As a boy, Noah (Russell Crowe), descended from the line of Seth, brother of the slain Abel, saw his father killed by descendants of the first murderer, Cain. Since then he and his devoted wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) have eked out a humble yet righteous existence midst the ravaged wilderness whilst the spawn of Cain terrorize the earth with wickedness. One day Noah receives a vision from Creator that the world will be cleansed of sin with an apocalyptic flood only to be born anew. He is tasked with building an ark into which shall be gathered two of every animal to re-populate this new, better world. Gathering his clan, Noah embarks upon this epic task only to clash with an army led by the tyrannical Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) and find his zeal to enact the Creator's will could cost him the love of his family.
Mercurial auteur Darren Aronofsky set his sights on adapting the biblical story of Noah and the ark early into his career though it took the unexpected global success of his ballet horror-drama Black Swan (2010) to convince Paramount Pictures to back his audacious, risky vision. Even then the studio briefly wrenched the movie from Aronofsky's hands before poor reactions to test screenings of their alternate version led them to back his original cut. Incorporating not only passages from the Book of Genesis but obscure ancient texts, creation myths from other faiths from around the world and arguably aspects of pulp fantasy fiction, this offbeat, apocalyptic take on a Sunday school staple brings to mind Federico Fellini's description of Satyricon (1969), in concept if not content, as "science fiction of the past." Aronofsky envisions pre-flood planet Earth much like a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film, a harsh, war-ravaged landscape overrun with hack-and-rape happy savages. The inclusion of strange fantastical animals and giant rock-encrusted earthbound angels known as Watchers, voiced by the suitably gravel-toned likes of Nick Nolte and Frank Langella, edges the film further into fanciful territory, closer to a theological science fiction yarn than a thunderous Old Testament epic in the style of Cecil B. DeMille although, make no mistake, Noah does not want for spectacle. An audacious time-lapse journey through the cycle of creation proves one unforgettable high point while the procession of animals arriving at the ark proves as beguiling as the similar sequence in John Huston's otherwise flawed The Bible... In the Beginning (1966). Aronofsky's amazing set-pieces make for a truly cinematic experience that enables us to share in the wonder and dread visited upon the characters.
The core idea of Noah story posits that God sought to wash away all the evil in the world and preserve only the good. For centuries theologians have struggled to reconcile this act of genocide with the Christian conception of a loving God. Yet the Noah story is not self-contained but rather a segment in the vast tapestry of the Old and New Testaments that detail a more complex relationship between mankind and God. For some Aronofsky's attempt to reconcile science with religion, exploring varied interpretations of the creation myth without alienating any specific faith or even aetheistic point of view, smacked of play-it-safe filmmaking. Yet the genius of the narrative resides within the parallel drawn between Noah and God, both fathers whose fierce desire to protect only alienates them from their children. In many ways, despite a comparative lack of screen time and a certain ambiguity about his presence, God is as much the main protagonist here as Noah. The arc of the plot charts his progress from establishing the concept of justice (punishing the guilty) to the concept of mercy (sparing the innocent), in both instances ideas born in reaction to the actions of men. Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel imply mankind exerts as much influence upon the Creator as he has on them.
Powerfully and persuasively personified by Russell Crowe, Noah emerges a man capable of great empathy and cruelty in his zeal to do right by the Creator. As with many prophets the struggle to understand God's intentions sparks a conflict between devotion and conscience resulting in Noah's slow transformation from flawed hero to outright antagonist via a post-flood plot twist that while questionable and contrived proves dramatically compelling. The film leaves room for ambiguity and dissenting voices. As Tubal-cain, Ray Winstone (among the few actors able to convincingly go head-to-head with a sword and sandal heavyweight like Crowe) subscribes to the idea that having been abandoned by God men are justified in doing whatever they have to do to survive. That boils down to shallow self-justification for terror, rape, murder and tyranny but Tubal-cain does raise a point when he observes that Noah "fills his ship with beasts while letting children drown." Fast-rising star Logan Lerman also excels as Ham, the most conflicted of Noah's sons, who struggles to reconcile his memory of a loving father with the man who seemingly intent on foiling his every chance at happiness, rendering him a stunted adolescent.
Yet one would argue the film's most notable triumph lies in restoring the importance of women in this story. As Noah's wife Naameh and adopted daughter Ila respectively, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson argue the cause for humanity, recognizing virtue where Noah is in danger of defining mankind solely through sin, and ultimately a more compassionate interpretation of God's will. Watson's Ila has her own mini-arc and proves the key to unlocking Noah's soul, resulting in alternately tender and tense scenes with Crowe that culminate in a climax not unlike that of The Searchers (1956). As with many a biblical epic there is the odd giggle-inducing moment (e.g. two characters sharing a hasty shag in the woods; Winstone's unintentional football reference when he roars: "Men united are invincible!") and Aronofsky's all-encompassing approach occasionally results in muddled theology. Yet the attempt to grapple with so many conflicting interpretations of the text is admirably ambitious. For all the minor missteps, Noah remains a laudable revitalized take on the biblical epic but also a rare challenging, intelligent fantasy blockbuster driven by a singular, provocative, creative vision rather than by committee. You can't please all the people all the time but you can make them think. Music by Clint Mansell which proves as pleasingly experimental as the film itself.
American writer and director, whose low budget science fiction film Pi was much praised. He followed it with Requiem for a Dream, an equally intense drug addiction story, with the long-awaited but unsuccessful sci-fi epic The Fountain arriving in 2006. Downbeat drama The Wrestler was Oscar-nominated, suggesting he was fulfilling his early promise, and Natalie Portman won an Oscar for his ballet horror Black Swan. His eccentric Biblical epic Noah met with a mixed reaction to say the least, though that was nothing compared to mother!, his other Bible pic.