In writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s world, when Noah receives word that the Earth is to be flooded, it comes not as a conversation from God with explicit instructions on how to build an ark of gopher wood complete with a precise set of cubit measurements and details on how the overall design should look, but as an hallucinogenic dream; basically a nightmare with images of blood, rain and death by drowning; no words, just a vision. It’s a harrowing set of images that startles Noah from his sleep, a dream so vivid he immediately believes it has to be a premonition of things to come.
“Fire consumes all,” Noah (Russell Crowe, delivering almost all of his dialog in a low-registered growl) states to his family as he tries to correctly interpret what the visions meant. “Water cleanses. He destroys all, only to start again.”
The first drop of rain signaling the beginning of the flood comes around the seventy minute mark. Up until that moment, Noah does a good job of re-inventing the famous story in a way that keeps the basic premise of Noah’s Ark interesting and even exciting.
If you were to film the story of the vessel in a literal way, as John Huston did in the 1966 epic The Bible… In The Beginning, it would make for only a twenty minute project at best, plus, as Huston discovered to great critical scorn, despite being the most interesting section of the episodic, three hour film, it was also dull. Plus you would have to make Noah six hundred years old while his children would have to be about a hundred – Genesis tells us that Noah had his children when he was five hundred and died when he was nine hundred and fifty.
In Noah, new conflicts and characters are introduced incorporating elements of epic adventure, science fiction and even sword and sorcery, and Noah himself is presented as a man full of conflict, not to mention that Russell Crowe looks considerably younger than six hundred years. His Noah is a good man, but he’s not exactly the practically saintly, innocent character from Genesis. He defends himself when attacked by nearby bullies and can dispatch an enemy effectively and swiftly like a trained ninja with a wooden spear, plus he’s not above killing his attacker once he’s knocked the man to the ground.
If you’ve ever wondered where Noah and his family got all that wood to build such a monumental ark while living in the middle of a desert, the film presents an impressively imaginative and visually striking sequence where a single drop of rain from above turns a barren landscape into an instant forest supplying all the wood he needs, plus the hard labor of building the ark is done not so much by his sons but by – get ready for this – oversized rock creatures known as Watchers. They were once angels from heaven but were turned to stone by the Creator as punishment for attempting to aid mankind in its development after the Creator banned Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Their design is reminiscent of a sickly version of the rock creature in The Never Ending Story, and they’re voiced by deep-throated star names like Frank Langella and Nick Nolte. Admittedly, the film is asking a lot when watching these creatures strut among the crowds and dispatching a marauding army of charging men, but on the other hand, for those who view the story of Noah as a parable and not a factual event, it makes just as much sense as watching a six hundred year old man build such a massive vessel.
The real problem is the second half. During those forty days and forty nights, Aronofsky creates conflicts that feel manufactured rather than a natural progression of events. They’re padding to create interest for another hour while the ark floats, but nothing works as well as the first half. There’s a fight with the villainous Ray Winstone as an invented bad-guy character called Tubal-cain who has stowed away on the ark, plus there’s an unpleasant subplot where a practically medieval Noah takes on the characteristics of a murderous, religious fanatic determined to sacrifice his daughter-in-law’s newly born child. At least the padded plot gives both Jennifer Connelly as Noah’s wife and Emma Watson as the daughter-in-law an opportunity to forcefully emote and deliver two of the best speeches in the film.
Plus, why is the film shot in a standard sized frame and not widescreen? With a story of such epic scope and images that are undeniably spectacular, a regular framed screen diminishes the impact. It often feels like you’re watching something better suited to a home screen; less cinematic, more TV.
As long as you know going in that this new version of Noah’s Ark is not going to be a literal translation from the book of Genesis, you’ll be fine. Otherwise, if any addition or deviation from scripture is tantamount to sacrilege, then simply steer clear; a biblical tale presented as an adventure/disaster movie with thrills and spills and where God is always referred to as simply the Creator is not for you.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 139 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)