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Top ten wildly ambitious film productions

Noah isn't the only film to be made on a ridiculously large scale. Check out some of these other ambitious endeavours

Since he was 13-years-old, the story of Noah and mankind's demise at the hands of God has obsessed cult director Darren Aronofsky, and we're celebrating his environmental epic with Aronofsky on Dazed – an in-depth look of his work as an auteur of our time.

Darren Aronofsky's known for audaciously extravagant and disturbing films about characters obsessive to the point of madness, from the number theorist with cluster headaches deciphering the Torah in Pi to Requiem for a Dream's junkies and the explorer searching for the Tree of Life in The Fountain. So of course biblical ark-building with added pressure of a looming apocalypse is right up his street, and it was only a matter of time (and budget) before he tackled Noah. With the demented epic out this week, we've got into the Aronofsky spirit with these other productions of unrestrained scale and imagination.


Another water vessel epic, but this time Bjork-style, as she and partner in love and avant-garde nuttery Matthew Barney take over Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru on a journey towards Antarctica. The Icelandic singer notoriously ate her own cardigan out of frustration on the set of Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, and while her sea production may have been more harmonious it was no less bonkers in results. A 25-ton hunk of petroleum jelly is cast into a sculpture while the pair – in mammal-hair kimonos – flense parts off each other's bodies off below deck in a jelly tub, transforming from humans into whales in a visually sublime courting ritual.


"My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam," director Francis Ford Coppola told a Cannes press conference when his New Hollywood mad masterpiece, an outrageously over-budget adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam War and shot deep in the Philippines jungle, finally made it to the screen. It became an urban legend that Dennis Hopper's salary for the film was paid in cocaine – not so unbelievable for a film the production of which sums up the excesses of the era, and of which Coppola said they had too much money and equipment, and gradually went insane.


Trumping even Coppola for jungle insanity, German auteur Werner Herzog had a 320-ton steamship lugged over a hill in the Amazon for this epic about the ambitions of a Peruvian rubber baron who dreams of building an opera house in the jungle. Herzog labelled himself Conquistador of the Useless for having presided over a manual feat now easily manageable through CGI. Adding to the ordeal was Herzog's choice of star in Klaus Kinski, whose virulent temper and ravings provoked a local Indian chief to offer to have him killed. Herzog only refused because he needed the actor to complete filming.

I'M NOT THERE (2007)

Indie director Todd Haynes was already known for his wildly innovative take on star biopics (in his brilliantly camp, dark 1987 Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story he whittled down barbie dolls to depict celeb body-image pressure and anorexia) when he tackled the legend that is Bob Dylan. He audaciously used not one but six actors – including Cate Blanchett – to play various aspects of the folk legend's life and question the workings of stardom. Somehow, he pulled it off. Haynes has said of the multi-faceted Dylan: "He's like a flame: If you try to hold him in your hand you'll surely get burned."


In this surreal and sprawling utter mindfuck from out-there visionary Charlie Kaufman, who also actualised a portal to John Malkovich's mind on screen in Being John Malkovich, an unravelling theatre director (the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose marriage is falling apart receives a grant that enables him to take over a gigantic warehouse and direct a cast through constructed lives. As the years progress and the warehouse expands, the line between fiction and reality blurs spectacularly, especially when a bunch of doppelgangers arrive on the scene.


Russian auteur Alexander Sokurov miraculously made this historical drama experiment in one uninterrupted shot, with more than 2,000 actors and three orchestras in St Petersburg's Winter Palace, now part of the Hermitage Museum and an iconic symbol of Russia's cultural identity. We follow the narrator, a ghost, as he drifts through the grandiose rooms, encountering various people from the city's 300-year history, from tsars to a desperate man making his own coffin during Leningrad's siege. Complicating the task further, the director was only permitted a tiny window of time – four hours on a single day – to shoot in the location.


Rivalling Sokurov as king of vaunting Russian ambition is young filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky, the pampered son of a notable director, who made brilliant sci-fi 4. Starting in 2006, he played God over a replica of a Soviet-era city on the outskirts of Ukraine's industrial city Kharkiv, making a film on Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist and free love practitioner Lev Davidovich Landau. Run to replicate an informer state, the set required non-professional cast and crew to immerse themselves in the clothing and lifestyle of the time 24-7, while guests from mystics to performance legend Marina Abramović dropped in for stays. The masses of footage is now being edited in London into multiple features – the end-point is anyone's guess.

EMPIRE (1964)

Pop art pioneer and celeb culture obsessive Andy Warhol said he made this eight-hour epic – a continuous silent, slow-motion view on New York's Empire State Building, as the sun sets – so people could "watch time go by". The iconic Manhattan skyscraper was opened as the Great Depression hit, and was the tallest building in the world before the World Trade Center's time. It's the star of a film that's monumentally difficult to consume, but must fade out eventually – like a grand, powerful nation.


Terrence Malick isn't one to subscribe to the notion that limits foster creativity. No less than the meaning of life and all creation was the subject for this unashamedly, earnestly spiritual and rapturously visual epic experiment. Imagery of dinosaurs, and the cosmos as the Milky Way and solar system form, intersperse the childhood memories of a middle-aged man (Sean Penn) as he looks back on early life with his parents in 1950s Texas. Love it or hate it (and reactions split wildly), no-one had seen anything like it.


In a conceptually mind-bending exploration of the nightmarishly surreal hell of historical memory repression, directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn enlisted unrepentant former members of Indonesian death squads, who were adulated for killing communists, to theatrically re-enact their violent crimes in elaborate, hyper-coloured scale. Dressed in the flamboyant attire of the Hollywood films they loved – from John Wayne Westerns to gangster thrillers and glam, sequinned musicals (the costume designer, credited as Anonymous to avoid reprisals, was inspired by Divine) – they show how the fantasy of self-denial bleeds into unthinkable acts.