Adapting any story, regardless of its literary source, into a big screen film, especially one with a budget as big as Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, is an exercise fraught with a thousand degrees of barbaric difficulty.
No matter how you slice or dice its plots, themes or characters, someone, somewhere will be mightily displeased, and in this hyper-connected digital age where judgement is often delivered sight unseen and well in advance, they will not be shy about letting you know you have erred and how.
It is an undertaking made all the more challenging, of course, if you brave, or foolish, enough to tackle a story out of a sacred religious text such as the Bible, a book regarded by many as the infallible and literal word of God, one that comes complete with a legion of very protective followers who will brook no deviation from the sacred teachings told within.
As Aronofsky discovered, you are met early on with a wall of passionately articulated scorn that runs along the lines of “So you dare to think you can tell the story better than the creator and sustainer of the universe?”
I am guessing though that Aronofsky, a director who has tackled a number of satisfyingly complex tales from The Fountain to Black Swan, and who has been deeply fascinated by the apocalyptic tale of Noah and his Ark since he was a young man, was not thinking in those terms when he agreed to bring the story to big blockbuster life.
He would have likely regarded the story of one man’s unflagging devotion to the God he loved, who is referred to in Noah quite appropriately as the Creator, as a bold tale, though one short on the whys and wherefores, the inner monologue of Noah if you like, ripe for the telling in a movie bold enough to take some creative risks.
That Aronofsky, a man known and admired for being willing to take narrative and thematic twists and turns when others might opt for a more straightforward rendering, is the man to take those risks is beyond question (his addition of the rock-covered fallen angels known as The Watchers, who assist Noah in his quest, is case in point).
But that he succeeds in this fraught endeavour, is another matter entirely.
Things look promising in the first half of the movie where we are given intimate insight into Noah’s blighted life, played with taciturn patrician sternness by Russell Crowe, one lived in the shadow of an evil and corrupt world long departed from the idyll of Eden, a landscape full of grasping, covetous men, industrial despoiling and rampant ecological collapse.
The parallels of course with our modern age, and with similar literary warnings from the likes of Tolkien in Lord of the Rings, are obvious, though delivered with a heavy handed intensity that dulls their impact as they are repeated ad nauseum and with little subtlety.
Noah is a devoted man of God we are told, almost to a fault as we later discover, an obstinate, kickass eco warrior, and a man willing to do what he must to protect what is left of ravaged creation while simultaneously fulfilling his divine calling to essentially wipe it from creation, a goal that is, of course, diametrically opposed to the first steel-eyed motivation.
Juggling these twin, incompatible demands, and living with the knowledge that you are about to doom the vast majority of humanity to a raging, water-filled grave, would be enough to fatally tax the psyches of the strongest of men and Noah is justly shown by Aronofsky (and co-writer Ari Handel) as a man who struggles mightily with what he believes he must do.
But do it he does, and as the the long, boxy Ark takes shape, and as the animals, birds, insects and reptiles arrive in spectacular CGI-enhanced fashion, their hooves pounding on the ground, their wings beating in thunderous unison, with a cataclysmic cleansing flood imminent and Iceland providing the suitably dramatic backdrops, you are immersed in an impressively realised world, one that beats with both promise and dark disappointment.
It is a world that Noah’s family – wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) who is largely represented as an insipid compliant doormat and sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japeth (Leo McHugh Carroll), and adopted daughter and Shem’s wife Ila (Emma Watson) – know must end but which they struggle to say goodbye to with as much scar-free ferocity as Noah.
By the time the torrential rains fall from the sky, and massive upwellings of water explode from the ground below, there is division aplenty, both within Noah and his family, a sign that all is not well within the last bosom of humanity and frankly given the stresses and strains of what they are doing, it all makes perfect dramatic sense.
Aronofsky rightly argues that people would not react with beatific calmness and blemish-free behaviour and it adds a degree of pleasing complexity to a story short on the nastily flawed business of being human, even if you are the one judged by God to be more virtuous and deserving than all others.
Unfortunately, this is where the wheels fall off and in spectacular fashion.
Somewhere between tarring the last planks of miraculously grown wood, and fighting off hordes of desperate warriors, led by thuggish Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) intent on stealing the Ark for themselves, Noah snaps, becoming a delusional, psychotic madman, murderously intent on keeping what will be a pure, new creation, post-Flood, free of the contaminant of mankind.
What was high and mighty, and yes arrogantly and not open to discussion intent now devolves into homicidal puritan adherence so grotesque, and melodramatically expressed, that Noah becomes little better, and some might argue worse, than the people washed away in God’s great cleansing Flood.
It’s a major misstep by Aronofsky who essentially undercuts any nobleness Noah might have had, with his admirable devotion to his cause now reduced to little more than the off-his-meds ranting of a mad man.
And it results in the story, which in the first half is an pleasingly imaginative fleshing out of the bare bones of the Biblical tale to great effect, going seriously off the rails, a mishmash of greed, jealousies and violence more suited to a third rate soap than the until now gripping story of a man with the fate of humanity is his deeply flawed hands.
You are left almost wishing the Ark would break apart, taking Noah and his troublesome brood with it, and while there is an ending that speaks of reconciliation and love, it is almost too little too late to save the poorly wrought second half of the film.
Aronofsky’s passion for the story is evident in everything from the time taken to craft a beautifully realised pre-Flood world to the inspiring way in which Noah and his family stoically execute their rather bold quest, at least at first, but it looks to have been undone by a desire to inject a little to much drama where none frankly was needed.
And it has essentially turned what could have been an apocalyptic masterpiece into a glaringly uneven one, a movie that will not be ranked among the better of this master auteur’s work, and which if a Flood was beckoning, should be probably be allowed to drown with the rest of the flawed things on the earth.