“Noah” is a film that never completely commits to any single style or genre. It alternates between big-budget action movie, intimate psychological character study and family melodrama, seemingly at random. This is by no means a new problem for this particular style of auteur-fronted mainstream film—David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” similarly struggled to balance comedy and drama, and suffered as a result.
In this case, director Darren Aronofsky’s previous film, 2010 ballet thriller “Black Swan,” was such a success, Paramount apparently set him up with complete creative control and a budget several times larger than anything he had previously worked with for “Noah.” As anyone familiar with Aronofsky’s strange and idiosyncratic films can tell you, the fact that he chose to spend this creative capital on an epic retelling of the biblical story of Noah is appropriately weird. What is surprising about “Noah” is that unlike other films which suffer from similar tonal disparities, in which you can easily pick out one or two elements that are consistently more successful than the rest of the film, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to what works well here.
At times Noah’s personal struggle with his faith is incredibly compelling, and the film’s action elements are ludicrous, and then just a few scenes later the relative qualities of these elements will have swapped. This is frequently a very frustrating film, but there are enough moments of beauty, both sublime and gruesome, to make it worth experiencing.
The story of Noah—a guy builds a boat, takes some animals and his family with him, experiences 40 days of rain and then repopulates the earth—is one with which most people are likely familiar, and this particular take doesn’t deviate much from that pattern. The film adds in the Watchers, a group of fallen angels who have been forced into stone golem-like forms, but they’re oddly inconsequential for such a fantastical concept.
More importantly, the film focuses on the conflict between Noah’s family and the other humans on Earth, the sinners who will be wiped away by the flood. In this version of the story, the other humans have created an almost dystopian industrial civilization, depleting the world’s resources, and the film’s second act focuses on the battle between those humans and Noah and the watchers for control of the ark. And it really is a battle, in the modern cinematic sense. For about ten minutes, the movie basically turns into Lord of the Rings and mimics that style pretty well. While some of the film’s early attempts at action are less effective, such as a laughable sequence in which Noah kills a small group of hunters, the large-scale battle ends up being one of the film’s highlights.
That being said, this really isn’t a standard big-budget action film. The general tone and style are much smaller in scale, a deliberate effort to take the gigantic, world-destroying scope of the Noah story and examine it on a personal level. The most obvious manifestation of this choice is the focus on making Noah a complex and human character as played by Russell Crowe. The film is simply titled “Noah,” after all, not “Noah’s Ark,” and Aronofsky seems much more interested in why Noah does what he does than in the mechanics of building the ark and saving humanity. It helps, then, that Crowe gives one of his best performances in years, playing Noah as a taciturn, difficult man with little in the way of natural charisma.
Dramatic interpretations of biblical stories have a habit of turning their protagonists into Jesus-like inspirational leaders, but Aronofsky and Crowe avoid that impulse, which helps to sell Noah’s internal struggles with his own faith as believable. Unfortunately, the film’s decidedly human focus is less successful for the rest of its cast. Emma Watson acquits herself nicely as Noah’s daughter-in-law Ila, but Noah’s oldest son Shem is basically a non-entity, and Logan Lerman never manages to make middle son Ham seem like anything more than a whiny teenager. This becomes especially problematic in the dull third act, which locks the central characters in the ark and plays out the conflict between Ham and Noah in the most tedious way possible.
Perhaps the best way to approach this film’s wild inconsistencies is to look for Aronofsky’s directorial touch, which is less apparent here than it is in his previous work. The places in which Noah feels anonymous, such as the visually staid third act or Ham’s endless complaining, are easily the film’s weakest segments, while the more visually inventive moments, where Aronofsky’s influence is readily apparent, are much more exciting. A pair of montages that come midway through the running time completely break from the established narrative and visual structure of the film, as if to remind viewers that Aronofsky is the same man who made evocative and harrowing films like “The Fountain” and “Requiem for a Dream.”
Ultimately, Noah is one of Aronofsky’s lesser works. It’s a little too muddled, a little too lacking in focus, and its many disparate elements never cohere into a larger whole. In someone else’s hands, this could have been a perfectly generic blockbuster, but Aronofsky imbues the film with enough darkness to prevent it from becoming forgettable.
Noah may not live up to Aronofsky’s standard, but it does stand out in an era when blockbusters are becoming increasingly interchangeable.