Darren Aronofsky’s Noah reminds us why the Biblical epic—once a Hollywood staple—is now a tricky thing to pull off. Any departure from the straight and narrow of scripture is going to disturb and offend religious fundamentalists, a situation essentially unavoidable for this movie, based as it is on a scant three chapters in the Book of Genesis.
In order to tell the story of Noah and the flood for over two hours, the movie erects considerable dramatic and political scaffolding, and in so doing, becomes a Biblical epic truly like no other. With its visionary asides and warnings of environmental apocalypse, it’s too idiosyncratic to make sense as mainstream seat-filler. But Noah is also a tamed thing, curiously lacking in daring for a director usually so eager to pluck an audience’s nerves like a violinist.
Amid these contradictions, Russell Crowe makes a splendid Noah, equal parts blocky gravitas, startling fury, and supple kindness. Crowe’s short moment with a twinkly Anthony Hopkins, as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah, makes more sense than almost anything else in the film: the two are so clearly cut from the same cloth that they almost don’t need to speak. Unfortunately, given the almost comically thin dialogue granted Hopkins, a silent performance might have had just as much impact.
Embodying his long-lived grandfather’s wise legacy, Noah immediately framed as the one good man left in the blasted, blackened landscape where he and his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) try to survive. (Aronofsky went with the black sands and dark green mountains of Iceland instead of the familiar sands of the Mediterranean.) A vegetarian sharply offended by the sight of other men wastefully killing an animal (“We only collect what we can use,” he reminds one of his young sons), Noah is still an Old Testament warrior at heart, killing a trio of marauders when push comes to shove.
Bona fides established, Noah is able to get to his true work, receiving visions about a coming flood and building the ark that will save his family and a selection of animals until the waters go down. To make his job harder, the voice of God (or, “The Creator,” as he’s called here) is never heard. Noah only has dreams and sensations to go on. The occasional miracle helps him to convince doubters, particularly the seed that magically sprouts into an entire forest that will provide the wood to make the ark. But uncertainty is at the film’s center, as Aronofsky’s script (co-written with Ari Handel) repeatedly leaves Noah to ponder options.
Noah’s struggle becomes especially acute in the film’s final stretches, when his passion to carry out the Creator’s retaliation against humans has him contemplating the end of his own familial line. The horror at what Noah’s supposed to do is amplified as he, Naameh, and their children—including Ila (Emma Watson), an orphan he rescues in the desert and raises as a daughter—listen to the screams of people drowning in the storm.
Even if Noah doesn’t ask out loud (he was chosen, he insists, “Because I could complete the task”), we might consider the morality of a Creator who in a fit of pique slaughters nearly an entire species, some visibly sinful, but some also “innocent,” as Noah’s son Ham (Logan Lerman) protests. But it is never in question that Noah is following the will of the Creator and that both are right about what needs to be done. The Old Testament doesn’t brook much wringing of hands, after all.
The frightening, endangered, mystical world that Aronofsky creates hews closely to the grandly literary style of the Old Testament. But it’s not going to look familiar to those viewers expecting sermons and booming voices from the sky spelling out exactly what to do. After all, this movie features a warlord chieftain (who just happens to be descended from the first murderer, Cain) eager to bully his way onto the ark, and battle scenes with slow-moving giants made of rock.
Both are elements that Aronofsky chiseled out of minor Biblical details: the warlord Tubal-cain (a properly scarred and Viking-esque Ray Winstone) is briefly mentioned in Genesis, as is the existence of giants. The film pumps up these graphic novel-like elements, replete with origin stories and melodramatic calls for vengeance, suggesting a certain fanboy-ish sensibility at work here, something like a large scale version of what Kevin Smith managed with Dogma.
This mix of adherence and adventure makes Noah an ungainly vehicle, from start to finish, despite its moments of grandeur. One of its most exciting introductions features the giants known as Watchers, a race of fallen angels who challenged the Creator by wanting to help humans and were damned to wander the Earth as rock-covered souls in torment. But their uninspiring animation and portentous speaking manner (as well as their inclination to explain too much) seems an unfortunate amalgam of Tolkien’s Ents and Michael Bay’s Transformers. Worse, Aronofsky jams them into the story at a dramatically convenient moment, has them labor to construct the ark in sweeping long shots, and then ignores them until they’re needed for an especially noisy battle with Tubal-cain’s horde over the ark.
All this ruckus isn’t quite established in Noah‘s opening epigraph, “In the beginning was nothing,” a poetic twist on Genesis that Noah repeats later, in order to tell his family “a story” as they huddle in the ark during the flood. In his version and in the film’s humans’ fall from grace is an impressionistic dream, in which Adam and Eve’s eviction from Paradise is followed not just by the widespread corruption and violence that so enraged the Creator, but also environmental devastation, somewhat less prominent in the Old Testament. This jumble of past and present concerns helps to make Noah less epic, less mysterious and terrifying, than perversely literal, as the movie spells out its message about as clearly as a Sunday school sermon.