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Noah (2014)

Answers in Genesis

The best art brings people together--even if only to unite them in outrage. Darren Aronofsky's Noah is an affront to Biblical literalists, atheists, fans of disaster porn, historical scholars, and proponents of ethnic diversity in mainstream entertainment. That the film happens to be a visually, intellectually, and emotionally charged masterpiece is a bonus for those of us who just want to enjoy an agenda-free time at the movies.

You may think you know the story of Noah (Russell Crowe). But whether you've memorized his ark's dimensions down to the cubit, or have only heard the highest-level outline of how he saved two of every creature from God's world-killing wrath, I guarantee the giant rock monsters will throw you for a loop. They certainly did me, and I've read Genesis.

These creatures, known as The Watchers, roam the gray, semi-fertile landscape of early man's domain, and we are given no context for them until a half-hour after they show up. They're also key to your understanding of Aronofsky's message, and your enjoyment of the way in which he delivers it. Noah is not a loving, Passion of the Christ-style retelling of scripture--it's a modern fantasy epic, grounded in historical fact (the story exists--everything else is up for grabs). By combining religious scholarship with philosophy and imagination, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel create an utterly engrossing, fictitious world that feels like it could have existed a long time ago--if not in a galaxy far, far away, then perhaps in some wacky parallel dimension.

Noah is a forager and a vegetarian--the patriarch of the virtuous last line of Abel. He and his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), teach their children not to kill animals, and to be good to one another. The world around them is overrun with wickedness, greed, and a primitive industrialism that stems from Cain's first murderous act. The more mankind becomes obsessed with technology, the film argues, the farther it strays from respect for the natural world--and, by extension, the stewardship with which the species was entrusted.

Indeed, much of Noah's land is ruled by the psychopathic Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), who devours everything he sees, and thinks nothing of women, children, or anything that can't defend itself against his ruthless hordes. Noah begins to have visions of God washing away the earth's sins and starting over--with his family standing tall at the dawn of a new age. Over the next several years, he builds a massive boat, and welcomes pairs of everything with a pulse on board.

"That's stupid. How could he get everything on board one ship? How does he keep them from killing each other? What about penguins? Does he have penguins on his desert boat, too? And if he lives in the middle of black, sandy landscapes, where does he get all that wood?"

Were this presented as a straight historical drama, I might agree with the snark chorus--hell, I'd probably lead it. But from the get-go, Aronofsky establishes that things are different in this world--from the aforementioned giants to the glowing snake skin that Noah's father (Marton Csokas) presents to him as a boy. The filmmakers answer everything that non-believers have complained about for centuries--but in a way that will surely raise more than a few faithful eyebrows. Logical problems quickly become very silly, as Noah zeroes in on a greater message.*

What that message is, precisely, is also open to interpretation. I, for one, got the feeling that Aronofsky's point is really a question for the audience: "Assuming we have been given a second chance to improve ourselves and protect God's numerous gifts--what have we done with it?" In our so-called "enlightened" times, are we smarter and more civilized, or just more plugged in to more distractions than ever before--and do we really think our planet can sustain this global lifestyle of reckless usage? Though Noah is an ultimately uplifting story of a man who wrestles with his god and his conscience in keeping his family together, I wished a neck-breaking, watery death on every bored asshole who checked their Facebook statuses during the film's 138 minutes (As you can see, I'm a long way from salvation).

Speaking of killing, if you go into this movie expecting an hour-long, Titanic-style death-and-effects spectacle, please re-set your expectations. Aside from Tubal-cain's assault on the ark, there are maybe ten minutes of flood carnage--most of which happen off-screen, using some of the creepiest sound work I've heard in a long time.

No, the majority of the film centers on the internal conflicts of Noah, Tubal-Cain, and Noah's family. From grandpa Methuselah's (Anthony Hopkins) unquenchable desire for berries in the desert; to the bizarre pseudo-love triangle between Noah's sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and the cute orphan girl, Ila (Emma Watson), whom they took in after her village was raided;* to Naameh's growing concern that the voices in her husband's head might not be coming from up above--the movie is pure, pensive Aronofsky. It will delight his fans, and rile the idiots--much like the story itself.

Noah is a stunningly crafted effects movie buried within an existential tapestry of powerful performances and ideas not easily shaken off. Crowe and Watson, in particular, are mesmerizing in their own ways. Noah has seen wonders and can feel a genocidal calling in his soul, but that doesn't make his task any easier. And just as her adopted father has been charged with ending the world, Ila is looked to as the new mother of mankind--a point of contention, for sure, since Noah spends much of the film believing he's supposed to ensure his family is the last family.

Then there's Tubal-Cain, perhaps the story's most interesting character--he at least raises the most interesting questions. A self-made, self-determined conqueror, he rails against God and curses him for abandoning His creation. He makes a number of compelling arguments against the whole grand plan, which I've heard atheists make for a decade or more. This isn't a knock against atheists--simply a heads-up that both sides of the belief coin are considered in what is, ostensibly, a movie targeted at the ultra-religious.

Aronofsky loves his journeys into madness. His whole filmography, from Pi to Black Swan, has been devoted to central figures who teeter on the edge of objective lunacy, and are often devoured by it. Noah is perhaps his most optimistic film yet--not because God is the "crazy" voice in Noah's head, but because Noah wrestles with that voice and wins. If you want to dig into that, it could be argued that God still emerged the victor because, after all, how can anything in the universe happen without his approval? And what does that say of the wickedness that allegedly pushed Him to start over?

Noah isn't faithful to any one text, but it is a devout servant of man's ages-long search for meaning. There may be more questions than answers presented here, but at least someone's asking them creatively, and without judgment. No matter what side of the fence you're on, that's a great place to start the conversation.

*After all, no one bats an eye when Jedi knights move stuff with their minds.

**It may be worth noting that this is the second love-triangle picture featuring Watson and Lerman: they also co-starred in Stephen Chbosky's wonderful The Perks of Being a Wallflower.