Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is a mad allegory of the Bible’s most destructive episode, a contradictory yet consuming film of axe-swinging pacifists, benevolent rock monsters and a strangely ambiguous God.
“Let me tell you a story . . . ” Russell Crowe’s title patriarch says to his family midway through, as he proceeds to relate the conventional biblical creation saga, prelude to the coming global flood and animal-filled escape vessel he has foreseen in hallucinatory visions.
But the strict Sunday school account of Noah’s Ark is not the one pursued by Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel, who previously teamed for the considerably trippier The Fountain. Here again they explore big ideas about man versus nature and free will versus predestination, but do so with stronger characters, a more propulsive narrative and absolutely no fear of absurdity or anachronism.
They seek both to instil awe and to provoke debate.
For better or worse (mostly better), they claw at the incongruities inherent in the story of the Flood, the most obvious being the “why” question. Why would a loving and forgiving God (always referred to as “the Creator”) wish to destroy all of humanity, so soon after He created it?
This troubling thought doesn’t immediately vex Noah, last son of Eden’s righteous Seth, whom Crowe portrays with outer devotion but inner turbulence. It’s a performance far better than most he has given in his assignments of late, especially his misbegotten villain in the recent bomb Winter’s Tale.
Crowe’s Noah comes on like the original hippie, a man so devoted to life and nature that he chastises his son for picking a flower. Yet he can go full ninja when provoked, brandishing axe, knife or rod to smite anyone who threatens his family: wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo Carroll), plus adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson).
As if the landscape isn’t forbidding enough — Matthew Libatique’s mobile lens shoots unaltered Icelandic terrain that already looks apocalyptic — Noah and his clan must be on constant lookout for murderous and carnivorous city dwellers, who have incurred the Creator’s wrath by ravaging the planet’s natural resources. They’re led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone in full villain mode), a vile descendant of Eden outcast Caine.
Noah has in his corner his wizened grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who helps him divine the Creator’s unspoken wishes through platitudes and servings of tea apparently laced with hallucinogens.
True to Bible basics, Noah sets out to build a giant Ark filled with his family, a matched gender set of all the Earth’s birds and animals and a mandate to created “a new Eden” once the 40-day waters subside.
A subplot pitting environmentalists against barbarians brings currency to the chronicle, but not at the expense of Aronofsky’s grander plan, which is to fully illustrate and dramatize the Flood and its internecine aftermath.
If nothing else, Noah succeeds as pure spectacle, offering up nightmare sights and sounds of Old Testament reckoning that top anything previously brought to the screen (and that thankfully aren’t presented in 3D).
Awe-inspiring crane and helicopter shots show the Ark’s assembly in a forest ringed by Tubal-cain’s hordes, who threaten to invade at any moment — and do when the rains begin to thunder out of the heavens. The story flies by, even at a running time of 137 minutes.
The film gets the big picture so right, with added oomph by Clint Mansell’s grandiloquent score, it’s easier to forgive the many instances where the smaller details fail.
It’s passing strange, for example, that Aronofsky and production designer Mark Friedberg went to great lengths to build the Ark to biblical specifications (it resembles two giant wooden shipping containers strapped together) yet got careless with the clothing (you could brand it L.L. Bean Ancient) and weapons (modern forged-steel knives and rocket launchers).
Another screenplay shortcoming has the Ark’s animals being drugged into submission by a narcotic smoke that doesn’t seem to affect humans. It solves the problem of beasts eating each other, but you have to wonder if a more likely and humane method of animal control couldn’t have been devised.
One script novelty that seems completely ludicrous, yet isn’t so much on closer inspection, involves the giant stone monsters called Watchers who help Noah build the Ark and repel hordes.
Voiced by Nick Nolte, Frank Langella and Mark Margolis, they look like rustic versions of Transformers robots — maybe we should call them Rock-timus Prime? — but they’re actually based on fallen angels known as Nephilim who are referenced in the Bible.
Just as Peter Jackson used explanatory appendixes from The Lord of the Rings to pad out the story in his The Hobbit trilogy, so Aronofsky and Handel make the most of biblical arcana. You can’t really fault them for taking a few liberties, since the Bible says Noah lived until the age of 950, hardly what you’d call an unassailable assertion.
Aronofsky and Handel bring emotional fireworks to the film’s final act, when the story returns to the contradictions inherent in humans being asked to do violence in the Lord’s name.
Noah’s family is torn asunder and his mental stability is threatened as sexual and societal tensions aboard the Ark reach a potentially violent impasse between religious fundamentalism and human compassion.
It’s here where the acting truly exceeds spectacle, and Noah asks its most thoughtful question: What would it profit a man to placate a silent and inscrutable God, yet lose his humanity and family in so doing?