The last time we saw Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly in a successful movie together* she was the distressed love interest to a fragile man plagued by piques of insanity, hearing voices and hallucinating inspirational yet terrifying visions, slowly and incrementally losing his tenuous grasp of reality. It was a paranoid formula which led to Oscars galore, winning Best Picture, Supporting Actress, Script and Director back in 2001, with nominations in many of the other major categories as well. Many among the critical fraternity, myself included, found that film mawkish, absurd and overbearing in its strutted seriousness, with the odd attractive montage sequence which soured the saccharine texture of Ron Howard’s lacklustre and staid direction. You can probably divine where I’m going with this but this time the barking megalomaniac is Darren Aronofsky, finally wielding some financial clout after the Oscar-winning Black Swan it seems he still has this gnawing urge to tell the story he had grazed in The Fountain out of his system, an epic fantastical tale of faith and creation, the splitting and sundering of worlds both physical and emotional. First of all an ominous burning bush warning – there is a specific element of this film which nervous Paramount Executives successfully expunged from all the marketing material, an affectation which is essential to discuss in order to fully explore the film. Technically I guess this is a ‘spoiler’ in that sense but given that this element is revealed in the first ten minutes of the film it’s not anything as revealing as a plot twist, but I’ll be referencing this from the synopsis onward so consider yourself ‘warned’ if you’re really that concerned about such trivialities. So from a box-office perspective Noah is not the waterlogged failure that early industry shamans predicted, and initial reports that disgruntled North American Christian literalists fled preview screenings wailing at the liberties taken with the source material made me think of the geek squad similarly screeching away at message boards bemoaning the latest Superman Versus Batman casting rumour. Truly this is an age of terrible wonders as I mostly find myself agreeing with Christian fundamentalists – this film is a deeply frustrating, cosmological mess…..
Extrapolated from a slim four pages of Old Testament text it feels almost ridiculous to attempt a plot synopsis of one of Western civilisations most enduring myths, but as Aronofsky has repeatedly pointed out whilst sailing the current marketing tsunami the water cataclysm is an enduring parable that has soaked into many cultures and religions – fair point. Grizzled Noah (Russell Crowe), resplendent with his dutiful wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) has been suffering strange visions and apparitions as he and his family scourge a pitiful existence among the creators fallen Eden. Man has been tempted by the serpent and fallen from grace, paradise now a barren and inhospitable realm where bandits and marauders steal and murder with impunity. Noah translates the visions as an instruction to visit his father Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) and obtain further insight, thus it was so that an epic quest is undertaken, traversing the barren lands and meeting the fallen angels entombed as rock heavy golems (voiced by Frank Langella and Nick Nolte in the first slice of divergent madness), and rescuing the young waif Ila from murderous thugs. She soon grows up to be Emma Watson and falls for the blue-eyed charms of Noah’s first son Japeth (Leo McHugh Carroll), leaving second son Ham (Logan Lerman) somewhat frustrated when he learns of the fate of the earth and the severely dwindling possibility of finding a mate of his own. For lo it has been intoned from on high that Noah the faithful should construct a fuck-off ark with his stone-skinned servants assistance, a holy crusade to preserve the creators bounty from the imminent water fuelled Armageddon, but local warlord Tubal-cain, (Ray Winstone) descendant of the original murderous father of sin has a different vision for the future of the planet and its exploitable species…..
After a collegial preview screening one can imagine Terry Gilliam getting onto the directors hot-line and demanding to be patched through to Aronofsky, and respectfully warning him to reign it in – this film is absolutely nuts, crazy, bonkers, berserk and any other adjective you care to throw at it, but unfortunately not in an altogether righteous way. My antipathy sprinted from an promisingly insane opening half-hour which swiftly degenerated into the pits of incoherence, overacting with a repellent moral universe, a slow and dreary ark bound act which is so sodden and lifeless I was praying for a righteous thunderbolt. It also doesn’t help that for many lurking aeons I have harboured and cultivated an animosity to both Winstone and Hopkins telegraphed by rote villains and mystical elder stereotypes, although the latter is actually a 16th level priest in this film (who casts sleep at one point, restoration the next) through the powers of some unexplained magical mumbo-jumbo which Aronofsky gleefully pours into each increasingly inconsistent and head-slapping induced scene. I don’t enjoy opting for Dungeons & Dragons metaphors but that is exactly where this film descends, complete with 18HD stone golems fighting with the evil men under Tubal-cain’s thrall, a mid-point Lord Of The Rings affectation which utterly damns any notion of this film chiefly concerned with deeper ideological psalms, the biblical baby thrown out with the metaphysical bath water. Most amusingly for infidels such as I – and when you’re laughing at overtly serious scenes your picture is in serious trouble – there are visions of wanton abandon, of evil, wicked and unrighteous humankind selling their children and kin for wine and gold with satanic glee, complete with heretics sporting industrial acetylene torch faceguards, building muskets and other tampering with blemished technology which make the cottage genre industry of Fundamentalist Christian films seem like models of subtly and religious harmony. It’s insane, but with a weeping sense of incoherence and juvenile moralism.
Aronofsky moulds his meiter from his furiously driven protagonists – wrestlers, ballerinas, scientists, mathematicians – masters of their profession, utterly obsessed with their individual quests at the risk of their body and sanity (imagine what Herzog could have done with this subject and six figure budget?), and there are a couple of superb montages charting the evolution of existence from the amoeba to the Miley Cyrus which remind one of the stuttering stop motion intensity of his debut feature π. In that sense this long mooted passion project of the director gives the film a circular rhythm from his own low-budget genesis, but alas it is the only filmmaking concession of interest which is soon overwhelmed by the facile metaphysics and medieval musings. Like his previous ambitious failure – and I suspect this is where some of you will check out as I know that film firmly divides the faithful from the agnostic when it comes to Aronofsky – like The Fountain this film is a steaming unresolved flotsam of character, theme and form which doesn’t find any emotional or visual alignment beyond the strictly superficial. One prays that the film’s environmental message will be the films saving grace, although the boat may have sailed on that front, but then again what do we critics really know?;
* Emphasis on the word successful here, this simply does not count….