Matt Nathanson, MBA Class of 2015
Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH may not be great or even a particularly good film, but it is a wonderful one. Full of wonders–great and subtle–and unexpectedly wonderful filmmaking. Mark my words, every D-girl in Hollywood right now is pitching biblical projects.
Should we blame Mark Burnett, who financed 2013’s stupid and stupidly popular scripted drama THE BIBLE? Or should we blame Mel Gibson– who proved the audience for scriptural cinema so large that a movie didn’t even need to be particularly enjoyable or particularly Jew-friendly to make millions?
Or do we thank them? Do we thank Mel Gibson for taking time to create THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST before its gloriously underrated sequel THE BEAVER?
With Noah I found myself surprised to be left in an excited mood for the forty days of bible stories likely to be flooding the box office for the next 1-3 years. Call this the comic book revolution 2.0, a new era of content sourcing—raping and pillaging the first and final home of the public domain: the word of God.
It seems so obvious in a way. The Bible is full of stories so thematically plump that Jesus should sign Spielberg to a development deal. Aronofsky pulls a lot out of the ample content—and his perseverating use of symbol (the Snake, the Apple, the Fall) reinforces what’s good about the bible-as-source: these are the stories behind the stories that we all know.
But there’s also something awful about the bible (besides, of course, The Crusades and its attendant mass murder, general intolerance, pedantic moralism, etcetera). It’s mostly boring. Even the good Bible stories like that of Noah are marred by long stretches of nothing—for example the 120 years Noah spent on the massive carpentry project that was building the ark.
How do you make 120 years of woodworking filmic? ROCK MONSTERS AS CARPENTERS.
Most people’s biggest problem with NOAH is the huge creative decisions/blasphemies that Aronofsky employed to advance the story. Having friendly Stone Monsters as part of the story isn’t in the Bible per se but it isn’t particularly NOT in the Bible either. Seems to me like a credible way to convert so much lumber…but that’s really neither here nor there.
More to the point is the clever way these huge outside-the-box choices correct the intrinsic narrative problems of adapting material that is itself oddly weird/far-fetched/and sprawling. After all, it’s the Bible—there’s a certain amount of cheesiness inherent to the stories simply because we know them (on a guttural, cultural level—regardless of your religious literacy) so well. I loved the ludicrous scope of this project—tackling the unfilmable—because it doesn’t flinch in throwing everything including the kitchen sink into the story.
This is similarly why Aronofsky was a good choice as a director (and I say this as not a particular fan of his films in general). His innovative visual style (and excellent cinematographer Matthew Libertique) allows the film to speed through time, close up gaps, and ignore some less cinematic details. You need style to tighten sprawling material, and Aronofsky—if nothing else—has style in spades.
Ultimately, Aronofsky’s films are about the various strands and symptoms of madness: in PI, a certain mathematical precision; in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, the Madness of Addiction. In THE FOUNTAIN, he explores the unending madness of love, and in THE WRESTLER, teases the frightening madness of obsolescence. Then, in BLACK SWAN (which I utterly hated) he heavy-handedly explores the insanity of perfection.
Like all these films, NOAH unsurprisingly makes similar strives: this time, towards the Madness of Prophecy.
If the film fails in its third act to make the grip of that particular brand of madness compelling, that’s fair enough. NOAH has been quite justifiably called less than a sum of its parts. The final act, as the rains recede and the ark finds dry land once more, is capably enough delivered and true to the tone and spirit of the first ninety minutes. Yet it doesn’t quite work–we don’t really fear Noah’s sons’ rebellion or care about the marital dynamics with a bland-as-always Jennifer Connolly. Problematically, the inscrutability of everything happening is rightfully taken for granted, but then periodically invoked for narrative tension or silly dramatics. After all, in a film this chock full of miracles and—well, rock monsters—it felt a little absurd every time a character intoned breathlessly “but that’s impossible!”
But that’s what good movies can do, I suppose. Make those things we know to be possible still fill us with skeptical wonder.