By Preston Wilder
What does God want? Why won’t He tell us? The silence of God has tormented artists, including filmmakers, for generations. Ingmar Bergman made an entire trilogy on the subject (the last part called, appropriately, The Silence). The Biblical story of Noah would seem to be one of those rare occasions where the will of the Almighty was clear: build an Ark, put all the animals inside, survive the great Flood – yet in fact it’s not so simple in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, the most intelligent blockbuster of the year so far.
The actual Ark-building is admittedly straightforward. Noah (Russell Crowe) has a vision, which his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, doing another variation on ‘dotty old geezer’ after RED 2) promptly verifies as apocalyptic; “death by water” is coming, and God wants something to be done about it. You’d think there’d be practical questions – how do you find enough timber to build an Ark? how do you build such a massive vessel in such a short time? how do you keep the animals from killing each other? – but in fact they’re easily solved. As for the animals, Noah keeps them pleasantly sedated throughout the long voyage. As for the timber, Methuselah gives him a magic seed that instantly sprouts into a forest. And as for the building work … well, the stone giants take care of that.
The what? It’s true there were no stone giants in the Bible – but Noah can’t build the thing himself, and the only alternative is for God to present the Ark ready-made (which isn’t very dramatic), so the film invents stone giants who are also fallen angels and also double as construction workers. And of course the giants are useful in another way too: they repel the hordes of scruffy townspeople – led by King Tubal-cain, played by Ray Winstone – who come looking for seats on the Ark when the rain begins to fall.
The Bible, as far as I know, doesn’t dwell on what the rest of mankind thought of Noah’s Ark, or how Noah fended off the various sinners – but the film does, which is part of what makes it interesting. Noah, who saw his father killed as a young child, basically hates and mistrusts his fellow humans; Man, he believes, is a destroyer and despoiler (men “betrayed the Creator,” confirms one of the giants). Noah is also an environmentalist, telling his son in an early scene not to pick flowers because “we only collect what we can use” – and, like many eco-warriors, he’s in thrall to the dream of the pristine, the lure of nothingness (it’s also in some Werner Herzog films, notably The Wild Blue Yonder). The more one loves Nature, the more one starts to dream of a world without people.
This isn’t explicitly stated in Noah – but our hero certainly goes off the rails in the film’s superb final act, gradual mental breakdown due to obsession being a big Aronofsky theme (Pi, Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream). Noah isn’t sure what God wants – the silence of God again! – but increasingly comes to believe that his mission isn’t to save humanity, but only the animals. Also on the Ark are his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), three sons including Ham (Logan Lerman), and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), who however is unable to bear children; the original plan is to get wives for the boys, so they can repopulate the world once the Flood is over (nice work if you can get it) – but Noah scuppers that plan, leaving the wives to drown and sailing forth with only Naameh, the sons and a barren girl. Once they die out, that’s it. Mankind is over.
What will happen when Ila miraculously becomes pregnant due to Methuselah’s magic? Will Noah turn into Abraham, slaughtering the child – assuming it’s a girl, hence able to beget future offspring – the moment it’s born? (Methuselah’s magic is an interesting point in itself, implying a pagan tradition with the power to challenge God.) What about Tubal-cain, who sneaks onto the Ark and clashes with our anti-hero, peddling a fierce humanistic philosophy? “Man isn’t ruled by the heavens,” he chides, nor are we here to serve the animals. “The animals serve us. That is the greatness of men”, our dominion over the natural world. In between is Naameh, who begs her husband not to despair of humanity: “There’s goodness in us,” she implores, claiming that Love is enough to redeem our mistakes and corruption.
It wouldn’t do to reveal how the film resolves these thorny questions – but the fact that such questions even exist in a big Hollywood tentpole is a triumph in itself. (The film was mired in post-production for months, allegedly so the studio could smooth out some of its spikiness.) Noah is visually spectacular, with the requisite special-effects moments – best bit: desperate people cling to a rock like so many insects, then a big wave comes and wipes them all away – but it’s most impressive as a film of ideas. The plot doesn’t always compel (it’s too familiar, for one thing) but God is endlessly fascinating, if only for His silence. To quote Tubal-cain’s desperate plea: “Why will You not converse with me?”.
DIRECTED BY Darren Aronofsky
STARRING Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman
US 2014 138 mins