Darren Aronofsky's Noah takes off like a sci-fi head trip with a sequence of hallucinatory images depicting the creation of the world out of a vast black nothingness. Lightning flashes in the dark, punctuated by jolts of thunderous percussion. Soon there's a serpent gliding through water; then we move up onto verdant land, where a blood-red apple throbs ominously in a tree, and a woman's hand reaches up to pluck it. Before long two men appear in silhouette, one pushing the other to the ground—Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, enacting what is recorded in the Book of Genesis as the world's first murder.
This shorthand backstory is a powerful opening, a rush of imaginative filmmaking whose energy, unfortunately, can't be maintained. Leaping ahead 10 generations, the movie next introduces Noah (Russell Crowe), whose story is pursued in a much lower key. We find him and two of his sons rooting around in some scrubby vegetation on a dismal plain, gathering ingredients for what would have to be a very humble repast. It's an awfully quiet scene, although soon enlivened by a burst of action. But coming off of the movie's spectacular beginning it still registers as a jarring downshift.
This imbalance in the picture's structure is never resolved (despite Paramount's reported efforts to re-cut the film into a more blockbuster-like form). The movie's sumptuous digital artistry and bloody fight scenes are appropriately rousing, but the picture is most passionately concerned with spiritual issues—the silence of God (or "the Creator," the term used here) and the frustration and anger of humankind in trying to interpret the ways of this inscrutable deity. "Why do you not answer me?" Noah asks in a moment of moral crisis. This is not the sort of question that's often entertained in a Hollywood movie, and it's a tribute to the director's commitment to the material that it occupies the central place in a film with a budget said to be north of $130-million.
The script, written by Aronofsky and his longtime associate Ari Handel, is a necessary expansion of the rather thin Genesis narrative. Noah is a descendant of Adam and Eve's third son, the virtuous Seth. He's a good man living in a world that has fallen into depravity, and he is beset on all sides by the violent descendants of Cain, who have turned their back on the Creator. They are led, in this telling, by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), the king of a barbarian tribe devoted to vividly rendered pillage, cruelty and meat-eating (a major turn-off for Noah, who's a pioneering vegetarian).
In a dream, Noah sees himself deep underwater, with dead bodies floating all around him. He takes this to be a communication from on high, and tells his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), that a great flood is coming. "Men are going to be punished for what they've done to this world," he says (he's also a proto-environmentalist). Only the innocent animals of the Earth are worthy of survival, and Noah believes it is his task to save them. He will build an ark.
Assisting him in this task is a group of towering bodyguards called the Watchers—fallen angels imprisoned in the ground who now rise up to safeguard Noah's undertaking. These CGI characters are problematic. They're big lumbering rockpiles—an effect that was already ungainly in representing the battling stone giants of the first Hobbit movie—and their deep rumbling voices (provided by Nick Nolte, Mark Margolis, and Frank Langella) are sometimes unclear in the manner of the tree-spirit Ents of the Lord of the Rings films.
The movie's other digital creations are more successful. There are grand overhead shots of legions of animals—birds, elephants, all manner of snakes—pouring in through the woods to board the ark (a huge, boxlike vessel that Aronofsky went to the trouble of actually building). And the flood, when it comes, is a suitably majestic cataclysm, raising up the ark while swamping Tubal-cain's soldiers, who've been desperately clamoring to get inside (Tubal-cain himself actually makes it). This is all very well-done, if inevitably underwhelming: after decades of computer-generation, what once seemed magical is naturally no longer fresh.
In the midst of all the end-of-the-world chaos, a domestic drama is also unfolding—possibly an unwelcome distraction for action fans. It involves Noah's three sons, Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) and the family's adopted daughter, Ila (Emma Watson). Shem and Ila are already an item, and Ham is concerned that, with the rest of humanity being wiped out, he may never get a date. The resulting complications push Noah over the edge into a demented religious fanaticism, based on what he thinks—but can never know—the Creator wants him to do. This is a resonant issue, and Aronofsky gives it plenty of room to play out. (The movie runs nearly two and a half hours, which also allows time for a bit of comic relief by Anthony Hopkins, playing Noah's ancient grandfather, Methuselah, who lives on a pile of rocks in a pit somewhere.)
Aronofsky endeavors to link Noah's story to our own time by dispensing with the usual robes and sandals of past Biblical epics and opting instead for a curious burlap-and-macramé look. This is odd at first (Noah also wears boots, of a sort), but it effectively moves the story out of a mannered period setting, and allows us to focus on the actors, and on what they're saying. As a man tormented by the Creator's ambiguous designs, Crowe anchors the movie with understated dignity, bringing human dimension to a character only scantly characterized in the Scriptures. And Winstone's Tubal-cain is Noah's wonderfully profane opposite number, a man who has his own quarrel with God. "Why will you not converse with me?" he bellows at the heavens. "I give life and I take life away—I am like you. Speak to me!"
Noah is a serious project from a director whose visionary gifts have never been in question. But it sometimes feels like two, maybe three movies contending for narrative dominance. The filmmakers must surely be praying there's one audience for all of them.