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Noah flooded by weirdness

Aronofsky's biblical epic tries to be serious but becomes a silly mess

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Noah

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Noah

Spinning out two-and-a-half hours of intense, overheated drama from some brief chapters of scripture, Noah is not a straight-up Bible story. But filmmaker Darren Aronofsky does hold tight to a kind of nutty conviction.

Noah isn't exactly a good movie. It's uneven, unwieldy and occasionally mesmerizingly awful. But it's heartening to see a big-budget Hollywood film that's so idiosyncratic. Noah isn't bad in that boring, standardized, written-by-committee way. It's bad in an original, earnest, what-the-heck-was-that way. Deeply serious, incredibly silly, this awkward, effects-heavy movie somehow manages to rise up on the waters and float.

Of course, the arguments over Noah aren't just about cinematic quality. Because it treats a biblical subject, the controversial film has touched off another skirmish in the ongoing culture wars between religious conservatives and the mainstream entertainment industry. Certainly, Noah is not the flood story that many Christians would like to see. But neither is it a calculated Hollywood cash grab.

Put it this way: If I were a studio executive cynically looking to make a quick buck off the Bible, the last thing I would do is hand over a whack of money to Darren Aronofsky. It doesn't matter if he's using Genesis as source material. Aronofsky is not the kind of filmmaker who's going to have evangelical churches chartering buses to the multiplex. I mean, have you seen the guy's other movies?

Before Noah opened, Paramount, the studio behind the film, tried to curtain off the movie's wackiest aspects. The poster goes for a rain-soaked Gladiator look, emphasizing Russell Crowe's burly, broad-shouldered gravitas. The trailer pumps up the epic biblical sweep, adding the popcorn promise of some disaster-movie spectacle.

But once the reviews were released, the truth started to leak out: The trippy dream sequences, the computer-generated mythical beasts, the fruit-and-nut ecological fable, the giant talking-rock people (!!). Mark Kermode of The Observer called the film "preposterous but endearingly unhinged," which was enough to get me interested.

I watched Noah in open-mouthed astonishment at how loopy the film could be. Still, once I'd recovered from the initial shock of the giant talking-rock men -- yes, they sometimes argue theological points -- I could see Noah as a clear extension of Aronofsky's work. His previous five films can be prickly and paranoid, bombastic and bizarre, tortured and tender, but they are always personal.

Pi (1998), Aronofsky's low-budget indie debut, was a numerological nightmare, all about Kabbalah and chaos theory, the stock market and the secret name of God. Requiem for a Dream (2000) was an all-consuming, inward-spiralling descent into the horror of drug addiction. The Fountain (2006) was a notorious problem production, being shut down, recast and reworked over several years. The final product, a feverish mash-up of Mayan cosmology and futuristic sci-fi, with visuals straight off a prog-rock album cover, looked like it might be a career-wrecking flop.

But Aronofsky rallied in 2008 with The Wrestler, an exhausting look at one man's modern martyrdom, and then got Oscar attention with 2010's The Black Swan, a ballet melodrama that works much better as an unintentional, slightly insane comedy.

As you can from this roundup, Aronofsky's subject matter roams across time and space -- across dimensions, even. But his work is united by an utterly sincere search for transcendence.

For all its Industrial Light and Magic whistles and bells, Noah fits into that oeuvre. Aronofsky and his writing partner, Ari Handel, view their eponymous character as "the first environmentalist." When we first meet Noah, he and his family are gently foraging for vegetarian food, wearing rather avant-garde deconstructed linen garments. Noah's enemy is Tubal-cain, a Bronze Age mining magnate and arms manufacturer, who struts about proclaiming his "I take what I want" world view.

When Noah begins to have visions, he tries to understand what the Creator wants from him. (The G-word is never used.) Eventually, there is a world-ending showdown between Noah and Tubal-cain, complete with computer-generated crowds, flood and fire. There are dream sequences and glowing lights and magical forests and mythical Middle Earth-y creatures, as well as apocalyptic acts of destruction and double rainbows, brooding survivors' guilt and crazed Oedipal standoffs. The dizzying blend of genres and symbols and ideas could make you a bit woozy.

There is a lot of talk about miracles in Noah, but one of the biggest is that this sublimely strange movie ever got made. It's hard not to see parallels between Aronofsky and his protagonist. Each could be viewed as an obsessive loner, labouring away at a seemingly impossible project even as the people around him wonder whether he's a devout servant of truth or a delusional madman. The ark and this movie about the ark are both passion projects. Aronofsky has reportedly been working on the screenplay for 16 years, and the film seems to have been realized through sheer stubborn faith.

Aronofsky's project isn't exactly watertight. Noah is too introspective and odd for a mainstream hit, too earnest and dopey to be a revisionist art-house take on received religious truth, too outright weird to be a broad faith-based film.

I really don't know what Noah is. But I know that it's not a by-the-book money-making exercise, and it's certainly not a big joke. Partly this is because Aronofsky is a notably humourless filmmaker. But mostly this is because, under all of Noah's kooky add-ins, you can see a genuine line of spiritual yearning, an anguished need to hear the divine voice. There is despair over the problem of evil, and a very human seed of hope.

Leaving the theatre, I was hopeful, too, in a cinematic sort of way. I thought the movie was mostly an unworkable, wayward mess, but I felt a protective affection for it. Noah might be a failure, but somehow, it's an encouraging one.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2014 D14

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