How do you adapt the story of Noah’s Ark into a movie? Whose version do you use? The Jewish version came before the Christian one, which came before the Muslim one, but in each broader religion there are dozens of sects who dispute everything from the size of Noah’s ark to the type of wood used to build it. There are even Middle Eastern religions that predate the other three and regard Noah, not Jesus or Muhammad, as their prophet.
Most agree that Noah is warned by his creator that a great flood is coming to wipe humanity from the face of the Earth. This is due to mankind’s wickedness. Noah and his family are to build a great ark, a ship that shall endure the flood and carry two of every animal so that these innocent species will survive the cataclysm.
Director Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is not one religion’s Noah story or even all of them put together. This film is the entirety of the Old Testament, its challenging and lasting philosophical ideas using the narrative structure of Noah much as the animals use the ark – as a housing in which to survive.
Aronofsky creates a striking environmental parable, includes heroic giants from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and tells the entire story through the lens of a post-apocalyptic action fantasy. It is a self-assured, visionary, feverish, and schizophrenic achievement. Aronofsky always has you exactly where he wants you, and that’s not knowing where you’ll be next.
Don’t go into this thinking you’ll see anything resembling a straightforward Noah’s Ark narrative. If you know the Old Testament, be prepared to see a dozen stories told at once. If you don’t know the Old Testament, that’s OK – enjoy one of the maddest, most intriguing movies you’ll see in a long time.
Aronofsky is known for the low-budget Pi, a gritty sort of Book of Job-retold as horror movie, and the stately magical realism of The Fountain. In Noah, he dashes from straightforward narrative to metaphysical interlude to family drama at the drop of a hat, occasionally taking the scenic route through Lord of the Rings to borrow a battle sequence.
Noah’s visions from God are chilling. Aronofsky may only show about 30 seconds of the wickedness for which mankind is being punished, but he’s better than any other director at putting images in your mind that simply don’t leave. Similarly, when Noah (Russell Crowe) tells his family the story of Creation itself, it is beautiful and touching and inspiring. When he moves on to the history of mankind, it is intense, points the finger directly at the audience, and makes you squirm. Perhaps the most memorable moment comes when God collects the animals of the world two-by-two. His word spreads as a river in a unique and artistically overpowering montage.
Noah crosses paths with grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) and the warring King Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone). Emma Watson is also very good as Noah’s daughter Ila. When the actors who played Maximus, Hannibal Lecter, Beowulf, and Hermione Granger are stomping around, it can be very easy to forget the true powerhouse of the cast. Don’t worry, Jennifer Connelly – as Noah’s wife Naameh – will remind you. No giants or battle scene or CGI flood can compare to the moment when she lets loose.
Noah is ludicrous and accomplished. What’s on-screen will seem insane one minute, and gut punch you the next. Nothing can be taken literally, even if it’s told that way, and even less can be taken personally, even though we’re all possessive of our religions.
By the end of the film, Noah simultaneously acts out the Book of Job and the Binding of Isaac to the point where Ila begins playing out Exodus. All this while son Ham re-enacts Cain’s murder of Abel because he earlier repeated the temptation of Eve. This is conceptually thick stuff made easy to swallow only through effects, fantasy and sheer, audacious artistry.
Noah conflates these many narratives to show the cyclical nature of mankind’s tendency toward corruption. In this Noah, humanity’s rebirth is precluded by the same old sins that got us into trouble in the first place. It’s a stark look in an unforgiving mirror. Like many things that make us uncomfortable, some will laud it and others will dismiss it. Some will say it isn’t their Noah, but this film’s challenge to its audience is in accepting Noah wasn’t yours or mine or Aronofsky’s to begin with. This is every Noah, every Job, every Abraham, every Old Testament lesson bound into one story and asking you, point blank: “Now what do you do with it?” It’s up to us how to answer.
Noah is rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images.