It's hard to imagine that an auteur like Darren Aronofsky, whose cinematic tastes have ranged from pro wrestling dramas to ballet thrillers to existential fantasy, could ever venture into unexplored territory. And yet he's found a road untraveled in Noah, his big budget Hollywood make-over of the most famous flood ever and the Biblical tale everybody knows, even if it's because Steve Carell made a comedy out of it. Controversy has dogged Aronofsky's version since the beginning, but the fundamental tenants of the story are faithful and respectful, for better or worse. However, it's when Aronofsky dares to unshackle the story from its familiar confines, exploring the tale's dark psychological corners and indulging in his flair for fantastic visual surrealism that Noah truly sets itself apart.
Russell Crowe steers this ship, giving a commanding, two-fisted turn as Noah, the last in the heroic line of Seth and the natural enemies of the descendants of Cain, who slew his brother Abel ten generations prior. The first murder, Adam and Eve's taste of the forbidden fruit, rape, and all sinful human desire have led "the Creator" to decide the Earth must be cleansed.
“Fire consumes all, water cleanses.”
Noah has been waiting for a sign from the Creator, and he gets in the form of powerful visions of the world washed away in a great flood. With the help of his grandfather, the long-lived Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), he deciphers these visions as meaning he must build a giant ark, not so he can save humanity from a watery grave, but to rescue the innocent animals so the world can begin anew. So yes, most of the elements we know remain intact, but Aronofsky spruces it up to Lord of the Rings levels of grandiose fantasy. Noah is aided in his building of the ark by the Nephilim, fallen angels transformed into gangly stone giants who start as enemies but become fierce protectors. And who are they protecting him from, exactly? What kind of villain could one come up with for a fairly narrow story such as this? Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) is the snarling embodiment of everything wrong with humanity; through gritted teeth (sometimes filled with chewed-upon humans and lizards) he leads his ravaged, depraved clan against Noah in an attempt to board the ark and save themselves.
While Noah is ruled by "Heaven's will", his family is bound by more earthly desires. His wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) has stayed true to her husband but has begun to worry about this most recent task; Noah's son Shem (Douglas Booth) wishes for a child with the barren Ila (Emma Watson), while the other son Ham (Logan Lerman) is desperate to find a girl before they all wind up at the bottom of the sea. Good luck with a name like Ham! The internal family dramas are obviously an embellishment to give a much-needed human touch as there are few other surprises to be found until that first drop of holy rain splashes Noah's face. When so much of the story hinges on fate and divine intervention, there simply isn't much room for drama.
Aronofsky has some serious guts to take the film in the direction it ultimately leads, as Noah's unshakeable faith begins to border on psychosis, putting his entire family at risk. Exploring the line between religious zealotry and paranoid schizophrenia, it's safe to say this is going to elbow a few purists right in the ribs. But it's also where Aronofsky seems most comfortable as extreme obsession has been a constant theme since early his earliest work. Stuck at sea in the claustrophobic Ark, with a hidden stowaway lurking in the lower bowels, Noah's family find themselves in the midst of a psychotic thriller with their patriarch as the looney bin's top patient. While it does go a little overboard and into camp territory at points, what's most fascinating is how little Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel need to do in bringing about this tonal shift. It's a natural progression of Noah's fanaticism taken to a disturbing level.
It should come as no surprise that Aronofsky presents some gloriously moving images in which to tell this story, sending us to deep space at one point to detail the universe's creation. Ironically, the first thoughts that may come to mind during these scenes are of the science-based series, Cosmos, which creationists are currently rending garments over. But Aronofsky's film sits quite naturally in a space that believers and non-believers can appreciate, allowing room for a bit of evolution to the divine origin. The fast-forwarded style of Requiem for a Dream escorts us through the blackness of space to the birth of all life and its modern destruction at the hands of men. It's an exhilarating sequence, one only matched by the ferocity of the flood as it strikes and engulfs the world. Aronofsky has never had a canvas this big to paint on and what he does with it is miraculous.
It's unlikely that Noah will fully satisfy secular or deeply religious audiences, but it shouldn't drive them away, either. While presenting the spiritual tale from a modern sensibility often makes for a clunky combination, Aronfosky's daring, ambition, and visual deftness bring the Bible to life in a way we've never seen.