Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content.
Running time: 139 minutes
Two and a half stars out of four.
“Noah,” Darren Aronofsky’s take on the biblical tale of Noah’s Ark, is a fascinating and frustrating amalgamation of a couple different cinematic impulses that wouldn’t necessarily seem to go together.
Aesthetically, it’s straight-up art-house: beautiful and strange, dark and often nightmarish. Working with his usual cinematographer, the great Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky offers us an ancient land filled with both endless, colorful skies and rugged, unforgiving terrian. The technical effects are spectacular — this is a rare blockbuster for Aronofsky, even as it visually recalls the magical realism of his ambitious, meandering “The Fountain” from 2007. If you’re going to see it, make sure you do so on the largest screen possible.
But “Noah” is also the rare, big-budget studio movie with a pure, faith-affirming message. As the title character, Russell Crowe makes some seriously questionable decisions — ones that could be considered selfish and cruel and cost countless lives — and his determination to carry out what he believes is his mission from God leads him to the brink of committing some horrific acts. But you know what? He was right. Despite the protests of doubters all around him — namely, his family — his vision was clear, his faith rewarded. We know where we stand here when the embodiment of pure evil — Ray Winstone’s character, the marauding weapon maker Tubal-Cain — tells one of Noah’s sons: “A man is not ruled by the heavens. A man is ruled by free will.”
It’s a rather canny decision to release a mainstream film full of Oscar winners which surely will appeal to Christian audiences, who are both eager and underserved by a few paltry indie offerings. In some ways, “Noah” resembles one of those Kirk Cameron movies about the apocalypse, only with a better cast and more dazzling special effects.
At its core, though, this is pure Aronofsky — very much of a piece with the rest of his filmography. As both writer and director, Aronofsky makes movies about people whose obsessions drive them to madness: the mathematician of “Pi,” the drug addicts of “Requiem for a Dream,” the romantic dreamer of “The Fountain,” the wrestler of, well, “The Wrestler” and the ballerina of “Black Swan.” These are people who are willing to hurt themselves and those around them of pursuit of their elusive, destructive passions.
Crowe’s Noah, descendant of the peaceful Seth, believe the destruction of all mankind is coming, and he’s all too happy to be a part of it. Lapsed Catholic that I am, I don’t remember everything about the story of Noah’s Ark, but I don’t believe it played out in such elaborately batshit-crazy fashion. Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel (who also co-wrote “The Fountain,” fittingly) have made tweaks here and there, even while doing tireless research to ensure that certain elements remained authentic. The production, which took place in eclectic and unspoiled regions of Iceland, features an ark that was “hand-built to biblically detailed specifications,” according to the press notes. Cubits, people — they count.
But before he begins building, Noah has a dream. While the details are vague, the message from God is clear: A fire is coming, followed by a flood that will purge and cleanse the Earth. Build an ark, load up the animals and start over. Noah’s wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly, Crowe’s “A Beautiful Mind” co-star), is understandably a little skeptical. But not only is Noah certain of his duty, he takes it a step further. He interprets that God wants all of humanity wiped away — including his family. And he’s ready for that.
He devotes the next several years to construction, with the help of his sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japeth (Leo Carroll). Along the way, the family adopts a severely injured girl named Ila (Emma Watson, Lerman’s co-star in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”), who eventually will become Shem’s love. They also enjoy the protection of creatures known as The Watchers — fallen angels whom a vengeful God has turned into lumbering rock monsters. They are massive and spectacular to behold — tactile and intimidating, but with unexpectedly kind hearts. (Appropriately, they are voiced by the gravelly Nick Nolte and Frank Langella, among others.)
Then they wait for the first drop of rain to fall. And here’s where things get a bit soggy. As the overlong “Noah” becomes a waiting game, its tension sags when it should be at its most gripping. Once the flood comes — and it is a doozy — there are some truly terrifying moments at first as Noah strands dozens of innocents, their bodies pounded against rocks by ferocious waves, their screams so loud they pierce the walls of the vessel. (Similarly pounding is the score from Aronofsky’s regular composer, Clint Mansell — but at least it makes sense given the bombastic context.) But then there’s a lot of down time within the ship, rendering too much of “Noah” a dour, dull affair.
While the script allows Crowe some range — bravery, intensity, remorse, redemption — the same can’t be said for the rest of the impressive cast. Connelly, who went to brave lengths in Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream,” gets little more to do here than be the supportive wife. The sons are essentially interchangeable. But Anthony Hopkins provides the few rare moments of levity as Noah’s grandfather, a Yoda-like Methuselah.
Ultimately, Aronofsky — known for being an uncompromising filmmaker — pulls his punches with a finale of colorful, joyful uplift. While it’s lovely to look at, it’s not exactly the best fit for him.