Noah (US - BD RA)
Gabe lines up his opinions two-by-two and parses Darren Aronofsky's latest...
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and, with them, the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. This is the account of Noah and his family. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God. So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on Earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.’ Noah did everything just as God commanded him. (From The Bible’s official synopsis)
The words ‘Darren Aronofsky’ and ‘blockbuster filmmaking’ don’t really go together. Following decent returns and critical success with two intimate and cheaply-made independent films, Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), there was a time when Brooklyn’s most cerebral filmmaker was going to reintroduce Batman to a Joel Schumacher-weary audience. But Aronofsky’s maverick sensibilities and oddball departures were too much for studio execs, who eventually handed off the reboot to the similarly cerebral, but infinitely more mainstream-friendly Christopher Nolan. During this time, Aronofsky fought to get his first big budget production, a metaphysical sci-fi film called The Fountain (2006), off the ground. The battle raged for almost six years, at which point the director’s vision was compromised to accommodate a much smaller budget. Despite being an impeccably-made, unique, and moving meditation on the nature of death that featured lead performances from two major movie stars (Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz), The Fountain was a critical failure and took back only a fraction of its budget. It didn’t mark the end of the director’s career, but it would put a damper on any further experimentation with studio cash in his pocket.
After returning to his roots and forgoing exploratory themes for more traditional character drama with The Wrestler (2008) – which was modestly successful and garnered some Academy Award nominations for stars Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei – Aronofsky had his first major hit with Black Swan (2010). Made for a modest $13 million, Black Swan took in $329 million, becoming one of the most profitable movies of the year. It also earned several Academy Award nominations of its own, including Aronofsky’s first Best Director and Best Picture nods (Natalie Portman won Best Supporting actress). Black Swan’s success was a huge surprise to just about everyone involved. It was an uncompromising exploration of mental illness, shot largely handheld, and it featured a number of nightmarish hallucination sequences that rivaled most contemporary horror features. It was also centered on the ballet (not exactly America’s favourite pastime) and was anchored on female performances. These were all things that studio executives would swear spelled box office poison. Black Swan wasn’t merely proof that mainstream audiences were willing to be challenged, it was proof that Aronofsky’s vision had a wide-range appeal. But Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler also enjoyed some monetary success (at least on home video) so the failure of The Fountain loomed heavy over his next film, Noah.
Considering how utterly divorced Aronofsky’s Batman movie would’ve been from the source material, it would seem logical that his version of the Biblical flood would take liberties with the story. However, much of Noah’s refreshing weirdness is found in the Biblical text, while the more ‘natural’ character moments have been fabricated. Mainstream audiences, many of them Christian, expected a Cecil B. DeMille-styled, large-scale retelling of a Sunday school storybook, only to find themselves flabbergasted by giant, six-armed rock creatures and other supernatural elements. There are superficial similarities to traditional Biblical epics and more recent historically-based action films (the Blu-ray box is littered with critical comparisons to Gladiator), but, ironically enough, Aronofsky’s gritty, allegorical, and literal take on the material has more in common with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ -– the very film that Paramount was hoping Noah would be compared to. Both films take a bleak and violent look at stories that, despite being bleak and violent on the page, are usually portrayed as spiritually supportive. The key distinction is that Aronofsky eventually delivers on the ecclesiastical promise, while Gibson buries his audience in boring vulgarity with little sign of spiritual relief. As a non-denominational viewer – one that notes that the story of Noah is not a exclusively Christian fable/myth/parable – I’m disappointed, but not exactly surprised, that Noah hasn’t struck a Passion of the Christ-level chord.
The trailers made the film look desolate, bland, brown, and grey, likely because Paramount was afraid to reveal the movie as an occasionally surrealist, apocalyptic vision. Despite the ‘Christopher Nolan look’ seen during the advertising campaign, Aronofsky’s enigmatic streak is largely uninhibited – it’s merely filtered through the necessary channels of big budgets and complex special effects (processes that require hundreds of hands stirring his pot). Typically, Aronofsky-isms are all over the film, but found most emphatically in montage imagery, especially in Noah’s visions from God and the ‘time-lapse’ evolution of Earth. The director also doesn’t appear to be censoring himself in terms of brutal, bloody violence and frightening images. I’m surprised that the MPAA didn’t tag Noah with an R-rating, based on the Hieronymus Bosch and Francisco Goya derived nightmare scenes of humans wallowing in sin and dying, dashed against rocks, are almost overwhelming.
Noah had been Aronofsky’s dream project since childhood and achieving that dream would cost somewhere near $125 million – about half the price of most summer blockbusters, but also about $66 million more than all of his other movies combined. It is brimming with digital augmentations, including a number of creatures created entirely in the computer. The Fountain and Black Swan’s CG effects were largely hidden (in the case of The Fountain, the bulk of the space effects were achieved chemically, then composited into the shot digitally). Aronofsky fit the heavy CG into his fantastical vision by rarely depending on photorealism. For example, already pointedly artificial live-action sets are placed before digital backdrops (sometimes opting for only silhouettes) and jagged, stop-motion-like animation is encouraged wherever the Watchers/Nephilim (ancient ‘sons of God’ that are also sometimes interpreted as fallen angels by Biblical scholars) are concerned. Noah is also Aronofsky’s first foray into ‘traditional’ cinematic action. The Fountain included a brief skirmish between Incans and Conquistadors that was shaky-cam’d into chaos and the wrestling scenes in The Wrestler maintained a cinéma vérité style that didn’t require a whole lot of vigorous editing or camerawork. Based on its scale, I was afraid that Noah would prove too much for the director’s skills set, but am pleasantly surprised by both impactful hand-to-hand combat and an epic, stirring showdown between the army of Cain’s descendants and the Nephilim, who protect Noah’s family and the animals as the flood begins.
Generally speaking, the cast is quite good, but there aren’t really any standout or particularly engaging human characters. The people sort of blend into the immaculate production design (especially during the first hour-plus, which chronicles the pre-flood period) and are continuously upstaged by the charm of the Nephilim. But it is always fun to watch Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone growling and shouting, even if they aren’t integral parts of the drama. Unlike The Fountain and Requiem for a Dream, the design drives Noah forward more than grandiose speeches and sensationalistic moral and ethical dilemmas. I found this acceptable, because the audio/visual expression is so strong and genuinely moving, but I imagine other viewers will feel alienated by the missing human touch. Following Black Swan, Noah’s lack of engaging, strong female characters is disappointing, though understandable, based on the source material. More problematic is the lack of colour in the cast, despite it taking place during a time when Caucasians would’ve been scarce (though it is apparently arguable that, according to the scriptures, Noah himself and his family were unusually pale).
Noah was mostly shot using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras (with some Super 35mm inserts) and post-converted into 3D for theatrical exhibitions (outside of the US). This is not the first time Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique have collaborated on a film using digital cinematography ( Black Swan included some digital shots), but they’ve never used it this extensively. This 2D, 1080p, 2.40:1 transfer is positively beautiful, capturing the pseudo-surrealist reality with sharp edges, crisp details, and clean, complex patterns throughout the foregrounds and backgrounds. The transfer’s defining elements are textures and vaguely abstract color palettes. The textures are almost too sharp at times, revealing shortcomings in the special effects, but I noted no edge enhancement issues along these edges. Libatique gets a little carried away with the some of the darkest night sequences and these prove problematic, even for such a strong transfer. The most important details and highlights often stand apart due to the palette, so the more monochromatic images appear a bit muddy. The colour schemes are purposefully set slightly ‘off’ to give the film an otherworldly look, including orangish skin tones and nearly neon green vegetation. The pre-flood scenes are especially vibrant and eclectic, while the post-flood scenes are darker and bleaker, pressing the oranges and desaturating most of the other hues. The film-like look ensures that the digital hues remain harshly separated and don’t blend into each other too smoothly. Some of the darkest sequences do feature basic digital noise, but there aren’t any notable issues with blocking or banding effects.
Noah is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The mix is perpetually busy, sometimes with big, booming and shrieking sound effects and sometimes with more faint and immersive environmental sounds. Directional highlights include the arrival of animals to the ark (the swirling swarms of birds, the twisty squirms of reptiles, the throbbing boom of mammalian hooves and feet), Noah’s journey into the horrors of Tubal-cain’s camp, and the various rushing water effects (rain or sea). High among the more abstract aural additions are the rumbling voices and grinding joints of the rocky Nephilim/Watchers, which subtly creak throughout the channels. Dialogue is consistent and moves well, depending on a character’s placement in or out of the frame. Composer Clint Mansell began his unique and varied career in film scores with Aronofsky and continues a streak of fantastic music here. This score sounds more traditionally ‘theatrical’ than most of his work while still maintaining the consistency and frightening underscores found as far back as Requiem for a Dream. The music sits a bit too quietly beneath the tense, dialogue-heavy scenes to make much of an impact, but is otherwise intricate and quite boisterous (I’m not sure I can recall a single minute of film where music isn’t playing, actually).
The special features are made up of three featurettes:
- Iceland: Extreme Beauty (20:40, HD) – A look at the production’s on-location shooting in Iceland, including cast and crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.
- The Ark Exterior: A Battle for 300 Cubits (19:50, HD) – On the process of shooting on the exterior production stages, which were set up in an outdoor arboretum. It includes discussion of the boat’s design, along with more footage from the set.
- The Ark Interior: Animals Two by Two (20:00, HD) – Concerning the interior set, including a nice look at the intricacies of the set mechanics, make-up effects, stunts, and further discussion of the film’s designs and concepts.
Noah is a more successful film than I could’ve hoped for. The human component never quite clicks, but Darren Aronofsky’s skills as a unique visualist overwhelm most of these shortcomings, creating an emotionally satisfying audio/visual feast unlike any other Biblical or historical epic. It overstays its welcome a bit during the post-flood sequences, but is generally well-paced for a movie that didn’t ‘need’ to be more than two hours long. Paramount’s Blu-ray looks sharp, sounds wonderful, and includes a decent, three-part behind-the-scenes featurette.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 29th July 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English Audio Description
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish, French, and Portuguese
Extras: Iceland: Extreme Beauty, The Ark Exterior: A Battle for 300 Cubits, The Ark Interior: Animals Two By Two, DVD Copy, UltraViolet Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Anthony Hopkins
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama and Fantasy
Length: 138 minutes
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