It's not every film that can, at various moments, convince you that you are witnessing both the best and worst film of the year. But Darren Aronofsky's Noah is not every film. Indeed, it's like no other film in its genre, taking the Old Testament tale of a man charged with rescuing a small pocket of human and animal life from the flood-borne wrath of a disappointed God and transforming it into a wild, impassioned, sci-fi-flecked apocalypse narrative. It's charged with furious speeches and confrontations at once purple-prosed and surprisingly powerful, and it's chockablock with as many spectacular FX beats as the superhero-of-the-week actioner rattling the walls of the auditorium next door. It also parades a swaggering set of narrative cojones as grand as any of Aronofsky's previous works; this is a film with the bold brilliance to obey the spirit rather than the letter of the Biblical narrative, presenting a protagonist who means to follow the no-half-measures judgmental fury of his lord to their savage pedocidal extremes. Anyone who bemoans Noah's inaccuracies because of the presence of "rock monsters" (and we'll get to those beings…oh, we'll get to them indeed) is missing the larger fidelity of Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel's vision. The result is a film that, like Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, is gutsy enough to tackle and attempt to dramatize the real-world implications of biblical thinking. Like Temptation, it has inspired its own share of distrust and contempt amongst the religious bodies of the world, many of whom had not seen the picture before heaping their excoriations upon it. And like Temptation, it is in many ways a more spiritually probing and inquisitive film than the classic Bible epic content to portray the great men and women of the Good Book as mere waxwork icons mouthing sanctified homilies.
Aronofsky isn't screwing around here, and he's not hedging his bets either. Despite the unconventional visualization of the subject matter, this is doubtlessly a dramatization of the flood narrative taken straight from the pages of the Book of Genesis. Adam and Eve are evoked by name, their fall from grace in the Garden of Eden depicted onscreen, complete with a glowing perfection-avatar First Couple and a forbidden apple pulsating with a disturbing heartbeat rhythm. This fall leads to the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, an event that here has torn the world into contentious tribes whose "civilizing" ways have raped the planet, leaving the byways of the earth rocky, bitter and bereft of flora, fauna and hope. The only beacon of true civilization is embodied by the descendants of Lamech, the third, peace-loving son of Adam and Eve, whose stalwart chief descendant is Noah (Russell Crowe), a man who teaches his own sons the virtues of simple farming, love and kindness towards all creatures, and respecting the charge man has been given by "The Creator" to protect his planet. (The film's insistence on referring to its deity only as "The Creator", never as "God," has been one of the chief sticking points of the anti-Noah contingent, regardless of the fact that true historical accuracy would have demanded the term "Jehovah" instead.) Despite the best efforts of Noah, his saintly wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly, reunited with her Beautiful Mind co-star and Requiem for a Dream director), and their children, including their young charge Ila (Emma Watson), The Creator is displeased with the despoiling of the planet he has so carefully nursed into being. In a wild dream, The Creator tells Noah that he will flood the earth, washing it clean of wickedness and saving only Noah, his family, and a male-and-female pair of each animal of the earth, innocents all. Noah is commanded to build an ark to survive the storm, and he fights and kills to protect his craft from the marauding swells of humanity who demand a salvation they have explicitly been denied by the will of The Creator. But once aboard the ark with his family and their zoological cargo, Noah cannot quell the screams of the drowning that echo in his soul. So much death and destruction cannot be for naught, and The Creator's work must not be in vain. Neemah and the children thus find themselves in a pitched emotional battle against a patriarch who has become an avenging angel who means to wipe clean the earth of the very last remnants of sinful humanity…even if he has to slaughter Ila's newborns straight from the womb to see it done.
For centuries now, the tale of Noah has been told from pulpits and in synagogues around the world. It is customarily framed as a narrative of renewal and salvation, of God smiling on a sinning but still striving humanity. But the quick-and-clean approach of the original Genesis narrative does not truly convey the horror of what the all-powerful Creator unleashes upon his backsliding people. No, you need $135 million and the best special effects Industrial Light and Magic can muster to get the job done these days. While I am as skeptical as the rest of the moviegoing world about the ongoing prevalence of "we can do it, so we will do it" CGI epics (Noah was preceded by a trailer for Transformers: Age of Extinction, an action blowout with "impressive" CGI that, to my eye, doesn't even look finished), I am all for harnessing the power of computer-generated imagery to bring to life historical occurrences that eluded special effects technology in the pre-CGI era. Not to suggest that the Noah tale is indeed based on historical fact, though virtually every major religion of the pre-modern era contains a flood narrative within its mythology. But if you're going to bring a well-worn tale of raging waters and celestial destruction to the screen, I have no problem with the deployment of special effects, and Noah's are truly remarkable, rendering pummeling rushes of water that scatter and shatter the multitudes like so much hellish confetti. In one image that I'll never forget, a rocky outcropping teeming with terrified humans clinging for life is smashed by a wave that washes them away as if they'd never drawn breath at all. Noah's literally apocalyptic images remind us of what kids' storybook tellings of the tale make it easy to forget: This is a story about a being so furious and disappointed that he wants to kill everyone on the planet, and who has the power to do just that. This has always been a story about the death of thousands, and Noah allows us, for the first time ever, to feel the full-brunt gut punch of that vengeance.
Aronofsky and Handel also do not shy away from depicting Noah as a perfect instrument of potential divine vengeance, damn the implications of where his fidelity to his Creator's whims may take him. Russell Crowe is a once boundlessly acclaimed actor who has fallen under considerable critical scorn in recent years; he was singled out for some of the nastiest brickbats leveled at 2012's Les Miserables (as something of a Crowe apologist, I found his work in the admittedly deeply flawed film intriguing, his rock-style approach to the songs cleanly setting him apart as the film's antagonist), and his recent resume has been flecked with high-profile under-performers like Ridley Scott's DOA 2010 take on Robin Hood and this February's Winter's Tale, which rated a scathing How Did This Get Made? podcast a mere two weeks after its theatrical release. But Noah is a thrilling reminder that when Crowe finds material he sparks to emotionally, he can tear into a character with a ferocious commitment unmatched by few other actors today. His Noah takes the actor and the audience on quite a journey, starting as a sweet-souled farmer nevertheless scarred by the tough vicissitudes of a God-abandoned world (as a boy, Noah witnesses the murder of his father at the hands of Tubal-cain, a warrior king who plagues the adult Noah in the person of Ray Winstone, who blusters and shouts and does what Ray Winstone does, but does so impressively enough). He's warmhearted enough to take in Ila when her family is slaughtered by Tubal-cain's marauders, and he struggles to be the best possible father to his eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth), who becomes Ila's husband; conflicted middle child Ham (Logan Lerman), who strains to break free of the paternal umbrella and taste all humanity has to offer; and youngster Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), who in the manner of many such youths, knows that father knows best…doesn't he? But when The Creator levies his command to build the ark, and Noah witnesses the true depths of desperate human depravity on the eve of the flood, his heart hardens into a resolve that no man, not himself, not his family, not his soon-to-be grandchildren, must survive, so he cements a compact with his Creator to see the human line end with his brood. And he's got a knife handy should Ila's coming children be female; no better way to snuff out life than to literally slash the throat of its only human source. Many religious people, who seemed to have no problem with the bloodbath that was Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, seem to be taking umbrage at this savage treatment of the white-bearded nautical zookeeper so beloved of them as children. But we're talking about a man who is told that a flood will kill virtually everyone on the planet for sins real and imagined, and that this just might mean the death of himself and everyone he loves as well, and his response is essentially, "Thy will be done." Many individuals of faith find this unquestioning acceptance of God's will a stirring inspiration, but when you see it dramatized onscreen as Russell Crowe with a knife in a mewling baby's face, one has to question, at least for an instant, the costs of blind adherence to intangible command. Countless millions throughout history have died through such convictions, and Crowe's performance bravely embraces that life-be-damned fervor; it's one of the finest pieces of acting this fine actor has ever committed to celluloid.
The rest of the performances run the typical gamut of a film of this type, the actors swinging for the fences, sometimes connecting hard and true, sometimes just shouting a lot with tears in their eyes. Connelly is an always-reliable presence when trafficking in emotional extremes, and her tear-streaked hysterical plea to her seemingly lost-to-her husband is heart-rending. Watson shares the honors with Crowe for the film's best performance, her subtly shifting face and voice laying bare the burden and responsibility that have fallen into this young, untested girl's care. Just as Winstone does what Winstone does, Anthony Hopkins does what Anthony Hopkins does as Methusaleh, Noah's grandfather and the world's oldest man portrayed as a dotty soothsayer with a love of drug-spiked tea and a ravenous craving for fresh berries. Sadly, none of the actors portraying Noah's sons makes much of an impression. Booth is a pretty-eyed blank, Carroll a fresh-faced kid and nothing more engaging than that, and while Lerman has some heavy emotional lifting to carry off (including bearing the brunt of a fatal decision by Crowe that many in the audience, I suspect, will not forgive the character for), he doesn't quite nail the confusion and struggle of Ham with maximum emotional force. Considering the centrality to this narrative of Noah's essential sacrifice of the familial bond to the greater good, this lack of impact from the three young men's performances is a notable problem, and keeps Noah from ultimately achieving true greatness.
But Aronofsky and Handel score in numerous other respects, taking wild cinematic gambles with the material that largely pay off. The creation of the universe is dramatized in a whitter-quick stop-motion rush of images, cells splitting into fish and birds and monkeys with an exhilarating visual ease that by itself conveys the wonder of The Creator's power. Clint Mansell's thunderous score strains the boundaries of restraint while still stirring the emotions, and longtime Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique lenses the proceedings with his usual paradoxical sense of painterly grit. The production design of Mark Friedberg remarkably renders an alien biblical landscape and the mammoth yet crudely constructed ark that represents humankind's last hope; likewise, Michael Wilkinson's costumes evoke science fiction as much as they do sword-and-sandal epic ("A long time ago" indeed…). Some viewers will be disappointed by the limited role that the animal passengers of the ark play in this story; once Noah and his family load them aboard two by two, they are put to sleep with a special magical all-purpose substance called "zohar," and are out like a light for the duration, so if you're hoping for wild ark-borne stampedes, animal fights, or narrative developments that treat these creatures as anything other than cargo, you had best look elsewhere. And then there are the Watchers, Aronofksy and Handel's most audacious conceit. These craggy, stone-encrusted beings, animated in a bizarre stutter-step manner that recalls nothing less disturbing than the shutter-walking ghosts of classic J-horror, have been used as a stalking horse for biblical purists wishing to tar Noah as biblically unfaithful. But the Bible, its surrounding apocrypha, and centuries of Christian teaching (not to mention Milton's Paradise Lost) are rife with tales of fallen angels, cast out by The Creator and made to suffer the tortures of the damned simply by being denied the presence of their god. And that's what these "rock monsters" really are, angels cast out of heaven and tarred with the cracked-mud cage of their shame for the crime of sympathizing with the likewise expelled Adam and Eve. Aronofsky boldly places the Watchers front and center throughout the film's first hour; they help Noah and his family build the ark and boldly defend it from Tubal-cain's marauding masses, their sacrifice on behalf of God's will earning them back to the Creator's side. They're Noah's biggest love-it-or-hate-it creative gamble, and I frankly applaud the brass and conviction with which Aronofsky and Handel dramatize an oft-discussed but seldom seen theological concept. (It helps that the Watchers are voiced by a coterie of fine actors, including Nick Nolte, Frank Langella, and Aronofsky regular Mark Margolis, and are animated by ILM with skill and truly innovative invention.)
Noah is not a film I expect to see on televisions every Easter from now until the end of time. It is not interested in spoon-feeding its audience a Sunday school vision of events, fresh-scrubbed and with all the craggy implications of the biblical record sanded away. It's a thorny, rough-hewn blockbuster that dives neck deep into the morass of biblical fundamentalism and grapples with the implications of that literalist drive with more probity and curiosity than virtually any other big-budget Hollywood motion picture has even attempted. The results are loud, violent, spittle-flecked, occasionally ridiculously overblown (seriously, we already knew Winstone was evil; he could have at least killed that lizard before he bit into it). It's also thoughtful, fierce in its convictions, and made with a damn-the-torpedoes power that is, at frequent moments, great and undeniable. Noah is one of those films that, once it is seen, cannot be unseen. And it should be seen, and it should be dealt with, by any person of faith, by anyone who's ever questioned their own beliefs, and by anyone interested in the ever-expanding, singularly risk-taking filmography of Darren Aronofsky.