Director Darren Aronofsky's new film "Noah", at least via its generic marketing, purports to be a Biblically based film that follows the familiar story of its title character, the ark and the "Great Flood" as laid out primarily in the Old Testament book of Genesis. However, those three elements are pretty much the main and only foundation that the director seems willing to adhere to in his version of the story with any real dedication.
Instead, what Aronofsky actually presents on the screen is a slick, audaciously bombastic and undeniably entertaining visual spectacle that also essentially amounts to an astounding bait and switch that only sparingly bears any resemblance, or dare I say faithfulness, to the original source material.
Aronofsky distances his film from the Biblical story right from the start by rewriting the Old Testament's first line of scripture on screen to "In the beginning, there was nothing".
Granted, the Biblical story of Noah consists of only three sparsely detailed chapters in the Old Testament; leaving plenty of room for fleshing out the story to some some degree to create a cinema-worthy screenplay. However, unlike say Cecil B. DeMille or numerous other filmmakers who have chosen to tackle a Biblically based story with some level of dedication to the familiar, mostly accepted if not believed, and to many, sacred ancient narrative; Aronofsky has decided to re-invent the story and turn it on its head.
It's as if Aronofsky has decided to tell the story of Noah as though he were a character in the Marvel Ultimate Universe, and his Biblical motivations, relationships and surroundings have been changed, updated and flipped around to suit Aronfosky's own personal spectacular interpretation of what he believes the audience of today wants to see.
Confounding matters for those expecting at least something that somewhat resembles the bare bones narrative of Noah; Aronofsky attempts to make the story an all encompassing, politically correct film that includes a mish-mosh of elements from Christianity, Jewish theology from the Book of Enoch and more that tries to be all things, to all people, and only ends up as a confusing multi-theological mess. It doesn't help that Aronofsky's expected artistic license goes ( of course, pun intended ) overboard with the story by including central characters and devices that either never existed in the admittedly semi vague original story, or in some cases, seem to be cribbed directly from Peter Jackson's often tedious "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
A one line passage from the Old Testament Noah chapters about "giants on the Earth" take form in Aronofsky's film as mammoth talking rock creatures called "Watchers", complete with glowing eyes, and a physical presence that looks more at home protecting "The Precious" from Gollum, rather than protecting Noah and his family, as well as helping him actually build the ark.
Old Testament spoiler alert : there's no reference in the ancient text that the briefly mentioned Biblical "giants" helped build the ark, let alone that they were made from tombstone granite and named "Og".
Still, there's no need to compare and contrast the original Biblical story to this film. This is quite substantially a completely different kind of story and those looking for a classic and exact interpretation of Noah should definitely not expect as much.
Aronofsky's vision of Noah ( Russell Crowe ) is that of an environmentally conscious family man who, in an early scene, gently chides one of his two sons for plucking a flower from the ground and advises him that "we take only what we need, only what we can use". The Earth that surrounds Noah and his family is one that's been ravaged and blighted by Mankind, his cities and civilizations. In some scenes, we see the ruins of what appears to be ancient cities, complete with metal pipes and rusted scaffolding left over from the set design of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
One assumes, these ruins are meant to imply Mankind's "sin" for blighting the environment.
It's here that Noah and his beloved wife, Naameh ( Jennifer Connelly ) come upon a severely injured and orphaned child who they adopt into their own family. Years later, this child grows up as the love interest Ila ( Emma Watson ) of Noah's eldest son Shem ( Douglas Booth ), and leaves his other son Ham ( Logan Lerman ) feeling resentful, lonely and left out.
Soon, Noah is troubled by recurring violent dreams that foretell the end of the world by water. After consulting with his elder reclusive relative Methuselah ( Anthony Hopkins ), Noah decides his dreams are messages from "the creator". Though mentioned numerous times in the Biblical text surrounding Noah, the word "God" is never once used in the film to reference this presumably supreme and powerful entity.
Aided by the aforementioned stony "Watchers", Noah begins building the ark to house his family and the entire existing world-wide menagerie of male and female creatures of every kind to survive the apocalyptic deluge to come. However, things start to get a bit sticky for Noah when ruthless tribal leader Tubal-Cain ( supposedly a descendant of Cain and Abel infamy played by a frothing at the mouth Ray Winstone ) shows up with his massive hoards deciding they want to hitch a life-saving ride on Noah's gigantic life raft.
From here, the story pretty much descends into familiar sand, sword and sandal territory seen in dozens of other films where the surly armored marauders surround, shout angrily in unison and eventually try to breach the walls of the king's castle for the treasure, or in this case, the safety that lies within the ark. What results in the remaining narrative are audacious, albeit spectacularly staged, scenes and situations involving the cataclysmic flood, family dysfunction, a stowaway on the ark, a son seeking revenge on his dad and twin babies being born to the once barren Ila.
Noah, again in a major motivational shift from the original source material; decides to mimic the sacrifice of Old Testament favorite Abraham by thinking he's doing God's… er, I mean "the creator's" bidding. This sacrifice hinges on director Aronofsky's eco-friendly view that Noah's motivation to build the ark was to spare the world from Mankind screwing up the environment ever again.
Biblical scholars and the religious faithful can debate and dissect on their own time, this new "Gospel According To Aronofsky".
Aronofsky's take on the Noah storyline does, at times, present some legitimate moral and ethical dilemmas that one might imagine the biblical Noah and his family would have faced. But, those moments are fleeting amid the sturm and drang that pervades much of this screenplay. The special effects are indeed truly impressive, most notably during the climactic flood. However, Aronofsky most assuredly short-changes the audience by giving only cursory exposition to one of the major components of this story, which is the gathering of the vast menagerie of animals to be housed safely inside the ark.
Some narrative layering, and even some welcome humor, could have been mined from a more in-depth depiction of the herculean task of gathering, herding and housing hundreds of thousands of creatures all together. Instead of exploring the logistics of this major plot point, Aronofsky skims over this potentially interesting aspect with some brief CGI scenes, choosing to devote more time to the scenery chewing conflict between Tubal-Cain and the humorless Noah.
Crowe handles the role of Noah well enough. However, he frequently comes across as a dour Gladiator Maximus in more than a few scenes, especially when Noah has to pick-up a broadsword to fend off the encroaching hoards when the downpour begins. Jennifer Connelly gets some good moments in the film's third act when Crowe's Noah threatens the family's unity with his zealotry. Anthony Hopkins cashes an easy paycheck playing Methuselah as a Biblical Yoda with a jones for wild berries.
Overall, Noah is classic Aronofsky. Big, blustery, dramatic and often visually stunning. It holds your attention, if only because you need time to digest all the stuff he's throwing at you on screen.
It's entertaining in several respects; confounding, confusing and frustrating in many others. It's most assuredly not the Old Testament Noah story, and it's plainly apparent Aronsofsky never intended it to be.
Tim Estiloz is an Emmy winning entertainment journalist and member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimEstiloz and at www.TimEstiloz.com. - Be sure to LIKE his page on Facebook at: Tim Estiloz Film Reviews.