Most religious movies feel as if they’re made by a church committee, but every now and then a wild-eyed prophet wanders in and rattles the theater with brimstone. Regardless of your feelings about either movie, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” qualifies and so does Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Now director Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan,” “The Wrestler”) has ascended to the mountaintop and returned with the strangest, most visionary cinematic parable yet.
“Noah” is equal parts ridiculous and magnificent, a showman’s folly and a madman’s epic. It elaborates on the Book of Genesis’s slender story of Noah and the Ark with subplots and additional characters and computer-generated effects that would have Cecil B. DeMille drooling. If that stands to put off the faithful, many of them, and many others besides, may be won back by the film’s ambitious seriousness of purpose. Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel are working on a vast, primeval scale here, as if they were carving their story out of rock. The movie hacks away at big ideas, too: man’s stewardship of his planet, man’s relationship with his Creator, the line where righteousness becomes mania. The parts of “Noah” that don’t work really, truly don’t. But the parts that do almost sweep you away in the flood.
First things first: Russell Crowe turns out to be perfectly cast in the title role. He’s big, he’s implacable, he can turn on a dime from sensitivity to mournful fanaticism. Most importantly, he carries himself with the authority — the sheer moral weight — of an Old Testament patriarch. “Noah” begins with the hero and his family, the last descendants of Adam’s third son, Seth, scratching out a monk-like existence in harmony with nature while the corrupt children of Cain spread wickedness and poison across the Earth. Aronofsky stages Noah’s visions of the coming cataclysm with a splendor nearly worthy of Kubrick, but then he has Noah fight off attackers in a silly action-movie sequence. Right there’s the movie’s split personality, and it bedevils most of the 138-minute running time.
Further examples: When Noah visits the encampment of Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) — a minor character in Genesis transformed by Aronofsky into a warlord-king and embodiment of man’s self-absorbed rapaciousness — we’re treated to a surreal canvas of sin and iniquity. The scene could have been painted by Hieronymus Bosch; it seems to wriggle obscenely off the screen. By this time, though, we’ve already been introduced to the Watchers: fallen angels, now encrusted with rock, who appear to have wandered over from one of the “Hobbit” movies. Mistreated by the descendants of Cain, these beings assist Noah in his Ark-building as if they were sentient construction cranes, but despite the likes of Nick Nolte and Frank Langella lending their voices, the Watchers remain oversize stop-motion puppets.
As he did in “The Fountain” (and this time with more success), Aronofsky brings together science-fiction elements, primal myths, and impassioned human dilemmas and hopes for the best. The loading up of the animals, in the required pairs, is digital eye-candy — straight-up popcorn wonder — even if “Noah” dodges the maintenance issue (feeding, grooming, cleaning the litter box) by using a magic incense to put all the critters into extended hibernation. Sorry, the beasts of the Earth sleep this movie away.
Anyway, that’s just razzle-dazzle. The meat in “Noah” turns out to be the power dynamic outside the Ark and, after the rains come, during the long float. Having witnessed the sins of man, Noah becomes convinced that God has charged him with entirely cleansing Earth of humanity, and where that leaves his sons, Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) — let alone any children they might want to have and with whom — is an increasingly tender subject. Crowe shoulders his character’s burden with an intensity that becomes more moving as it darkens: Noah’s a kind man driven to cruelty by the Voice that only he hears. Is he crazy? Is he being tested? Has he been abandoned?
Among the many dualities of “Noah” is that of judgment and mercy, rendered by Aronofsky in terms of male and female. Jennifer Connelly, as Noah’s wife Naamah, and Emma Watson, as Shem’s love Ila, embody the latter half of the equation, both surprisingly well. They’re too pretty and well-groomed for the Bronze Age — so is Booth’s Shem, for that matter — but they’re fine actresses, and they win you over.
Winstone’s no slouch, either, but while he gives Tubal-Cain a full dose of lip-smacking menace, in the end he’s just this movie’s super-villain, complete with the knuckle-busting climax even a biblical tentpole flick requires. “Noah” alternates between wheels of fire and feet of clay; it’s Aronofsky’s vision, all right — he fought the studio to keep his cut — but it suggests that the conflict between his mystic urges and his commercial impulses hasn’t been resolved.
“Noah” is a personal film at heart (just one that cost $125 million) and I suspect your own reaction may be personal, too. Despite a fundamentalist audience poised to pounce on the movie as the latest evidence of secular media mischief, the split may be less between the devout and those of little faith than between idealists and cynics — or between those willing to apply a well-worn parable to any coming catastrophes and those who believe the Bible has either one meaning or none at all.
Darren Aronofsky just made “Noah.” What you do with it is up to you.