Noah: Film Review

Before Paul Ehrlich and Al Gore, there was Noah.

Russell Crowe stars in Darren Aronofsky's Bible-based epic.

Darren Aronofsky wrestles one of scripture's most primal stories to the ground and extracts something vital and audacious, while also pushing some aggressive environmentalism, in Noah. Whereas for a century most Hollywood filmmakers have tread carefully and respectfully when tackling biblical topics in big-budget epics aimed at a mass audience, Aronofsky has been daring, digging deep to develop a bold interpretation of a tale which, in the original, offers a lot of room for speculation and invention. The narrative of the global flood that wiped out almost all earthly life is the original disaster story, one that's embraced by most of the major world religions, which means that conservative and literal-minded elements of all faiths who make it their business to be offended by untraditional renditions of holy texts will find plenty to fulminate about here. Already banned in some Middle Eastern countries, Noah will rile some for the complete omission of the name “God” from the dialogue, others for its numerous dramatic fabrications and still more for its heavy-handed ecological doomsday messages, which unmistakably mark it as a product of its time. But whether you buy these elements or not, this is still an arresting piece of filmmaking that has a shot at capturing a large international audience both for its fantasy-style spectacle and its fresh look at an elemental Bible story most often presented as a kiddie yarn.

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The director/co-writer serves notice of his revisionism right away, mutating the opening line of Genesis into, “In the beginning there was nothing.” In the Bible's ark story, God does most of the talking, whereas here, Noah does, at one point raging at the silent one he only calls the Creator, “Why do you not answer me?” This Noah, who receives his instructions about what to do from disturbing, quasi-hallucinatory visions, is presented as the last good man on Earth, the chosen one who will preserve the world's life forms along with his immediate family while the wicked will be swept away, forcing humanity to make a fresh start.

One of the striking things about the Noah tale is that it presents a fallible Creator, one who admits to disappointments over shortcomings in the product of the sixth day of creation with the remark, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” The exceptions are middle-aged Noah (Russell Crowe), his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo Carroll), who are estranged from the rest of humanity and live apart from it, struggling to survive in forbidding surroundings. Noah's physical and mental toughness is strengthened by an abiding faith, and Crowe's splendidly grounded work here recalls some of his finest earlier performances, notably in Gladiator, The Insider and Cinderella Man, in which he embodied values of tenacity, trustworthiness and resourcefulness that inspired confidence that his characters would do the right thing.

To be sure, this is not the genial, grandfatherly Noah charmingly evoked by John Huston when he led an orderly assemblage of animals into the ark two-by-two in his 1965 epic The Bible. Crowe's Noah is a fighter, a survivalist and yet a tortured man dismayed by the ruin brought upon the land by the others of his species. In a visit with his ancient grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), the men agree that, “It's men who broke the world,” and that, as a result, the Creator will destroy it. Foraging with one of his sons, Noah instructs, “We only collect what we need, what we can use.” For many today, this sort of environmental, back-to-the-earth religion has replaced the old-fashioned kind, with nonbelievers as shunned and disdained by the faithful as heathens once were by the righteous.

Working on by far his biggest budget in the wake of the great global success of Black Swan, Aronofsky bulks up his film not only with naturalistic spectacle but with fantastical elements that evoke both Ray Harryhausen and Peter Jackson; creatures rise up from the sea, a whole forest takes instantaneous shape at Noah's convenience and there is far more swordplay and fighting than one ever imagined in this story.

But by far the most startling apparition in this context are the Watchers, the so-called Nephilim, or fallen angels only glancingly mentioned in the Bible. Here they take the form of giant, ferocious-looking rock people (given great, gravelly voice by Nick Nolte, Mark Margolis and Frank Langella, no less) who not only come to Noah's aid by doing the heavy lifting in building the ark but cut down, stomp on and otherwise decimate the hordes who eventually besiege the ark in hopes of climbing aboard at the last minute.

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Leading this army of outcasts and misfits, the very people the Creator has deemed unworthy of continued existence, is the formidably nefarious Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), who more than lives up to his heritage as the descendent of the world's first murderer. He also becomes the world's first stowaway, his secret presence aboard the ark eventually provoking a profound crisis that helps widen the rift through the once tightly-knit but now fraught family.

Like previous Noahs, this one embraces the massive responsibility of sustaining life on Earth. But one of the ways this film takes the character deeper is forcing upon him certain monumental moral decisions that, in the absence of direct word from above, he's got to make himself. Drawing often painful conclusions based on thinking through his “visions” as best he can, Noah prohibits any other humans from boarding the ark and, in the process, forever alienates his middle son, Ham, who is angry because he believes he's destined never to know a woman, whereas his older brother, Shem, has Ila (Emma Watson), an orphan the family took in years earlier.

When the barren Ila miraculously becomes pregnant, Noah's absolutist interpretation of what he must do prefigures Abraham, creating a terrible family schism that sets even his wife against him, startlingly so given how close the couple has always been. Crowe and Connelly were paired before in A Beautiful Mind, and their rapport is manifest in the intimate bond one feels between their characters here.

If anything, the animals get short shrift here. Noah never has to go out and gather them; hundreds of them just show up, as if they'd experienced the same vision as Noah's, push aboard the waiting ark and promptly go to sleep, not to reawaken or be seen again until the voyage is done. This not only comes off as something of a cheat — after all, it's always interesting and fun to examine the occupants of the world's first and most famous temporary zoo, especially given some of the fanciful and/or extinct critters the filmmakers ever-so-briefly put on show here — but it's also a convenient way to avoid the dilemma of explaining how the animals got along so well for the duration without eating each other.

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Foreground family melodrama takes precedence over the voyage itself in the final stretch; other than for Ila's pregnancy and the growth of Noah's hair from unlikely buzz-cut to a shaggier look, there is no indication how long they're at sea, no sense of the flood's duration or the passage of time. Noah's ultimate sense of having failed in his mission feels off-kilter given the overriding theme of providing the world with a fresh start, as does the inevitable question of with whom, exactly, Noah's heirs are supposed to repopulate the land. (Monty Python would have a good answer for this one.)

The ark was built, of all places, on a 5-acre grassy field in a state park in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and there is no faulting the film's outstanding technical achievement. Production designer Mark Friedberg came up with a boxy, barge-like conception for the ark rather than the more conventional bowed vessel, and its rough-hewn, homemade look is entirely of a piece with the rugged overall approach. Varied Icelandic landscapes provide fantastic backdrops for much of the early action. Some of Michael Wilkinson's costumes trend noticeably toward the modern, while Matthew Libatique's muscular cinematography seamlessly incorporates live-action and abundant CGI elements. Clint Mansell's score is entirely in sync with the director's intentions, which means that it repeatedly crosses the line between the intensely dramatic and the bombastic.

Production: New Regency, Protozoa Pictures
Cast: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, Mark Margolis, Kevin Durand
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenwriters: Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel
Producers: Scott Franklin, Darren Aronofsky, Mary Parent, Arnon Milchan
Executive producers: Ari Handel, Chris Brigham
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Mark Friedberg
Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson
Editor: Andrew Weisblum
Music: Clint Mansell

Rated PG-13, 127 minutes