Darren Aronofsky is one of those directors whose work causes an even split right down the middle. His movies usually leave the viewer with only two options: love it or hate it. This is mainly due to his bold and singular vision, which he brings to each of his movies. Aronofsky co-wrote and directed Noah, which he culled together from a variety of Jewish sources including the bible. This fact alone should have caused many, if not all, within Christendom to pause. What I mean is this…first, consider the source, and second, reflect on the artist’s approach to the material. According to Gregory Thornbury’s review of Noah, Aronofsky and his co-writer, Ari Handel, view their movie as a midrash aggada, “which is a form of rabbinic literature that provides expansive commentary and discourse analysis on why certain things happened in Scripture.” Another way to say this is that midrash is interpretative license of scripture.
Now that the dust has settled with Noah, what are we left with in hindsight? Aronofsky and his creative team fashioned a vivid and strange world into the antediluvian era. It seems to resemble ours today, but there is an elusive quality to it. Aronofsky’s longtime cinematographer and creative partner, Matthew Libatique, provides a huge assist with colors and lighting that straddle the fence between fantasy and hyper-realism. In many ways, Libatique is more successful visually than his director friend in creating that uneasy mix, but more on that later. The sequences with Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather, played with flair and whimsy by Anthony Hopkins, convey something of what the Garden of Eden might have looked like had mankind not broken the world. These Methuselah moments remain the movie’s most profound.
One thing that Aronofsky’s Noah conveys beyond a shadow of a doubt is the sheer depravity of pre-flood man. In comparison to the rest, Noah is a saint, but he himself is not nice. I found this quite intriguing, if not totally convincing. Noah is both a family man and a warrior, which continues Aronofsky’s theme of juxtaposing concepts and ideas that normally do not mix. From a viewer’s perspective, I wanted Noah to protect his wife and kids from the darkness around him. When Noah fights off the bad humans, those scenes have a tendency to play like an antediluvian version of Conan the Barbarian or Middle Earth. This is not your Sunday school version of Noah. The entire first half of the movie exhibits standard fantasy-adventure fair, but it holds the viewer’s interest.
Before watching Noah, I wondered how the Nephilim would be portrayed in this day and age of CGI. The Bible does not present much in the way of information about the Nephilim except their descending from the union of the sons of God and the daughters of men (Genesis 6:1-4). Because Aronofsky and Handel approached this narrative as a midrash, they changed the name of the Nephilim to the Watchers. This name has its roots in some of the Jewish extra-biblical accounts of the days of Noah. From my point-of-view, the Watchers evoke either the Ents in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series, or Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creations from the 50s and 60s. Either way, this means that The Watchers lack originality and credibility despite assisting Noah in building the ark, and sacrificing their lives by preventing the race of corrupt humanity from entering it.
Noah’s main antagonist is Tubal-Cain, played by Ray Winstone. This character has the stones and chutzpah to stand toe-to-toe with the ark-building protector of his family. During the movie’s expositional moments, the viewer learns that Tubal-Cain had killed Noah’s father right before his eyes. This builds the audience’s distaste for the villain and provides us with a rooting interest in Noah. When the flood hits, it is gripping and vivid. There was no way to survive this deluge unless inside the ark. If the Watchers lacked all credibility, then so does the movie the moment Tubal-Cain stows aboard the ark by chipping away at the wood. Once everyone is safely aboard, the story never stays afloat even though I believe this is the heart of the movie.
What began as a fairly compelling fantasy-adventure yarn turns into a contrived and pretentious psychological exploration of madness. It is at this point that Aronofsky turns the tables on the audience as Noah, the hero, transforms into an antihero. His descent into madness is melodramatic to a fault as he goes beyond the Creator’s edict and takes on a mission to prevent humanity from proliferating after the flood. This means intending to kill his daughter-in-law’s unborn children should they wind up female. This flatlines the drama as it strains for effect. The artistic choice to make Noah the antihero is bold, but it gives the viewer no one to root for at this stage in the story. Even worse, all of the supporting characters within Noah’s family remain flat including the villain, Tubal-Cain. This is by design as Aronofsky has turned the movie into his own midrash about the person of Noah, or the type of person it takes to be a Noah.
I see the movie Noah as the midrash of Aronofksy and Handel that operates as a psychological allegory. For example, the setting and the supporting characters wind up being types or representations of Noah’s psyche. This is especially the case in the second portion of the movie since the first half plays more like an adventure flick. The ark symbolizes Noah’s soul, and the characters function as different aspects of it. At the risk of invoking Freudian theory, an argument could be made that Tubal-Cain represents Noah’s id, Noah’s wife is the superego, and in some twisted way, Noah’s youngest son, Ham, might be his father’s ego. This reviewer is not sold 100 percent on the Freudian aspects that I interjected at the end; however, I am convinced that the second half of Noah is allegorical, which lacks credibility, depth, and subtlety.
What have we learned about Aronofsky’s Noah? From a technical standpoint, the film is fairly top-notch with the exception of The Watchers. They are bad CGI characters. When one views Noah from a structural standpoint, it is two movies juxtaposed into one unit that blend together like oil and water. The first half is a fairly compelling fantasy-adventure story, which shifts abruptly into an overblown, psychological allegory about one’s sanity. I really wanted to like Aronofsky’s Noah, but the second half cancels out everything that preceded it. The movie barely grades out to a C in my book.