of his Ark; a great deal happens upon the vessel itself, and even before the Great Flood whips everything and everybody away. The dividing line between good and evil is vague here, and only seems to maintain itself through Noah’s increasingly unconvincing declarations of his adherence to the word of God – thus making the film an interesting parable on religious fanaticism and the universal moral precariousness of humankind.
The world can indeed seem very grim at times, and the acts of a higher power inexplicable; the figure of Noah thus becomes a strong allegory for the survivor – his growing madness enigmatic of the hopelessness and sense of nihilism that often accompany those who’ve survived disaster. It is in this way that Noah makes itself another entry in the subgenre of “survivor films” of the past four years, alongside Gravity, Zero Dark Thirty, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.
In this appraisal of the film’s protagonist, it is worth mentioning the work of Russell Crowe; his skill as an actor when it comes to mentally unstable heroes is in full display here, and he commands the film with a true vulnerability and ferocity in disposition. Jennifer Connelly is equally excellent as Noah’s wife, Naameh; the couple’s emotional friction is highly reminiscent of the roles these same two actors played in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind – a work that was very much a product of late ‘90s sensibilities in entertainment (the theme of a compromised genius was quite popular at the time), whereas this current film reflects a sensibility that can only be called post-9/11 (the afore-mentioned theme of apocalypse and survival). Anthony Hopkins is perfectly endearing as Noah’s berry-searching, prophetic grandfather, and Emma Watson once again displays her great effectiveness in roles as sweet-faced young women put through trying emotional situations. Logan Lerman is good as middle-son Ham, stonier than I’ve seen him before; Ray Winstone is appropriately repellent and vicious as Noah’s antagonist, a descendant of Cain.
This is a good work – one that does not play it safe but that also manages to avoid any truly objectionable choices in storytelling, both from a religious and a writerly point of view. Movies like Noah are satisfying to watch because they maintain the allure of large-scale entertainment while offering something more ponderous and soul-searching in their presentation; there are things to discover in this sort of film, making it all the more intimate an experience. Will time hallow a film like Noah? Likely not. But as far as “weekend epics” go, this is one to give you a far better run for your money than many of the other synthetic wonderlands to be journeyed through at the local multiplex.