It’s a hot Tuesday morning in late October on the outskirts of Ouarzazate, a city in the heart of Morocco, and Jesus is having trouble getting birds to fly.
It’s tempting to say that Darren Aronofsky’s Noah has brought back the Bible epic. It’s certainly the first major live-action Bible movie to be produced by a Hollywood studio in decades. But the fascinating thing about this film is how utterly different it is from the Bible movies that came before it. Aronofsky has not revived the genre so much as he has utterly transformed it.
Unlike most Bible films, which take place within decidedly historical contexts, Noah is based on the earliest, most “mythic” chapters of Genesis, as well as some of the Jewish legends that have grown up around those chapters. Building on the ancient otherworldliness of these stories, Aronofsky has created a grounded yet somewhat fantastical environment that is, at times, strikingly reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings movies.
But the core biblical themes — of temptation, wickedness and punishment — are still there, and Aronofsky infuses the genre with his own personal style, not least in his use of haunting dream sequences and in his focus on a morally ambiguous protagonist.
Put it all together and you’ve got something quite unique.
Ever since he burst onto the scene with his first feature film, the trippy low-budget math-and-mysticism movie Pi (1998), Darren Aronofsky has established himself as a director with a unique set of interests, and as a director who tends to push his visuals and his stories well, well beyond the limits of conventional filmmaking. Paramount Pictures, meanwhile, is a major studio that is in the business of keeping things as safe and conventional as possible, so as to attract the widest audience possible (just look at what they did to Star Trek).
So it came as no surprise that, long after Aronofsky teamed up with Paramount to make his first big-budget studio movie, the Bible epic Noah, rumours began to circulate that there was tension between the two of them over the final cut of the film. And it has been interesting to see how the studio’s promotional campaign for Noah has gone out of its way to make the film look as generic as possible, while adjusting its definition of “generic” to suit whichever audience a given trailer is intended for.
The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park may have been the first photorealistic computer-generated animals to grace the big screen, but in the 20 years since then, filmmakers have used computers to simulate more familiar lifeforms — sometimes for safety reasons, sometimes because it gives the filmmakers more control over the animals’ actions, and sometimes because it’s just more cost-effective. See, for example, the horses that were crushed underfoot during one of the big battles in The Lord of the Rings, or the tiger and other animals that shared a lifeboat with a human shipwreck survivor in Life of Pi.
And it’s not just animals. Just last night I was watching the iTunes commentary for Star Trek into Darkness, and one of the special-effects guys mentions quite casually that “literally fifty percent” of the aliens who worship the Enterprise at the end of that film’s opening sequence were actors in make-up, and the rest were created in a computer. And this, despite the fact that there are only a few dozen characters onscreen and they are relatively close to the camera; we’re not talking about one of those epic cast-of-thousands shots like the ones Peter Jackson popularized.
So it should come as no surprise that movies based on the story of Noah’s Ark have been turning to computers to create their little zoos, too.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first part of a prequel trilogy that takes place decades before another trilogy, namely The Lord of the Rings. This is the most obvious thing that Peter Jackson’s newest film has in common with Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but are there any others?
Ever since Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy made nearly three billion dollars worldwide — and earned seventeen Oscars between the three films, to boot — it has been a given that someone, somewhere would make a prequel based on the book that introduced the world to Hobbits in the first place.
But there were certain obvious questions hanging over the inevitable follow-up.