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"Noah": The biblical epic that demands attention

Most people are vaguely familiar with the Noah legend as told in the Old Testament, or more likely, as told in kiddie books featuring pairs of animals and happy rainbows. Darren Aronofsky's epic film "Noah," however, demands more from its audience than those cheerful kids' books, forcing the viewer to take seriously the apocalyptic situation and primeval world outlined in the book of Genesis. The result is a thoughtful though uneven movie that is, in effect, an art film made on a blockbuster budget.

Even though it's filled with high-end special effects, "Noah" takes seriously the Biblical text on which it's based and demands that the viewer take it seriously as well. "Noah" takes place in a world that drips evil from every pore, enough that the audience can understand why the Creator, as God is always called in the film, might want to push the restart button.

In the midst of overwhelming wickedness and violence, the Creator sends a vision to the relatively righteous Noah (played with near-constant anger by Russell Crowe), demanding that he build a giant container, an ark, in which to save all the animals of the world. Although the Biblical account also has God telling Noah to save his own family, in the movie, Noah doesn't get this part of the message, something which proves crucial later.

Noah gets to work with the help of one of the most controversial and bizarre elements of the movie: The Watchers. These giant creatures seem to be a cross between Transformers and the rock monsters of "Galaxy Quest," and they are apparently some version of fallen angels who nevertheless are helpful to man. The Watchers help build the ark and also protect Noah and his three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, when the wicked Tubal-Cain appears to try to stop them. When the ark is finally finished, the animals show up on cue, two by two. After they are lulled to sleep with some magic smoke provided by the Watchers, the heavens open up.

The launching of the ark is one of the most amazing of the movie's sequences, with water not only pouring down from the sky but also bursting up from an earth that seems only too eager to wipe out all living creatures. A stunning shot from space shows the audience that, yes, the flood is worldwide and devastating.

Once on the ark, however, Noah expresses his belief that God wants all humans to die, including himself and his family. His three sons and wife (played with a grounded believability by Jennifer Connelly), not surprisingly, disagree. Things come to a head when Noah's daughter-in-law, played by the always-perfect Emma Watson, bears twins. Noah prepares to kill them, but he can't do it.

The dark vision that is "Noah" is in stark contrast to the sunny Bible stories told to kids in Sunday School. Aronofsky has put forward a powerful and gripping epic that requires a great deal of thought on the part of the audience and asks unusual but important questions. Does God care about mankind? What is man's responsibility to the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants? What is man's responsibility to his own family and other humans outside his family? Is it possible to hear from God yet hear incorrectly or incompletely? Can a man so stubborn and angry as to kill his own family still be a recipient of mercy and grace? Should a man obey God even at risk to his own family?

These questions are raised in the midst of blockbuster high-end special effects that often leave the audience gasping. The Creation montage, in which Noah has a vision that runs from the creation of the world through the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, is a magnificent and breathtaking hallucination. The launch of the ark is jaw-dropping. Even the Watchers, for all their potential cheesiness, are well done technically, managing to overcome their silliness when they sacrifice themselves for Noah and his family, thereby earning their return to God.

Performances are generally strong and believable, though one could wish that Russell Crowe would get over his anger and show some other emotions. Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson are utterly convincing throughout and ground the movie emotionally when it threatens to run off the rails. Logan Lerman as Noah's oldest son Shem, intense and strong, is clearly ready for movie stardom. Ray Winstone as the evil Tubal-Cain chews a bit of scenery but is often quite frightening. One doesn't always expect strong acting in big-budget blockbusters, but "Noah" is a movie that defies expectations from start to finish.

One small yet distracting problem in the film, however, is provided by the costuming. Noah and his family are dressed in ever-so-hip outfits with finely finished seams that could not be made with modern-day technology. It's a bit distracting to start wondering how much Emma Watson's exquisitely torn sweater would cost at Bloomingdale's while witnessing existential angst about the nature of God's justice.

Despite the silliness of the Watchers and of the costumes, "Noah" is an important movie that demands thought. It is a dangerous movie by a dangerous director, and it's one that asks dangerous questions. With beautifully wrought spectacle that demands a big screen to appreciate, this movie makes audiences think they should get aboard the ark.