here’s a wealth of things to say about how Darren Aronofsky, ex-squeeze of Rachel Weisz, he of “Requiem for a Dream,” “Black Swan” and “The Fountain” turned the biblical story of the righteous family man who survived the first apocalypse into something of modern gravitas, a marriage of Mad Max and biblical parable, cannibalism and family drama, angel mechs and personal combat.
Many, many things, but first the word that best describes this spectacle: astounding.
Darren Aronofsky has stated that, for those familiar with the story, all the salient points of the narrative are here: “Audiences can expect all the great moments of the Noah story. . . the Ark, the animals, the Nephilim, the first rainbow, the dove. But hopefully they are captured in new and unexpected ways. Instead of repeating what’s been seen before, we looked carefully at what is written in Genesis, and then created a setting on screen where we felt these miracles could take place.”
Except that this Noah is Maximus-muscular, wields a knife instead of a staff, and carries holy zeal in his bones like an unrelenting torrential downpour – even unto the expense of his family, his is a survival mission on God’s orders after all, or so he believes.
Whenever you get a movie this good, and this much based on a story shared by many religions, there’s going to be polarizing controversy; little surprise that this film was banned in Bahrain, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Indonesia. The governments of those countries saw Aronofsky’s obra as contradicting the teachings of Islam.
Forget what you read, or what they told you in Bible class. For our part, we urge you to see it for the re-branding of the Noah story through Aronofsky’s lens of a dystopic koan, where hope and sacrifice are ardent lovers, and to witness what it takes to survive through the first planetary disaster is achieved.
Here are eight lynchpins of the epic, re-envisioned Noah for the new century.
Noah and the Ark he is commanded to build before earth will be destroyed, takes up just a few pages in the Book of Genesis, but those few passages have had a profound, lasting impact on billions across the globe.
“Consider, what might be the most painful part of the Genesis story: a Creator deciding that He must destroy most, if not all, of His own creation,” said Handel. “Surely there were children amongst those who were drowned in the flood? Certainly there were plenty of innocent animals beyond the two by two? If so, the deluge must have been about creating a clean slate despite those loses – something that must be painful for a just Creator who loves His Creation. How do we dramatize that pain on a human level that we can all relate to? Our greatest task was to figure out how to explore these questions in a compelling, cinematic way while staying faithful to the specifics of Genesis.”
In a pre-flood, post-Fall of Angels age the movie imagines a landscape where the cities of man are slowly spreading like a cancer upon the earth. In the bleak deserts the demons live, who fall upon any trespasser with brutal punishment.
Hermione Granger kills it on this one, infusing her performance as Ila, an orphan that Noah adopts after finding her left for dead in a refugee camp and later the betrothed of Noah’s son Shem, with stark, authentic pain as well as womanly coming of age.
Maybe it’s the presence of two Academy Award winners in Anthony Hopkins (Methuselah) and Jennifer Connely (Naameh)? Maybe it’s the majestic ambition of it all? Nevertheless, watch out for Watson’s break out role that goes well past the girl-interrupted meandering of “Perks of Being a Wallflower” or the meta-Emma of “This Is the End.”
Emma Watson says the role had her delving into areas of experience that were new for her. “I thought a lot about what it means for a woman to be able to have a family, and I thought a lot about the life that made Ila the person she is – living in poverty and seeing some very dark things. I think that makes Ila feel very close to Noah who saves her and brings her into his family, fueling her desire to have a family of her own. There’s a sense in the movie of generations, of family, of things passed down, which is very interesting.”
For Watson, Aronofsky’s approach to Noah was surprising but also moving. She summarizes: “. . .Even though it’s an amazing epic with incredible scale, it is also intimate and subtle.”
A note on the relative age of Noah’s sons in the movie is that, while they may looks like teens or twentysomethings, they may actually be hundreds of years old. See, while the Bible doesn’t give the exact age of Noah’s sons, it’s believed that they were somewhere in their low 100s.
“In an era when men live 900 years, how old should a 100 year old look? Or a 500 year old? Noah had kids at 500, built the Ark at 600, died at 950,” Aronofsky explained. “So in our story, when Noah is building the Ark should he look like you or I would look if we somehow lived to 500, or should he look like a man who’s lived 5/9thths of his life – in other words a middle aged man? And Noah’s kids who are about 1/10 of their natural life-span – what should they look like? What matters is that they are relatively young compared to their father, still learning their own sense of manhood from their patriarch. ”
Known as the man in the Hebrew Bible reported to have lived the longest, the role of Methuselah is taken up by Anthony Hopkins. As the direct son of Enoch and the grandfather of Noah, Methuselah’s role in the grand scheme of things is to provide guidance and wisdom to a reluctant Noah whose lucid dreams from the Creator (God is never mentioned in the movie), he feels, is incomplete.
He plays the role of literal Wise Man on the Mountain, grandfather, and hoary-headed shaman in the movie, even though he’s mentioned in just one biblical passage in the lineage linking Adam to Noah. Extra-biblical tradition maintains that he died at the age of 969, seven days before the beginning of the Great Flood. Much of this shaman’s powers comes from his profligate use of medicinal, ahem, herbs and other natural substances which he gives to Noah to sharpen his connection to the Creator.
Afterwards, he is often seen in the woods looking for fresh berries (i.e. munchies).
In the movie, The Watchers or the Fallen Angels resemble gigantic monsters assembled out of various kinds of rock, their limbs unwieldy though extremely powerful, their earthly forms a far cry from the bright, winged things they originally were.
Visual effects supervisor Ben Snow of Industrial Light & Magic and his team digitally created the Watchers to look like multi-limbed mechas inhabited (or trapped within by) by beings of light, so they move awkwardly like a thin man in armor twice his size.
Aronofsky’s creative vision of the giant Nephilim said to have inhabited Canaan in Genesis, aimed for just such a contradiction. “Nephilim are fallen angels talked about in a unique paragraph in the Bible,” explained Aronosfky. “We created them as the Watchers, who are voiced by Frank Langella, Mark Margolis and Nick Nolte, and are these incredible creatures you’ve never seen before.”
“The design of the Watchers was a big challenge,” comments Snow, “and we had some of the top designers in the business working on it, from Aaron McBride at ILM to Aaron Simms down in LA. Early on, Sam Messer, a New York sculptor, gave us a real basis for what they would become.”
The Watchers, according to the apocryphal Book of Enoch, were angels dispatched to Earth to watch over humanity. Because of their proximity to people though, they soon began to lust after women and, at the prodding of their leader Samyaza, defected en masse to “cohabit” and illicitly instruct humanity in various arts, like make-up, various cosmetics, weapon-forging, martial combat, and even black magick.
Because of all the angelic, inter-supernatural fucking going on, offspring soon appeared and much procreation continued. These children were monstrous, brutish giants were called Nephilim (Nefilim), who pillaged the earth and endangered humanity. These Nefilim or “Fallen Ones” also bore many other tribal names, such as Emim (Terrors), Repha’im (Weakeners), Gibborim (Giant Heroes), and Zamzummim (Achievers). Goliath was said to be one of the Nefilim.
Eventually, according to the Book of Enoch, God allowed a Great Flood to rid the earth of the Nephilim, but first He sends Uriel to warn Noah so as not to eradicate the human race.
It’s written that the Watchers are bound “in the valleys of the Earth” until Judgment Day. Or in Jude verse 6, it says that these fallen angels are kept “in everlasting chains under darkness” until Judgement Day.
You’ve likely seen the battle scene where, during a rainstorm, there’s 350 extras all struggling to enter and seize the Ark.
At the head of the Cainite marauders is Tubal-cain, Noah’s nemesis and a descendant of the infamous Cain who slew Abel, played by Ray Winstone (“The Departed”, “Beowulf”). Although the original Tubal-can is mentioned in the Book of Genesis, he is not included as part of the story of Noah.
“Here’s a guy who is a descendant of Cain, the first murderer, and who himself is defined as forger of weapons in the Bible,” explained screenwriter Ari Handel. “ seemed like the right person to serve as the leader of the descendants of Cain, representing the wickedness and corruption of man.”
Winstone perceived Tubal-cain as a flawed but savvy man determined to survive at any cost. “I kind of saw Tubal-cain not as the bad guy, but as very human,” Winstone says. “He has his own very strong point of view. I think that he’s tormented because the Creator doesn’t speak to him; he’s like a child that’s been shunned.”
Winstone was a leading choice from the start, according to the filmmakers. “We had to hire someone who you believe could kick Russell Crowe’s butt,” mused Aronofsky. “And he’s a big, tough guy who really sizes up to Russell. They have a great stand-off and confrontation.”
To help recruit Russel Crowe, Darren Aronofsky made Crowe a promise: he would never be shot in the cliché image with a pair of giraffes behind his head. Boy, does Crowe deliver this arc of a man on a mission story up to the end where the weight and the price of said mission burdens him like several dead albatross. This Noah is as muscular as General Maximus and starts out as a devoted, loving family man.
Just imagining the contours of Noah’s world, that’s marked in the Bible as the tumultuous, sin-fueled time between the Fall of Man and the coming of the Great Flood, was a profound undertaking for Aronofsky and co. “Noah lives in a time period where his grandfather was alive while Adam was alive,” said the director. “And Adam had actually walked with God, so Noah has no problem believing what God tells him. But the bigger questions for Noah are 1) how can you be sure you understand fully what you’re being asked to do and 2) how do you pull it off?”
There are biblical references to an age of ferocious wickedness and of angelic “giants in the earth,” but scholarly specifics are limited. Crowe himself was very much prepped for the role: “Noah only starts to understand the task he faces as a sort of deduction because he’s not getting a lot of direct input. What he understands is that he needs to look after all the animals, but he doesn’t have any information at all about how he is to address the human question, so a lot is left for him to figure out. One of the cool things about him is that I don’t think he finds there’s any honor in this job. In fact, he sees it as the worst job he could possibly get from the Creator. But he will do everything in his power to finish it.”
Here are some facts about the Ark and how it was built for the movie:
- Right out of the gate Darren Aronofsky decided to build from scratch an actual Ark
- Said Ark adhered to the most authentic measurements and specifications for what Noah was written to have built.
- Though it’s most frequently seen depicted as a rudimentary ship, Aronofsky’s research showed that, in the Bible, it’s basically described as a rectangle, a box.
- The Genesis account provides detailed specifications for the dimensions of the Ark, and it’s one of the few places in the text where incredible direction is given.
- Said Aronofsky: “All the renditions we’ve seen for the last hundred years have been ships, but realistically, the Ark didn’t need a keel because it didn’t have to navigate. It just had to survive the flood. So we went to the Bible, and we built it to the actual scope that’s described – which is pretty impressively sized.”
- The production designer kept in mind that Noah didn’t have the luxury of time to create something beautiful for the ages – he needed something that could quickly be up to the job, even if that job was sacred. “The building of this Ark was done in desperation,” prod designer Mark Friedberg observed. “So it’s not a piece of cabinetry; it’s not a fine, seafaring craft. It’s a functional object.”
- While function was key, Aronofsky and Mark Friedberg were also inspired by the raw, apocalyptic vision of German artist Anselm Keifer, whose symbolist paintings and sculptures incorporate materials such as straw, ash, and salt.
- The Ark’s interior was laid out on three levels, as written in Genesis: “The bottom level is the tallest Mammal Deck for the mammoths, elephants, giraffes and giant beasts. Reptiles and insects live in the middle level, which is only eight feet tall, and at the very top is the twelve foot Avian Deck, where the family lives with all the birds,” said Friedberg.
- While the Ark was palpably real, the animals that enter it as their refuge are a mix of digital wizardry and sculpted replicas made by special effects make-up artist Adrien Morot, who filled the stage with life-like replications of reptiles, mammals and birds, which were later given movement and breath through CGI. “When you work with live animals you’re limited to the type you can have, and it’s a tremendous responsibility to care for them,” Aronofsky explained. “I also didn’t want the Ark to look like a modern zoo. Creating the animals digitally gave us a larger freedom to show the tremendous diversity of the entire animal kingdom.”
- For centuries, searches have been conducted to find remnants of the real Ark in the mountains shared by Turkey and Armenia, but only a handful of re-creations to scale have been attempted. Crafting something as close to the real thing for “Noah” was educational for the movie crew.
TXTIn Genesis, Noah is told to build an Ark and bring two of each kind of animal onto it, but there is no description at all of how he manages this task. This is where Aronofsky and team crafted a great, visually allegorical and cinematically exciting, dramatic way for Noah to get the materials for his Ark and to find and gather representatives of all the animals on the planet.
“These solutions are not in the Bible,” explained screenwriter Ari Handel, “although they don’t contradict it, but we felt they had a miraculous quality that fit with spirit of the story.”
At the same time, Aronofsky says that he was interested in more than just epic scope: “What we did was to start with the actual text of Genesis, then expand that into a family drama.”
Also, don’t miss the superb musical score composed by Clint Mansell (who scored the music for all of Aronofsky’s movies) as performed by the Kronos Quartet. Listen to the original song “Mercy” by Patti Smith, it’s a lullaby sung by both Noah and Ila during the movie.