Saturday, March 29, 2014

Movies Monthly - March - Part 2: Darren Aronofsky's Noah: Cubits Redefined

Whenever I think of the Biblical story of Noah and the Ark, I think of the old Bill Cosby comedy routine.

“No – ah!”
“Yes, Lord?”
“Build me an ark.”
“Yeah, right . . . what’s an ark?”
(And after the Lord describes the dimensions of the ark . . .)
"Yeah, right . . . what's a cubit?"

Fortunately, Darren Aronofsky's epic Noah is not as funny as Bill Cosby's comic piece, though the trailer seemed to promise an unintended comedy of ludicrous proportions. Nevertheless, it certainly redefines the length of a cubit. The set for Noah's ark is gargantuan! (Where the hell did they find all that pitch?) But this gargantuan wooden rectangle, that bears no resemblance to the classic image of the floating barn with a pair of giraffe heads sticking out of a window, is in keeping with Aronofsky’s unique, mind-boggling vision.

Here, in the look of the film and the elements of the story, Aronofsky is going for an entire re-imagining that transforms the classic Bible story into a whimsical science-fiction adventure echoing 2012 and The Lord of the Rings. At the beginning it even evokes the post-apocalyptic genre as Noah and his family wander across a wasted land. In this sequence, Aronofsky throws in a whimsical animal that’s a cross between a coyote and an armadillo. In Aronofsky's Bible world, an evil army is accompanied by robotic walkers; a single seed sprouts a lush forest from the desert; Tolkienesque, Transformer-like creatures of rock step in as Noah’s workers and soldiers; and the famous animals-two-by-two spend the tempestuous voyage in a homeopathic cryogenic sleep. In a whimsical Zen moment that I enjoyed, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) relishes the taste of a single berry as he embraces the great inundation.

Besides affording a number of eye-opening visual twists, Aronofsky’s re-imagining generates gripping drama with Noah’s inner conflicts. Apparently God has called upon Noah to preserve the nature of Eden, but he intends that Noah’s family will die out without progeny, and “man” will disappear from the world. When the adopted Ila (Emma Watson) becomes fruitful, Noah fully intends to slay her newborn if it is a girl. Throughout the film, Russell Crowe does an excellent job of showing Noah's transformation from an aggressively protective family man to an Ahab-like character obsessed with God's grim command. During his transformation, Noah descends into hell. In the film's grimmest moment, Noah infiltrates the vast barbarian refugee camp where he witnesses a ghastly cannibalistic frenzy.

Playing freely with the Bible to an outrageous extent, Aronofsky throws in a monstrous villain, Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), who seems to be the embodiment of all human evil. Then he throws in a battle that’s straight out of The Lord of the Rings, but the film as a whole works quite well.

It works because of its visual dazzle: expansive vistas of rugged landscape filmed in Iceland along with an animated sequence in which the silhouette of an ancient soldier changes into countless soldiers from time periods throughout two millennia of history. My favorite sequence is a spectacular rendition of the creation story that resembles the creation sequence in The Tree of Life played in fast forward. Another standout image shows the last desperate survivors of the Flood clinging to a mountaintop, an image that echoes classic paintings of this iconic Bible moment, a vision set in grim contrast to the film's dazzling final image of hope and salvation.

Most crucially, Noah works because of Russell Crowe’s invested performance as the conflicted Noah, supported by Jennifer Connelly’s earnest performance. (Connelly redeems herself for a dreadful performance in the recent Winter's Tale.) Meanwhile, Emma Watson, allowed to play comfortably with her English accent (her American accent seems to hobble her in recent performances such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower), is excellent as Ila, the young woman who becomes pregnant through a miracle only to face the possible extermination of her twin baby girls at the hands by the God-driven Noah.

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