When we first meet our hero in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, he is scraping lichen from rocks on a moonscape planet. He is gruffly bearded and wears something like a tunic made from burlap. Nearby, his sons are scraping too, and when one of them plucks a tiny white flower from the ground, our hero, played by Russell Crowe (who must have been eating more than lichen to become so brawny) asks the boy what he is doing. His son says he picked the flower because it was “pretty.” As our hero begins telling his son not to take from the earth what he does not need, a CGI dog with the hide of an armadillo goes yelping through the ravine below, a spear tip sticking from its belly. “Men!” our hero announces, and tells his boys to hide.
If a film is to hook me early, I admit the opening scene is close to perfect. A dystopian world, a main character with unsullied conviction taking care of his family on the outskirts of civilization, an as-of-yet unrealized but ever-present threat, and a not-so-goofy looking animated creature—it all smacks of Mad Max or an other-world version of Children of Men or Waterworld, if Waterworld had been an hour shorter. In other words, I’m a sucker for movies like this. But Noah shouldn’t have been made.
There’s been a surge in faith-based productions, like God’s Not Dead, Son of God and Heaven is For Real, that suggests Hollywood, long considered a factory of blasphemy to the hardcore faithful, is finding a prefab—and paying—audience in churchgoing Americans. That would seem innocuous enough if we didn’t live in 21st century America, where the rise of mega-congregations and TV evangelists have turned faith into a lucrative business proposition. It’s hard not to see Hollywood’s newfound love of God as lame and shameless profiteering. And though Noah is nowhere near as deliberate an attempt to attract churchgoers as a movie titled God’s Not Dead, the film’s release came with a healthy, un-Aronofsky dose of pandering. The problem isn’t that Hollywood is taking money from Christians, though, it’s that movies like Noah don’t achieve good cinema when they’re busy cajoling a demographic that takes its literal interpretation of the Bible seriously.
Case-in-point, Paramount Pictures, which released Noah last month, reportedly screen-tested a half dozen different versions of the film for Christian audiences. And when the National Religious Broadcasters requested a disclaimer be released with the film, Paramount agreed to include this helpful bit of context: “This film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the Book of Genesis.” (Aronofsky purportedly was not told about the disclaimer).
Aronofsky has made a career of prodding the murky and twisting ambitions of his characters (Pi, Requiem For a Dream, Black Swan). That background could’ve made him the perfect person to bring the story of the most ambitious guy in the Bible to the screen. Unlike his other films, Noah has the big-budget sheen of a blockbuster (it cost somewhere around $150 million) and the narrative seems to go on autopilot whenever the story almost gets interesting (when Noah holds a knife to the head of a newborn baby, I perked up, but was disappointed to find the matter easily and divinely resolved). It doesn’t really feel like an Aronofsky film, which invites a question: Is it possible to make a movie that satisfies the action-epic junkie and also convinces fans of Black Swan that darkly intimate storytelling can bear the pressure of a monstrous production budget?
The answer is yes. You couldn’t say the film re-imagines the story of Noah, but its impressive visuals (a la Tree of Life, Lord of the Rings) did evoke for me appropriate pangs of fear and anxiety when the waters rose, and in one case, real sadness when a deer is torn apart by a pack of ravenous men (who later drown). While the story has been trimmed of anything that would be resonantly uncomfortable for viewers, the last third of the film does some work to address the torture the Old Testament’s Yahweh inflicted on those indentured to do his bidding. Crowe’s title character has all the stoicism and nearly unimpeachable moral certainty you could want from a guy tasked with re-propagating the earth. And Jennifer Connelly plays a typically subservient wife until Noah’s moral certainty is finally (and mercifully) impeached. When it is time for her to take charge, she does so subtly, and it comes as a relief.
But Noah will never be Black Swan or Requiem, not because it couldn’t have been but because the producers chose to neuter the story to cater to a third demographic of viewer. If it was called something else, if it didn’t have a disclaimer reminding us all that serious and sensitive people believe deeply in the true story of Noah, I would say it’s an okay action movie worth the price of admission. But this film was clearly made to placate, not stimulate. It was packaged to appeal to people who probably don’t like movies by directors like Aronofsky. I wish they could go on not liking him, because Noah’s death knell lies in the question it ultimately asks: Can a movie please everyone?
The answer, of course, is no.