Darren Aronofsky has been thinking about the biblical account of Noah for decades. He dashed off a poem about the classic flood narrative that won him a prize when he was 13; he included the story on a list he wrote for himself of 10 film ideas he wanted to bring to life; he started talking about the project in the press as early as 2007; he and writing partner Ari Handel developed the script and originally released it as a comic book in 2011, with a graphic novel version now on shelves; he shot the film in 2012 in Iceland and New York, weathering delays caused by Hurricane Sandy; and he went ten full rounds with Paramount about the final product, as the studio tested multiple cuts in late 2013 in an attempt to appease a vocal minority of evangelical Christians who protested the movie on principle without having seen it. (The studio’s desperation to appeal to all camps even led them to test a 90-minute “love conquers all” version that excised most of the film’s middle and ended with a modern Christian rock song; it is indeed, in the words of one Pepperdine University professor, “tough to make movies for the easily offended.”) In other words, this is not just something Aronofsky has alighted upon in recent years. This is a story he’s wanted to tell on film for almost as long as he’s been a filmmaker. It’s the kind of thing that makes people use empty phrases like “passion project” as a shorthand for the creator’s emotional and logistical investment. Aronofsky really, really wanted to make this film. And the only problem is that a lot of it’s just not that good.
The biblical account of Noah — the story that lays out God’s frustrations with the world he created, his decision to destroy it in a flood, and his subsequent appointment of Noah as the man responsible for building an ark to preserve the planet’s livestock and then repopulate the world — is a lot shorter than most people might think. It plays out over a few chapters in the book of Genesis and runs maybe a couple thousand words, from prologue to Noah’s death. It’s a prehistorical creation myth without a lot of meat on the bone, so Aronofsky and Handel work to fashion a basic narrative that explores a bit more of the tension left unaddressed in the text. However, the story they come up with too often feels like the padding it is: character motivations are thin on the ground, and though Noah (Russell Crowe) is in almost every scene, he remains as stubbornly unknowable as ever. What Aronofsky and Handel have done is make things longer, but not richer; bigger, but not more effective.
At the start of the film, Noah keeps to himself and lives with his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth. One night he has a dream in which he sees the world destroyed by water, so he decides to get advice from his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Methuselah fixes Noah a cup of hallucinogenic tea, triggering another vision of the apocalypse, this time with more animals in the mix. When Noah comes to, he reasons that the Creator is going to use a flood wash away the world’s wickedness, and that he, Noah, has to make a giant wooden vessel to save the animals and start creation anew. This is the most interesting aspect of Aronofsky and Handel’s adaptation of the story because it doesn’t just extrapolate from the text or craft a narrative around it, but actively mutes it: instead of hearing instruction from above, Noah has a nightmare and a bad trip and must deduce what to do next. This makes his later claims about being “chosen” by God to save the innocent creatures of the world not just suspect but horrifying. It’s a reading of the story that isn’t about one man’s struggle to find goodness in himself and those he loves, or even to deal with the “survivor’s guilt” that Aronofsky has talked about; rather, it’s essentially about a man going crazy and inventing things he thinks he’s been told by the Almighty to do.
Aronofsky relies heavily on the tight close-ups he’s favored for years, but they feel queasily out of place here. It’s as if Aronofsky’s trying to capture some fragment of Noah’s desperation or fear as he goes about the process of building the ark and trying to keep his family safe from invading forces who would take the vessel for themselves, but the reverse winds up happening: every time we see Noah on screen, we know less about him and feel less interested in his outcome. This is more than a little frustrating, especially since Aronofsky’s proven such an able hand in the past at not only creating characters with obsessive, self-destructive personalities, but in placing us right inside their heads and hearts. We might not much enjoy our time spent in the souls of Aronofsky’s heroin addicts or aging wrestlers, but we understand every bit of them. And Aronofsky here has as perfect a situation as he could want to showcase another bruised, confused individual searching for meaning and wondering if life is just a sham: Noah is tasked with building an ark to save the world’s animals, which means he must also watch everyone else he knows drown and die. What must that be like? How would that weigh on a man? What kind of torment must that render unto him? Sadly — gratingly — Aronofsky keeps us at arm’s length from Noah, and Noah at arm’s length from anything like introspection.
Without meaning to, Aronofsky’s actually made a sporadically compelling movie about the bad guy: in this case, Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), Noah’s nemesis. They’re on opposite sides of an old family feud, with Tubal-Cain tracing his roots back to Cain, while Noah is descended from Adam’s third son, Seth. To juice things up even more, the film’s first few minutes show Tubal-Cain killing Noah’s father. Tubal-Cain is portrayed as a warlord leader of a roving band of mercenaries, but by the nature of the story, he and Noah share an identical worldview. They both believe in the existence of a deity that laid down the roots of existence, and they both believe in reckoning with that Creator. Yet of the two, Tubal-Cain is the only one to actually do anything proactive: he asks for signs repeatedly, and before leading his final charge to take ground control of the ark before the storm hits, he shouts to the heavens, “Speak to me!” Aronofsky pushes in close on Winstone’s face as he cries aloud, then cuts to a POV shot of gray, unwavering, silent clouds: there are no answers coming. Tubal-Cain is motivated and hungry and searching, willing to wrestle with his deepest beliefs in one moment while angrily cursing them in the next. (Tubal-Cain spits at Noah’s theory about the Creator’s coming flood, saying that nobody’s heard from him “since he marked Cain”; he believes, but doesn’t hope.) He’s by far the most interesting and believable character in the film.
Yet those little glimmers aren’t enough to save a spotty script with rocky execution. Faced with thin source material, Aronofsky opts to inject a few battles into the story, including one that unfolds just as the flood begins. It’s not just Noah and his sons against an army, though; they’re aided by giant stone creatures called Watchers, who were originally tasked with watching over mankind after the fall of Eden. They take up stony arms against Tubal-Cain’s approaching forces, leading to a battle of gray rock against gray armor in the mud in a rainstorm. It’s about as appealing to watch as that sounds. It’s also, of course, almost pointlessly hilarious: Aronofsky’s adaptation of the old flood story is his own, but there’s still going to be a flood, so the battle just winds up filling time before Noah and his family put to sea (albeit with Tubal-Cain stowing away for a final melodramatic confrontation). Aronofsky’s clearly enamored of the power of the Watchers, based on a line from Genesis about creatures called Nephilim, described as the result of unions “when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them.” Here they’re fallen angels, visually impressive but mostly extraneous. They exist because they have to fight Tubal-Cain’s army, which exists to give Noah another challenge besides the flood, because the original story isn’t really that much to go on.
Noah is also Aronofsky’s least visually appealing film. None of his films quite look like each other, though each has their own style and voice: the full-color horrorshow of Requiem for a Dream, the tanned skin and artificial lights of The Wrestler, the chemical-based surrealism of The Fountain. Yet Noah wallows in gray and brown, unable even to make the world feel real when it just against occasional dashes of green or white. Everything here is drab, intended to hammer home the film’s bland dichotomy between dirt and water, between barrenness and infertility, but the parallels come at the expense of style. Aronofsky has always resisted making outright entertainments, and though Noah is probably his least discomfiting movie to watch, it’s also the least compelling.
Part of this feels like an inevitable byproduct of being so close to the source material, of being so familiar not only with what it says but with what you want to say about it, that you forget what it might look like to new eyes. Additionally, the film takes its source material’s popularity (or notoriety) for granted: aside from a brief prologue that uses title cards to establish the lineage of Adam and Eve’s offspring, there are character and narrative moments that can only make sense if you have a passing acquaintance with Genesis chapters 6-9. I was reminded more than once of Noah’s accidental similarities to David Lynch’s Dune: sweeping visuals, erratic plotting, and an outlandish story, all overseen by a helmer who’s weighed down and ultimately defeated by the source material. The appearance and number and kind of animals on the ark; the explosion of a rainbow in the sky when the waters recede; dog-whistles like “be fruitful and multiply”; etc., etc. These little moments feel like teases to something else, callbacks to some other story whose finer points we’re supposed to already know. You can’t shake the feeling that you should’ve done the semester’s required reading before the film. Aronofsky’s made the clumsiest kind of literary adaptation: the one that doesn’t stand on its own.
On paper, Noah seems to fit right in with the other tattered lead characters in Aronofsky’s c.v.: Aronofsky makes movies about people married to obsession, who may or may not be crazy, and who do things out of a mix of self-interest and what we might call insanity or self-destruction. Sometimes this obsession is manifested in things we would call positives: love constant beyond death (The Fountain), or redemption for a life lived badly (The Wrestler). But just as often it’s people destroying themselves (Requiem for a Dream), or driving themselves mad (Pi), or going over the edge (Black Swan). Noah is hounded by his visions and fears to build a giant boat to weather a genocidal storm that the Creator intends to rain down, and he’s further convinced that the best way to move forward is to wipe out the last bits of humanity, i.e., his family. But Aronofsky never really sells this notion, and Noah’s brief utterances about the inevitability of “wickedness” in all people, including his family, feel like basic fuel for plot and not actual feelings from a character. Noah’s of the belief that God wants to cleanse the world of its awful people, and he sees some horrible things in a nearby camp that solidify his opinion, but there’s never anything in his family or his interaction with them that could plant the seed of the idea that they’d need to die, too. It’s the leap of a crusader or terrorist, and there’s no character or story to back it up. It just is, because Aronofsky wills it.
The arrival of Noah in a country and climate as religiously politicized as this one has already launched a thousand think pieces and hand-wringing interviews, and Aronofsky’s spoken on multiple occasions about the nature of his own beliefs: to The New Yorker, he described himself and Handel as “two not very religious Jewish guys,” and speaking to The Atlantic, he simply said “I definitely believe” before declining to get into specifics, saying that the “biggest expression” of his beliefs can be found in The Fountain. The nature of his belief is being discussed because, though the story of Noah is an ancient Old Testament text full of giants and prehistorical myth, it’s also a touchy subject with a number of fundamentalist strains that believe in a literal interpretation of the text. Yet questions like these glide past the more relevant one: not “Do you believe?” but “Do you doubt?” There’s a powerful feeling of conflict and indecision, of self-destruction, that Aronofsky brings to his characters as he pushes them through their small, tortured lives. He’s intimately acquainted with the tension between belief and doubt, yet he curiously leaves that behind for Noah, opting instead for a protagonist with close-minded focus and almost no emotion. I don’t know why; I couldn’t begin to guess. But it feels related to remarks that director William Friedkin recently gave while discussing his career, including 1973’s The Exorcist. While coaching star Max von Sydow through a scene, Friedkin discovered that von Sydow wasn’t able to commit to the line reading because the actor said he didn’t believe in God. When playing Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told, he’d focused on the character’s humanity for his performance, avoiding any theology. Friedkin told von Sydow to take the same tack with his character in The Exorcist: play him as a man just trying to do his job, even if that job is trying to channel a higher power. “You see,” Friedkin said, “I made that film as a believer. The reason that all the sequels to The Exorcist are rotten chunks of excrement are because they are made by non-believers. And what they all attempt to do is to defrock the story and to send the thing up.” Aronofsky doesn’t have to believe in God to tell the story of Noah, but he does have to believe in the guts of the story for the film to work, and that belief doesn’t feel evident here. His Noah doesn’t play it like a human, but a cypher. Aronofsky is a director capable of power and emotion like few others, but here, he’s mumbling at the sky, his prayers gone dead, his eyes no longer looking for answers.