Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is abstract and literal, bombastic and tender, reverent and perverse, overwrought and undercooked, vindictive and compassionate, spiritual and silly. That may make it tonally and thematically more authentically Old Testament, but it also makes for a rather uneven movie. Aronofsky’s vision is one part Biblical epic, two parts digitally enhanced fantasy, both informed by an occasionally fevered approach to a quasi-environmentalist message. All of the above is then filtered through the Hollywood expectation machine, where you can’t be given over $100 million dollars and not throw in a third-act fight, an easily recognizable antagonist, and CGI rock giants. It’s nothing if not serious in the execution, faithful to the Biblical story about a righteous man told by God to build a massive ark to save animals (two of every kind) from an imminent worldwide flood meant to wipe out sinful hordes of humanity. The result is a film too glum to be of much camp value and far too ridiculous to take it all that seriously, but lingers with an odd power all the same.
At the center of it all is Russell Crowe, wearing the burden of Noah heavily on his shoulders. He trudges with his wife (Jennifer Connelly) and sons (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Leo McHugh Carroll) to get advice from his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins). The old man gravely helps him to interpret his vision of the world underwater, corpses floating by, animals swimming up towards the sunlit ark above. It’s a nightmarish image that gives Noah the strength to move forward and do what must be done. As the plot moves forward, the film addresses some of the tale’s most preposterous elements with answers that seem at once gloriously symbolic and thunderously inane. How did Noah and his family get the wood to build the ark? It was a magic forest they grew from a seed grandfather gave them that ancestors saved from the Garden of Eden. How did the animals show up, two by two no less? They followed a magic stream that bubbles up from that same seed. How did the family deal with the animals once on the ark? They put them into deep, peaceful comas with a magic potion. Later they wake them back up with the antidote.
These elements are treated so seriously, with much weight and overworked awe that it’s hard to know how we’re supposed to take it. Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel wrestle with this simple story by turning the symbolic literal and back again. With cinematographer Matthew Libatique, he’s quick to sketch vivid, epic imagery and slow to synthesize coherence. It’s a clear labor of love, but that’s what also makes it a bit of a mess. This pre-flood world is a sparse, fallen fantasy world, a sort of Lord of the Rings-esque place of magic and monsters, sin and scares. It’s all so serious despite those rock giants (voiced by the likes of Nick Nolte and Mark Margolis) who are fallen angels cursed to walk the Earth who decide to help Noah build his ark, magic stones – strike them and they become fire – and Hopkins made up to look like a white-haired cave-dwelling wizard.
The mythic fantasy Aronofsky constructs appears meant to be partly a vaguely historic reality and an obvious abstraction for us to think through the notion of the relationship between man, the environment, and the divine and the obligations they have to each other. The intent is serious. No kid-friendly animal antics here. (Would you expect it from the director of The Wrestler and Black Swan?) But in striving for both reality and fantasy, it’s often neither, a colossal bore that no amount of dramatic imagery and intense emoting from the cast can cure. It’s no help that the film has some real transcendence within it, rubbing up against cheap drama that feels out of place.
A magical sequence has Crowe intone the story of Genesis while Aronofsky cuts to a Malickian Tree of Life time-lapse creation of the universe, the Big Bang sending the cosmos rapidly spinning down to Earth, evolution, Eden, exile, and, finally, the flood. Elsewhere, much is made out of Noah’s middle son’s preoccupation with finding a wife. His older brother already has a woman (Emma Watson, quite good) and he thinks he better get one while he still can. This subplot takes up a fair amount of energy, although the film doesn’t seem too preoccupied with how humanity will grow post-flood. Still elsewhere, conflict comes in the form of a villainous Ray Winstone who wants to kill Noah and his family for being so holier-than-thou, then leads armies to attack the ark once the rains come.
What is all this conventional interpersonal melodrama doing in a movie about spiritual crisis and the end of the world? That’s where the film is best, growing poignant and provocative. Aronofsky, echoing his 2006 ambitious philosophical sci-fi film The Fountain, is best at locating the real test of faith and emotional strain in his characters. The first night the family spends in the ark, the howling screams of those left to drown are carried in on the buffeting winds. The weight of morality weighs heavily upon them. Who are they to choose who lives and who dies? Perhaps they, too, should perish, the better to let nature take its course unblemished by human hands.
The entire flooding sequence, as the wood creaks, the door slams shut and the water crashes down, is effective and stressful. Aronofsky cuts to a wide shot of their boat in the distance, a craggy rock closer to the camera covered in a mass of people, clinging for their lives before slipping, washed off the face of the world. It’s a harrowing image articulating the great paradox at the center of the Noah story, as scary and searching as a pious Renaissance painting. But the great paradox of this Noah is how deeply strange and yet how weirdly conventional it manages to be. It’s not particularly good, often straight-faced silly in its loosely Biblical fantasy. (When the snakes slither up to the ark, Noah’s wife gives him a look that says, “Snakes are coming, too?”) But it’s so ambitious and thought provoking it is hard to dismiss entirely.