As hit-or-miss as Darren Aronofsky’s output has been, one thing has been consistently clear with every film: He lacks neither ambition nor brazenness, and both of these qualities are on abundant display in Noah’s best and worst moments. Its continuous battle between majesty and outlandishness is a natural consequence of the heroic fantasy sensibility which Aronofsky chose to infuse in his adaptation of the biblical tale, something that makes perfect sense in light of the many mythological tropes and themes born from such stories – prophetic heroes bearing humanity’s weight on their shoulders being just one of them. Unafraid of risking silliness, Aronofsky turns fallen angels into giant shambling rock monsters, Cain’s descendant Tubal-Cain (mentioned only once in the Bible) into a demonically-inspired quasi-objectivist villain and Noah himself into a dangerously obsessed fanatic willing to sacrifice his own newborn grandchildren in order to fulfill what he believes to be God’s will (God hear being referred to as “the Creator”).
Some of his creative decisions are misjudged – particularly the aesthetic clash caused by the unnecessary substitution of real animals for largely computer-generated ones, unintentionally highlighting the incongruous presence of blatant modern technology in a prehistoric pre-apocalyptic setting – but all are made in the service of a take on Genesis that reconciles modern rationalism with genuine appreciation of – if not identification with – spiritual power. This approach is best exemplified when Noah narrates the birth of the universe and the fall of man in a stunning sequence that combines time-lapse photography, CGI, silhouetted figures and the rapid assembly of different still shots to give the impression of movements. It’s an extravagant polygamous marriage of images from different categories not usually known to coexist harmoniously, held together by Aronofsky’s unrestrained megalomaniacal vision. While they lack the weight and reverence of a controversial similar sequence from Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, the conveyed impression is that of creation in motion both from a spectator and a creator’s point of view, one that evokes as much a sense of power as it does awe. In that sense, it sums up Aronofsky as a filmmaker: One whose grandiose visions at times contradict his desired proximity with the human soul even as he claims them as consequences of it, yet who reunites them homogenously in scenes such as this.
Indeed, Noah contains almost every trait of Aronofsky’s past films – handheld tracking shots, unsteady close-ups of the human face, close-ups of symbolic details put together in a short rapid-fire montage – but they are all used somewhat sparingly and with more measure and caution than most of his previous efforts. His consistently tight framing is most useful here in representing Noah’s position as both the executor of the Creator’s will and the witness to his incomprehensible power. Correcting the mistakes from his disastrous The Fountain, Aronofsky only allows his grandiloquent imagery to submerge him just enough so that he may pull back in time to readjust his attention on more earthly (and important) matters. His indisputable skill at getting the best out of his actors proves, as always, invaluable to his success in doing so. While watching Russell Crowe’s Noah engulf himself in the muddy waters of faith isn’t as fascinating as the constant physical and psychological mutation of Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers from Black Swan, the dedication in his eyes and voice can only generate respect – enough to forgive a few early lines of dialogue too stilted to be enunciated convincingly. Creator by his preservation of life, destroyer by his refusal to shelter fellow humans, basking in mass destruction all while impressing on its tragedy, both visionary prophet and delusional madman, Noah matches Darren Aronofsky in enough ways for the film to be considered a success on the basis of its effective illustration of their equivalently conflictual nature.