Big, beatific and (more or less) biblical, Darren Aronofsky's Noah is a mad vision of a movie, an action-adventure take on the flood that cleansed the Earth.
Aronofsky (Black Swan) envisions this epic through the lens of Hollywood, interpreting the Bible as myth and telling one of its most fantastical tales as a grand and dark cinematic fantasy — a Lord of the Rains, if you will.
With Russell Crowe as his ship-building Noah, Aronofsky has concocted an accessible, modern and mythic version of this oral history that might make purists blanch even as it entertains the rest of us.
A prologue tells of the spawn of Cain, who spilled blood, left the Garden of Eden, populated the world and made a mess of things. Ten generations later, Noah and his small family (Jennifer Connolly, Logan Lerman and Douglas Booth) wander the wastelands, waiting for a sign.
Noah's dreams tell him The End is nigh. By fire, his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), wants to know?
"Fire consumes all," Noah prophesies. "Water cleanses."
The wicked world "which men have broken" will be flooded, the pure will rise and float above it. The rest? Drowned.
More visions, and Noah starts building an ark, first by planting the forest that will be hewn into that ark. "The Watchers" (angels), stone creatures straight out of The Lord of the Rings, help him.
But out there, in the world begat by Cain, his descendant Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) is offering an alternative theology: "A man isn't ruled by the heavens. A man is ruled by his will."
Tubal-cain's violence, meat eating (Noah's people are vegetarians) and weapons are attractive to Noah's son Ham (Lerman, aka Percy Jackson), who has no female companionship in their tiny circle. Shem (Booth) has the foundling they raised, Ila (Emma Watson). Ham is tempted to change sides to find himself a woman.
Still, animals gather and are sedated, the ark nears completion, and then the skies darken and empty.
It took guts to change Noah from the pious original naval architect into a two-fisted man of action, and then to cast Crowe in the part. But it works. Noah's fanatical devotion to his faith and his task make him capable of anything.
Hopkins, Watson and Connolly provide the tale's moving moments — scenes of heart, humility and hope. The acting is of the first rank, as you'd expect from a cast with three Oscar winners and some of the brightest rising stars in film in it.
But the gutsiest move on Aronofsky's part is in the film's interpretation of this tale through modern eyes. Here is a myth that allows Creation and evolution to live in the same film, a touch of Cosmos with just a hint of "In the beginning," as oral tradition. Effects assist the telling at every turn, but so does arresting geography.
Maybe it's a little too sci-fi (check out the costumes, the metallurgy, the prehistoric boots). It isn't The Ten Commandments, and Crowe is no Charlton Heston. But Noah makes Biblical myth grand in scope and intimate in appeal. The purists can always go argue over God Isn't Dead, another movie in theaters. The rest of creation can appreciate this rousing good yarn, told with blood and guts, brawn and beauty, and just a hint of madness to the whole enterprise.