Old Testament fury has rarely come to such spectacularly fearsome life than in “Noah,” Darren Aronofsky's audacious adaptation of one of the Bible's best-known but still enigmatic chapters.
Be warned: Anyone familiar with the 500-year-old man and his ark may need to check some of their most cherished visualizations of him at the theater door. No cozy two-by-two images of beatific giraffes grace this “Noah.” Like any good artist, Aronofsky has avoided predictable, literalist retellings of beloved Sunday school stories, inserting new characters, bringing parenthetical figures to the fore and making one of history's most enduring and universal myths his very own.
The result is a movie that is clearly deeply respectful of its source material but also at times startlingly revisionist, a go-for-broke throwback to Hollywood biblical epics of yore that combines grandeur and grace, as well as a generous dollop of goofy overstatement. Viewers may not agree about what they've seen when they come out of “Noah.” But there's no doubt that Aronofsky has made an ambitious, serious, even visionary motion picture, whose super-sized popcorn-movie vernacular may occasionally submerge the story's more reflective implications, but never drowns them entirely.
Appropriately enough, Aronofsky starts In the Beginning, and after a brief prologue revisiting Adam and Eve, original sin and the fatal rivalry between Cain and Abel, catches up with Noah as a boy who, by virtue of his lineage and an enchanted snakeskin bestowed on him by his father, is clearly destined for greater things. Conceived and staged like a conventional superhero origin story, “Noah” then finds the grown-up protagonist — played by a solemn, haunted-looking Russell Crowe — living in Canaan alongside his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and their sons, Ham, Shem and eventually Japeth.
Canaan is a desolate world of arid deserts, ruthless tribal warfare and dead cities, but also supernatural wonders. When Noah begins to experience visions of the apocalyptic flood to come, Aronofsky choreographs them not as words-from-on-high messages from the divine, but as stylized, terrifying unconscious visions. Fans of the filmmaker's work — from “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain” to “Black Swan” — won't be surprised to learn that he's at his best with these fantastical, mystically inclined sequences. He's just as evocatively expressive with the most technically challenging set pieces of the story: the arduous construction of the enormous Ark (here produced according to Biblical proportions, down to the last cubit), the arrival of the animals and that annihilating flood, which Aronofsky stages as an awesome cascade of rainstorms, geysers and terrifying waves.
Amidst such visual busyness, Crowe and Connelly deliver impressively grounded, powerful performances, with Crowe playing Noah first as a humble, divinely inspired servant and, eventually, as a wild-eyed zealot, and Connelly brimming with earthy rectitude as his far more steady-eyed wife. One of the most delightful reshufflings is a central role for Noah's ancient forebear, Methusela, played by Anthony Hopkins in a mischievous and altogether convincing turn as a white-haired figure of mystical, oracular wisdom.
So much of “Noah” is so good, and so impressively executed, that when discordant notes are sounded, they do so with clanging dissonance. Taking ill-advised pages from both 1950s animator Ray Harryhausen and the current big-studio predilection for comic-book movies and young-adult teen romances, Aronofsky creates characters and story lines that feel wildly out of place — not because they don't appear in Scripture, but because they're so at odds with the often brilliant aesthetic language that animates the rest of the film. (We'll chalk up Noah's surprisingly sophisticated wardrobe of primitive-chic leathers and open-work knits up to artistic license.)
The most distracting of Aronofsky's creations, by far, are the Watchers — fallen angels who roam the broken world like mournful, stiff-jointed behemoths, seemingly hewn from desert stone and resembling rock 'em, sock 'em robots when pressed into heavy-duty smiting. Every action film nowadays seems to wind up being “Transformers” and sadly, “Noah” is no different, especially when it comes time for a final, grandiose showdown between the Watchers and the oncoming forces of evil.
Those forces, by the way, are led by an otherwise marginal character named Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a bloodthirsty leader who probably hasn't made it into most Sunday morning curricula. His role in Noah's mission and ensuing adventure on the Ark, as well as a budding love story between Shem (Logan Lerman) and a young girl named Ila (Emily Watson), will surely give some literalists exegetical fits — not least because Tubal-cain comes to be a proxy for the kind of anti-conservationist theology that Aronofsky uses “Noah” to obliquely critique.
Although it's understandable that the filmmaker wanted to make “Noah” a parable of environmental stewardship, for many believers the story is primarily about hearing and responding to God's voice. Aronofsky doesn't necessarily give that reading short shrift, but as Noah becomes increasingly doctrinaire — culminating in a bizarre, deeply troubling passage involving the Ark's most vulnerable pair of creatures — it's clear that the filmmaker is far more interested in human agency. He even seems to anticipate the New Testament when Naameh pleads with her husband — ever more urgently — to reconsider his own dogmatism in favor of ideas like mercy, forgiveness and simple goodness.
Those are fascinating passages, beautifully presented by Connelly as the movie's most steadfast moral voice. As off-putting as “Noah's” juiced-up subplots and cinder-eyed Watchers can be, it's impossible not to be impressed, engaged and moved by Aronofsky's own passionate commitment to the Noah story, which has reportedly captivated him since he was an adolescent.
Like interpreters through the millennia, Aronofsky has taken Noah's journey sincerely to heart, processed it through his own singular visual and moral imagination and come up with a narrative that feels deeply personal, broadly mythical and cannily commercial all at the same time. That feels just about right for “Noah,” which ultimately invites viewers to form their own meanings, whether they're about sacrifice and obedience, stewardship and service or the enduring entertainment value of an epic adventure that, thousands of years on, still manages to astonish.
Three stars. PG-13. Contains violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content. 131 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.