April 17th, 2014
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
“Noah” Not Quite the Living End
Director Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” is compelling more as a curiosity piece than an edifying entertainment. Fraught with potential pitfalls by the very nature of the undertaking, any artistic work claiming to represent Holy Writ is bound to encounter tons of righteous indignation. Ask the great painters.
But Mr. Aronofsky, disregarding the standard advice that one should steer clear of discussing religion, business or politics, apparently decided that a benign discussion of the weather wouldn’t make for much of a feature film. So he bites the apple and invokes the moviemaker’s version of original sin.
The upshot is, not bad, not great…the effort certain to be met with subjective opinion. The question is, regardless of whether you subscribe to a literal or a metaphoric explanation, just how valid can any filmic interpretation of so provocative a teaching be?
Perhaps trying to please a general consensus that simply doesn’t exist, Mr. Aronofsky imparts no especially divergent, radically creative or particularly enticing theories. Oh, he takes liberties all right, like making The Watchers, a group of fallen angels who help Noah fend off the incursions of super sinner Tubal-cain, appear like some ancient, stone-like variation of Transformers.
Of course, he fills gaps within the overall saga with a soap opera plot, presumably to make matters more theatrical for us mortals. Not to worry…there are no car chase scenes.
However, what constitutes but four chapters in “Genesis” and is expanded to two hours and eighteen minutes for the silver screen, should be recognizable, if not necessarily accurate, to believers, non-believers and those still undecided. Although Aronofsky’s telling adds no profoundly novel wrinkles of its own, there is a decided emphasis. It is the tussle between good and evil, and between right and wrong. Sayeth Aronofsky, they are not the same.
Using Noah’s mission as example of what we humans find ourselves confronting on a daily basis, the filmmaker examines the anguish of trying to do the right thing whilst attempting to discern just exactly what that noble goal is. Russell Crowe, who puts in a journeyman performance as the title shipbuilder, embodies this mental wrestling match with notable aplomb. For those of a mind, the comparative mulling of human ethics and the religious laws as they’ve been taught to us affords the gray matter a workout.
Counterpoised to the goodness that earned Noah his assignment is the kind of miscreant that prompted the apocalypse in the first place. Tubal-cain, effectively portrayed by Ray Winstone, is a formidable villain, and probably more than a little crazy. I mean, he knows the score and still, shaking his fists at the heavens, figures he can prevail anyway. But sure as rain, the deluge comes.
At this point my mind couldn’t help but segue to probably the only time the Goldberger clan attended the movies en masse. It was to see “The Ten Commandments” (1956), The Adams Theatre, Newark, N.J., reserved seats and all. When the Red Sea parted, wowee! Now, perhaps time has made me a bit jaded, however, while I wouldn’t want to attempt swimming through Mr. Aronofsky’s watery torrent, I expected something much more magnificent.
And therein I suspect, dear reader, lies the film’s major problem. The director strives within the miasma of spiritual legend to achieve some sort of essentially inexpressible realism….hence creating his very own contradiction in terms. If you give it some thought, what enchants us most about Biblical tales is the mysticism, the magic, the straight up divine intervention. Trying to establish some gauzy subtlety, he forsakes the miracle for an imagined authenticity.
Otherwise, the art direction proposes a very stark and rather barren landscape…a place that has, alas, drifted afar of the garden. That is until a forest, thanks to the intercession of granddad Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), sprouts up just in the nick of time to supply Noah with the lumber he will be requiring. Engineering and nautical types will be disappointed by the actual building. Here again, I expected something much grander.
What we witness for the most part is a very competent director (“Black Swan,” “The Wrestler”) walking a tightrope of his own making…damned no matter what tack he takes. While managing to slip in some present-minded doctrine and establishing a waste-not, want-not Noah as the first conservationist, Mr. Aronofsky bobs and weaves through the labyrinthine irresolution of political correctness.
Philosophical sorts as well as Biblical scholars with time to kill between archeological expeditions might enjoy digging into the director’s dilemma just to see what they can unearth. But whereas strict constructionists are bound to cry blasphemy, folks simply seeking blockbuster entertainment, and who couldn’t care less either way about the flood of controversy “Noah” is engendering, will find the film a rather waterlogged affair.
“Noah,” rated PG-13, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Darren Aronofsky and stars Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson. Running time: 118 minutes