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 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 might 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 film, whose super-sized popcorn-movie vernacular might 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.
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 visions. He’s at his best with these fantastical, mystically inclined sequences. He’s just as expressive with the most technically challenging set pieces: 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 a cascade of rainstorms, geysers and 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 convincing turn as a white-haired figure of mystical, oracular wisdom.
So much of “Noah” is so good, that when discordant notes are sounded, they do so with clanging dissonance. The most distracting of Aronofsky’s creations, by far, are the Watchers – fallen angels who roam the broken world like mournful, stiff-jointed behemoths. 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 doctrinaire, it’s clear the filmmaker is far more interested in human agency. He even seems to anticipate the New Testament when Naameh pleads with her husband to reconsider his own dogmatism in favor of ideas such as mercy 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 reportedly has captivated him since he was an adolescent.