Just like the legendary man it depicts, Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" is a film at war with itself. Part Biblical Epic, part "Lord of the Rings," this is a Bible story for the "Game of Thrones" crowd. There's action and spectacle, but also deeply felt emotion that comes as the result of tormented souls taking a once-in-a-lifetime journey together. While there is a lot of mastery at work here, the problem is that there are too many masters to please.
This version of "Noah" is a painstakingly researched fictional take of the core of what the story of the ark came to represent. While the Bible paints a simple story with hardly any dialogue or character arcs to speak of, there are hints at what was really going on. And by looking at the time period historically, it is possible to actually grasp more detail about how things were made, how things would look, and how it would all fit together.
In short, Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family live a simple life estranged from humanity. Along with his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and sons Ham (Logan Lerman), Shem (Douglas Booth) and Japeth (Leo Carroll), the family seems to be the first vegans on Earth. Or so it would seem. When a strange-looking dog creature arrives in their encampment with an arrow in its side, Noah takes compassion on it while damning the men who shot it. We see his incredible empathy for all living things, which is perhaps why he was chosen by the Creator to have nightmarish dreams about a great flood that will kill everyone on the planet. Because he is sure of what he saw, he tells his wife he needs to build an ark to house all of the animals of the world so they can repopulate it once the flood is over. Naameh buys this, and is totally on board with ark building.
Thankfully, they aren't doing this on their own. No. You see, there are other creatures known as Watchers that are actually fallen angels turned to stone. Looking like a crude version of the rock monster out of "The Neverending Story" and sounding almost exactly like a Transformer, these creations (voiced by Kevin Durand, Frank Langella, and Nick Nolte) are so behemoth that they not only help strip a forest for wood, but also end up being the family's only defense when an army of angry descendants of Cain come calling.
And don't get me started on the forest. Where Noah lives there's nothing but barren, dry land. But Noah's grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) appears to have some unique abilities and gives Noah a special seed that will grow a forest instantly around him. Ta-dah! He also has the power of fertility with just the touch of a finger.
And this is the problem with "Noah." There's so much ridiculousness in it that it makes the "hard to believe as it is" story of Noah seem totally plausible in comparison. Rock watchers? Special seeds? Rocks that burst into flames when you break them? Animals that don't exist in our world? There are a lot of things that are right out of fantasy here, and while the Noah story is beloved by many as fact, truth be told many believers even think it's just a story to illustrate God's love for the world. (I'm not sure how since the whole thing is based on the fact God thinks he messed up and wants to hit the reset button.) So while the "fact" that Noah built the ark when he was 600 years old and his children were all 100, seeing everything else nutty that Aronofskyand co-screenwriter Ari Handel ("The Fountain") has added to it make those details seem totally fine. At the same time, it brings up a lot of questions.
Once the animals board the ship (impressive regardless), Noah burns some sort of dried plant to make all of the animals sleep. (This is so they won't attack each other while they wait for the flood to go down.) But when the ark finally hits dry land, it's been about a year. Did the animals not eat? How are they still alive? Were they really sleeping for that long? At this point, the whole movie starts to break under the strain of credulity.
Once Noah deals with his nemesis Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) -- a descendent of the very first murderer, Cain -- he has to deal with living in a ship for God knows how long. (Truth.) Which brings up the question: Why did God flood the earth for 40 days and 40 nights when he could pretty much ensure everyone was dead after about an hour or so? While Aronofsky admits to trying to tell the essence of the story of Noah here, he inadvertently gives valid points to those who refuse to believe a word of it, much less the rest of the Bible. To his credit, however, he utilizes the nonsensical points of the story to ask questions. Why did God kill people and animals that were innocent? There were babies and other animals that didn't make it onto the Ark, so why kill them? When Noah believes he has to commit a tragic deed in the last act of the film, he struggles with his decision making it more about his free will and choice rather than what "God" wants him to do.
All in all, Aronofsky makes a good argument for not really buying into the Biblical stories, while attempting to remain somewhat faithful -- just with a few rock monsters and extinct fantasy animals thrown in for good measure. (Don't get me started on how they would repopulate the world without incest, because... eww.)
Story problems aside (and there are a lot), "Noah" is unabashedly epic and eye-popping. From the opening bombastic score to the deafening noise of the flood, this is a spectacle for sure. And an exciting one at that. Aronofsky certainly doesn't make the film boring, and he sprinkles it with genuine emotion throughout. Crowe is at the top of his game here, bringing Noah from a contemplative man of peace to a man bent on serving God in terrifying ways, (which is a great way to portray the Extreme Right -- who, by the way, will hate this movie). Connelly doesn't do that much in the beginning, but she has a tour-de-force moment toward the end that solidifies how great an actress she is. Even Emma Watson as the orphan they take in (and eventual lover of son Shem) is terrific. These three have the most intense emotional arcs (sorry) of the film and do a fantastic job of bringing the emotion of a far-fetched story to life.
While some of the CGI was less than stellar, the mass entrance of the mammals was grand and the flood itself is a stunner. The Ark, built to specifications listed in the Bible, is impressive and makes more sense than the pretty boat so often depicted with a smiling Noah in it. Costumes by Michael Wilkinson ("American Hustle") feel timeless. They look old, but there's an odd futuristic feel to them as well.
Which brings me to another thought I had while watching the film.
We never know where we are, if it's the past or the future, or if we are even on planet Earth. The script never specifies the time period, and when they talk about Cain's descendants building huge cities that infect the entire planet they allude to the fact that maybe these are modern cities. Even when Noah tells his children the story of how the Creator created the world, he speaks of the first generations of man wiping each other out. In shadow, we see Cain strike Abel, but we also see the silhouettes of Native Americans and modern day soldiers. Could this film actually be taking place in a dystopian future? When we see the wounded animal in the opening of the film, it is clearly not like anything we know. Is it an animal not yet fully evolved? Or is it an animal that has evolved to look as it's depicted. Or... is it an animal from another planet altogether? There's no reason this couldn't take place somewhere else, as that makes the story even more universal. With the many touches of preternatural magic, it clearly feels like a world we never knew. Or haven't yet known.
We're not sure, and I'm not certain Aronofsky knows either. With studio involvement it's quite possible he was forced to make changes, additions, and deletions to get the film released. In that, the film doesn't seem sure of itself. If Aronofsky had gone either full tilt Biblical or off the radar sci-fi, a clearer vision would have been seen. Instead, we get an amalgamation of genres that bounce and crash off of each other, never quite sure finding where they want to land once the waters clear. It's still fascinating to watch, despite some unintentional giggles and scratching of your head.