God only knows how Darren Aronofsky convinced a major movie studio to hand him the keys to its proverbial kingdom. But here, as if by divine miracle, is a $125 million Biblical epic from the director of Requiem For A Dream and Black Swan. The money is all up there on-screen—in the creation of a mighty, torrential downpour; in the construction of a towering ark to brave the waves; and in the migrating CGI menagerie that comes to fill the boat. But if the suits at Paramount were expecting a work-for-hire blockbuster, they should have bankrolled a different visionary. Unlike his title character, Aronofsky bows to no higher power. He’s built this grand vessel to his own specifications, obeying only the voices screaming in his head.
Noah, in other words, belongs to that rare class of auteuristic religious opus, in which (often secular) filmmakers twist Scripture to suit their own artistic obsessions. Theoretically, that’s cause for celebration, but is the movie itself worthy of praise? Appreciating it in principle—for its singularity and audacity, for its refusal to strictly play by the (good) book—is much easier than worshipping at the altar of Aronofsky’s actual achievement. In adapting one of the most famous of Old Testament tales, the director and his regular co-writer, Ari Handel, have taken wild artistic liberties with the source material, embellishing the basic narrative with romantic subplots, digital armies, environmentalist subtext, and monologues from a typically hammy Anthony Hopkins. The result is a monolithic slab of Biblical fan fiction, at once deeply serious and seriously silly. It’s a mess, but at least it’s the mess its creators wanted.
There’s reason, beyond sheer costliness, that the story of Noah and the great flood hasn’t made its way to the big screen too regularly. What is this Sunday-school staple but a saga of righteous genocide, building inexorably to a triumphant mass cleansing? Rather than run from such grimness, Aronofsky embraces it, touching upon survivor’s guilt, as well as the war—raging in his hero’s head—between empathy and marching orders. This Noah, created in the bearded, suitably grungy image of Russell Crowe, is a man haunted by holy obligation. The final descendant of Seth, Adam’s third son, he lives in a barren wilderness, protecting his wife (Jennifer Connelly) and three sons from the wicked, bountiful progeny of Cain. When God speaks to Noah, it’s not by direct, booming address, but through the mortal’s dreams—of sinister serpents, of throbbing forbidden fruit, of bodies floating in the apocalyptic drink. From these visions, the man cobbles together an imperative: If he builds it, they will come. Yes, even the snakes.
More indebted to Peter Weir’s The Last Wave than to Cecil B. DeMille, Noah dares to locate a thin line between belief and madness, devotion and zealotry. When the Almighty communicates only in signs, how is a faithful follower to tell delusions from duties? Crowe, his wearied features framed by a scraggly gray beard, internalizes this conflict with anguished conviction. But he hasn’t been cast simply for the stoniness of his stares, but also for his way with a blade. For all its admirable moral inquiry, Noah also aspires to a modern tradition of grimy fantasy epic—a genre mode that clashes violently, sometimes comically, with its pretensions of seriousness.
Doing his best Ridley Scott impersonation, Aronofsky orchestrates a pointless, mud-splattered battle sequence. The barbarian hordes, seeking sanctuary within Noah’s ark, are led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a Biblical second-stringer that the film repurposes as its sneering villain. His arguments against the silent deity who’s abandoned his “orphan children” would sound persuasive were they not spilling from the mouth of a character who primarily exists to be vanquished. (His greatest sin, in this uniquely PETA-friendly interpretation, is treating the slumbering animal cargo like a buffet.) Winstone’s heavy is less goofy, at least, than the rock-encrusted fallen angels beating back his forces. These talking special effects, which helpfully assist Noah in putting together his boat, seem like refugees from Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth. There’s little reconciling such fantasy-flick elements with the grounded character drama Aronofsky otherwise offers. Noah, like its namesake, is simply burdened by competing impulses.
At its best, the film gets by on its striking imagery, from a panorama of sickening human decadence to a mid-movie retelling of the creation story that might make Terrence Malick weep. If there’s a correlative in Aronofsky’s filmography, it’s clearly the beautiful folly of The Fountain, another flawed but ambitious attempt to ask big spiritual questions in a fantastical context. But that project was borderline avant-garde in its architecture, beholden less to plot than to the director’s gushing big feels. Noah, by contrast, is anchored to its earthly melodrama, which reaches a fever pitch of lunacy once the family takes to the raging seas. Convinced of his responsibility to purge the planet of humanity, Crowe’s raving patriarch threatens the unborn child of his son (Douglas Booth) and adopted daughter (Emma Watson), while the most vengeful of his offspring (Logan Lerman) schemes with a stowaway. Devoid of wonder, these scenes seem to drag on for 40 days and 40 nights. Aronofsky may have bested his Hollywood overlords, but it would take a blind faith in his talent to see this bloated, sometimes fascinating passion project as nothing but a godsend.