Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: "Noah" Mixes Grandiose with the Surreal and Philosophical in Amazing Ways

Russell Crowe
When director Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan became a financial success story, including an Oscar win for Best Actress (Natalie Portman), it seemed rather fascinating on where he would go next. Known for having a catalog of unpredictable, surreal takes on contemporary society, his latest Noah seems like somewhat of a detour. However, knowing that it is his passion project helps to make the $125 million budget make more sense. Whether seen as a biblical epic or a disaster film, this film manages to go straight for the widest possible audience. Luckily, Aronofsky's passion comes through in one of the most bombastic, unique, and best biblical epics in decades. 

It seems baffling to wonder why Aronofsky would take on the story of Noah's Ark, even if it roots back to his childhood with him drawing pictures. However, that minimal detail is also key to understanding why. As a child, it seems most likely that he watched epics like Cecil B. Demille's The Ten Commandments and thought of one day making a film like that. In this regards, he doesn't have much competition in terms of modern output. While films have played with spirituality in fantastical ways (Life of Pi), it always seems like a gamble, especially when touching a beloved source material. With Noah possibly contradicting some people's perception of the story, it is best to see this as an interpretation with creative license, though none too blasphemous.

The film's biggest strength lies in the moments where we get a sense of the director behind surreal masterpieces Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. Opening with the origin story of earth, it introduces us to a vision that hasn't been seen before. Besides the creation of this planet, we see flowers grow, forests spring from nothing, and a whole lot of amazing time lapse sequences. Despite most of the film being rooted in character study, the artistic moments create a beautiful, psychedelic approach to the story that allows talk of evolution to turn into art. The film is gorgeous in this regards. Even with the introduction of  pre-mutated species, this vision is particularly interesting in creating a feasible world.

For a PG-13 film, there's also a surprising amount of violence. While Aronofsky has never shied away from darker subjects, it is strange to see the occasional animal slaughter or stab wound. There is assurance that no animal was harmed, but that doesn't stop the effects from looking rather convincing. If anything, diving into the depths of sin allows the film to form an uncomfortable edge to it that only helps to build the story of Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family as they try to escape the impurity of humanity. 

If there is one strange tactic to all of this, it is the omission of "God." This isn't to say that it is replaced as a natural disaster, but instead hallucinations that foreshadows events. It is an effective tool, but makes Noah seem somewhat of a hallucinating prophet. Along with supporting characters known as The Watchers, there is a lot of material within this telling of the story that may be deemed controversial for those not wanting to look at the story in too complex of a light. Even then, Aronofsky's bigger focus is on Noah's plight with humanity than the destruction. It doesn't become clear until the third act, but by then it packs a punch.

The film works as a biblical epic, hitting all of the correct notes. For an independent director, it is impressive to see his lack of problems with transitioning to a budget bigger than even his highest grossing film. Even then, he makes it count with a lot of stunning visuals, profound philosophical moments, and still makes it work as both spiritual and secular film making. The cast is good, specifically Russell Crowe, but it is mostly about the scale of the film that makes this an awe-inspiring take on a rather simple story. It spares no expense and the grandeur creates a vision so distinct that it makes you wish that Aronofsky was given bigger budgets to experiment with psychedelics more often.

Noah may not be the best film in Aronofsky's catalog. In fact, it is arguably the least familiar in technique. However, this feels like a film that sums up where he got his ideas from: the bible and biblical epic films. In that regards, it is a loving tribute to his childhood that comes to life in ways that are striking. While some are likely to remain controversial due to their separation from traditional text, it is unlikely that a film like Noah will be made again by a director with admiration for the cerebral. In this regards, the authentic nature alone makes it one of the best films in the biblical epic cannon, likely to be discussed and viewed by audiences for some time.

Left to right: Jennifer Connely and Crowe
Before I dive into this portion, I would like to note that I do not believe that Noah stands much of a chance at the Oscars. While Black Swan collected a few nominations, it does feel like Noah isn't meant to attract that credibility. At most, it could get Best Visual Effects for its wonderful time lapses and scenes involving hoards of animals. Even then, this is only March and we're bound to have a lot of films overshadow it in terms of potential candidacy. The only potential is that Noah follows in the path of biblical epic and Best Picture winner Ben-Hur, though that seems unlikely as what impresses Oscar voters in 1959 and 2014 has changed quite a bit. While the religious themes could help, this feels through and through more likely to get billed as a blockbuster and not stand a chance.

I will also be honest when I admit that Clint Mansell's score is somewhat disappointing. As a fan of his work, especially in regards to Aronofsky collaborations, the music plays as typical blockbuster music. While it does hearken back to Maurice Jarre's Lawrence of Arabia score at times, the tones often feel like slightly improved Hans Zimmer. They underscore important moments adequately, though there isn't much in the way of distinct personality. If anything, the lack of synthesizers and techno beats in the music does a disservice to what makes Mansell unique, but it does help it to not sound as asinine as Vangelis' Chariots of Fire score. Either way, it is fine work, but not necessarily something as authentic as Black Swan's unique alteration to Tchaikovsky.

I am curious to see how this film plays in the long run. I am not all that familiar with modern epics and very few actually appeal to me. However, there is something striking about this one that makes me want to hear conversation from both secular audiences and those anal enough to dissect each nuance. Either way, I think that in terms of passion projects, Aronofsky is very successful in his goals and I can only hope that this film doesn't tank. It may not be my favorite of his, but it definitely gives me reason to believe that he can be an effective director no matter what the scale is.

No comments:

Post a Comment