Neither an act of blasphemy nor a breakthrough, Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” is a freehand interpretation of biblical texts with a freaky imaginative charge. And what else would you expect from the man who gave us the creepy-erotic “Black Swan” and the scariest drug-trip movie ever, “Requiem for a Dream”? Shock and surprise are his thing.
Lightly bound to the traditional telling, Aronofsky gives the story massive battle scenes, intense family strife and a resonant message about the ecological costs of messing with earthly paradise.
In the interests of dramatic conflict and visual spectacle, he takes enough liberties to give your Sunday school teacher acid reflux. Aronofsky originates new characters (Ray Winstone as Tubal, chief of Cain’s barbarian offspring), introduces new minerals (a glowing, dynamite-like power source called Zohar), and invents categories of semi-divine beings (the Watchers, earthbound angels turned into six-armed stone behemoths). We even get a look at a creature that didn’t make it off the Ark successfully, a deer-like creature with gleaming, mahogany-colored scales.
Aronofsky digs deeply into the high tension inherent in an end-of-days story. Russell Crowe’s blacksmith-brawny Noah begins as a peaceful vegetarian recluse, instructing his children to take nothing more from the land than they will use. He and his wife, here called Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), have withdrawn from the wicked ways of city folk, whose dark influence spreads across Aronofsky’s map of the world like spilled ink. They are a sinful bunch indeed, tearing live lambs limb from limb for their supper. Little wonder that Noah quickly accepts the vision that indicates to him that God is preparing to wash his hands of vile humanity.
Noah consults with his father, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), and sets out to build a gigantic floating bestiary, faithfully doing the Lord’s work — even if it means organizing the extinction of his own line when the Ark finds land.
Crowe, Connelly and Emma Watson, as a foundling who grew up with their children to become the bride of their son Shem, tearfully consider the proper balance of justice and mercy. Despite their entreaties, Noah favors the stern path of child sacrifice rather than re-introducing malignant humanity into the new zoological world order.
Naameh argues that the innocents of the next generation should be protected no matter what. Wise Methuselah shrugs, “How am I to know what is right?”
As rain lashes down from the heavens, Tubal’s rabble attack Noah’s fortress-like craft. The battle that ensues lacks the majesty of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” warfare. There are moments of heart-piercing horror, however. Noah’s moral complexity is never more sharply observed than when he saves his son Ham from Tubal’s onrushing army but leaves behind the girl he was courting to be crushed underfoot. This is family-first survivalism with a vengeance.
Aronofsky introduces a stowaway subplot that’s interesting but unnecessary. Crowe radiates plenty of suspenseful hulking menace. Cross this half-mad visionary, and it’s man overboard in a blink. Striding purposefully across the timbered deck, a blade in his fist and a deadly gleam in his eye, he’s reminiscent of the unstoppable, unkillable slashers from ’80s horror films.
Aronofsky is unrelenting in his depiction of big-scale violence, too. We see hundreds clinging to a mountaintop, screaming in fear as tidal waves smash their bodies and wash them away. The phrase “the wrath of God” has rarely been so powerfully visualized.
While Aronofsky overstuffs his telling, he gets points for fitting in incidents such as Noah’s drunkenness in a logical manner. He also has an eye for beauty. The film was shot in primordial Icelandic landscapes, and the halo-like rainbows that adorn the finale are a lovely effect. While the filmmaker’s mind wanders, his heart and eye are generally in the right place.