The story of Noah as it is written in the King James Bible is about three pages. If you want to Google it, read it, then come back to this you can go ahead. I'll wait here as I continue to stream some of Clint Mansell's spooky and enthralling score to the new Darren Aronofsky film starring Russell Crowe.
Back? Yeah, so, not a whole heck of a lot there. But did you catch the tiny references to things you may not recall from Sunday School? The “giants in the Earth” and the “flaming sword”? These are the pools from which Aronofsky irrigates his 'Noah.' This is, to adopt a phrase, the “old, weird Bible,” and its visual language more resembles 'Lord of the Rings' than any typical sandal epic.
After a patchy and surprisingly cheap-looking prologue that recaps the Creation story, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and the sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel, we meet Noah, the last descendent of Seth, one of Adam and Eve's kids who never quite had the same PR as the others. He's the true heir to Adam and the goodness and light that was bestowed to him in the Garden, made evident because he keeps a few glowing totems. The rest of the world is made up of Cain's descendents – they are violent, brutal warriors who have built decaying cities, while Noah has chosen to live among the rocks. Though Noah and his family are harassed by these savage jerks, they still live a peaceful life that seems pretty simpatico with nature.
Noah is perturbed by dreams so he and his family trek to visit Methuselah, who is something of a warlock with potions and powers. While Noah is stoned out of his gourd, he intuits what The Creator wants him to do; he is to build an ark, and into it a male and female of every beast, fowl and creeper shall go. And then ... aw, man, it is going to rain. The world has gone evil and it's getting a reboot.
Soon he and his family are cutting logs, but not without some help. The Watchers – the giants mentioned in Genesis – who resemble LOTR's Ents but made from rock, are clutch players. They don't just uproot trees with one yank, they act as muscle when Ray Winstone (the King of Men and descendent of Cain) comes to make trouble.
The bulk of 'Noah' is a struggle between bearded Russell Crowe and his family (wife played by Jennifer Connelly, sons played by Douglas Booth and Logan Lerman, and daughter-in-law Emma Watson) to reconcile with his radical vision. For a while, they are ready to play along with his interpretation of The Creator's messages. Even when it means letting the rest of humanity weep and wail and beg for entry on the ark. After the clouds burst, however, that's when things get weird ... well, weirder than rock monsters bashing the heads of people trying to save themselves from drowning as the hero of this movie stands on his boat with his arms crossed.
Noah becomes a crazed zealot, determined to usher the world's return to its initial purity. He has seen the evil that exists in all men (and he's seen it in a genuinely terrifying sequence of human savagery), and he is determined to let Adam's line die out once his small family has survived the flood and fulfilled the task of bringing the animals to their new garden. The story momentum leads to us rooting, in a way, for Noah to stab a newborn baby with an enormous dagger as Hermoine Granger shudders in terror.
This will no doubt ruffle the feathers of the faithful, but Aronofsky is taking liberties from the very first frame of the film. (And, as mentioned, with a three-page text, he's going to need something to pad this out to feature length.) “In the beginning there was nothing,” read the first words of the prologue, already a key deviation from Scripture. The word "God" is never uttered – it is always "The Creator." And, in a centerpiece montage that may be one of Aronofsky's finest individual sequences, there is a representation of the opening chapters of Genesis that conform both to Creationist and modern Cosmologist points of view.
'Noah' is swimming in ambiguity, right down to whether or not our title character is a good person. A key moment of the film can be interpreted, if one chooses to see it that way, as a refutation of fundamentalism straight out of 'Monty Python's Life of Brian,' or it could be seen as promoting the value of taking a leap of faith. One thing that Aronofsky doesn't shy away from is the coldness of the Old Testament, its high stakes and Big Ideas. Emma Watson's character, for one, is unable to bear children until Methuselah casts a spell on her, at which point she is so overcome by the workings of nature that she is driven to lust like a mad sex machine. Is this what we expect from a religious film? No. Is this, and all the other instances of brute action, an accurate depiction of early man? Well, maybe.
In addition to the “evolution montage” and rock monster battles, there are other aspects of 'Noah' that differentiate it from Bible movie expectations. I have no idea what was going on with the costumes. At one point Crowe was wearing what looked like a Henley from J. Crew. This film's inscrutable oddness -- and the willingness to take chances -- brought me to a place that could not have predicted. During the film's third act I had no idea how this movie was going to end. Seriously. Even more exciting, once the credits rolled, I had to spend some time to work out how I felt. In fact, I'm still thinking about it.
'Noah' opens in theaters on Friday, March 28.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.