There is a lot to admire in Darren Aronofsky’s big-budget, large-scale epic, Noah. There’s so much to admire, in fact, that it’s hard to call it a bad movie, even if parts of it feel shoe-horned in and it’s overblown and it’s not particularly fun to watch. And no, I don’t mean that every movie has to be upbeat and positive in order to be good. 12 Years a Slave was not upbeat but I was never bored or disengaged by it. At points in Noah, I was checking my metaphorical watch (because seriously, who wears a watch anymore?) because it was about twenty minutes too long and the pacing was slightly too uneven to affix my interest for the entire run time.
The story you know—Noah gets a message from God, Noah builds an ark, Noah saves the animals and his family, yadda yadda yadda, we’re here today. There are a LOT of holes in the Biblical Noah story, and Aronofsky’s movie has the tone of someone who is trying to explain that story to himself, given everything he knows about both science and storytelling. This is where the “controversy” surrounding this movie stems from—it isn’t 100% literal to what’s in the Bible. But there’s also nothing that denies the metaphysical and miraculous in the story, so I kind of feel like some people just want to feel persecuted and they’ve decided this movie is persecuting them by imagining Noah’s story in a grounded, logical-ish way. (PS: If you feel persecuted by a movie, it means your life is awesome and absolutely nothing and no one is persecuting you.)
So much of what Aronofsky incorporates in the story works that it’s hard to point to one specific aspect as the chief reason why the movie ends up feeling like a squeaky wheel. Clint Mansell’s score is beautiful, as all Clint Mansell scores are (he composed one of the most enduring pieces of movie music, the Lux Aeterna, for Requiem for a Dream), and the acting is top notch across the board. Emma Watson, in particular, delivers her career-best performance to date as Noah’s daughter-in-law, Ila. She gives a grueling, emotionally resonant performance that is a must-watch for both Watson fans (the adult ones, anyway—there’s a deeply scarring childbirth scene that may turn a generation of girls off procreating forever) and Watson doubters. Noah is proof that Watson is not best used in one of Sofia Coppola’s dead-eyed ruminations on nothing but in films where she gets something to chew on—there’s a lot of range on display here.
The cinematography from Matthew Libatique (Iron Man/2) is also top notch, with the flood sequence being the stand out. There’s a lot of CGI water, which never looks good, but Libatique and Aronofsky make it work with strong camera movements and sheer scale—it truly does look like the end of the world. But that grandness isn’t sustained throughout and I found the storyline about Noah’s neighbors, a rape-happy tribe of heathens, to be distracting from the more introspective elements of the story. It felt like that whole plot was pumped up by request of the studio who wanted more action and less navel gazing. But the navel gazing parts are some of the best scenes in the movie, and Noah’s conflict with his family over his increasingly unhinged efforts to finish the ark is more interesting than the marauders next door.
At times Noah feels like the Terrence Malick movie Aronofksy didn’t quite get to make, and at other times it feels like an old-fashioned, grand-scale Biblical epic that wouldn’t go amiss on Charlton Heston’s resume. It’s admirable, if not quite likeable, and it does provide food for thought—the central message seems to be “your kids aren’t special and don’t deserve to shit all over everything”—even if it fails to entertain, overall. I can’t say it’s a bad movie, just that it’s not a movie for everyone. Its greatest value might be as an interesting artifact in the careers of Darren Aronofsky and Emma Watson, or as a thing that upset sensitive Christians for a week.