Has Darren Aronofsky long held a desire to make a Lord of the Rings movie? Because Noah bears a lot of stylistic similarities to Peter Jackson’s trilogy of fantasy adaptations. For one thing, Noah’s world mirrors the one from Jackson’s epics. His story might come from the ancient Near East, but Aronofsky puts him in a land of black sands and verdant valleys; everywhere you look, there are sweeping vistas and impossibly gorgeous sunsets. Noah looks like a National Geographic cover story about Middle Earth’s even-more-ancient past.
Another LOTR similarity? Noah is really long. You don’t notice at first, because the director’s imagining of the antediluvian world is fun to look at, and the film moves at a nice trot until Noah starts to build his ark. Have you ever watched someone build a boat in real life? Doesn’t that sound kind of arduous? It certainly is here, because along with his singularity of purpose, Noah (Russell Crowe) develops a singularity of mood. In the way that the story’s apocalyptic rain washes away the wicked, it also washes away any vestige of Noah’s likability.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. If you’re unfamiliar with the biblical narrative, it goes like this: Following the Fall of Man, the descendants of Adam have split into two lines, those of the murderous Cain and those of the virtuous Seth. After seven generations of increasingly evil men, God (or the Creator, in the film’s milieu) decides to start over, drowning humanity in the Great Flood, save for one virtuous family and a breeding pair of every animal. In the film version, Cain’s line has become an industrialized society led by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), a king who killed Lamech, Noah’s father, over the rights to establish a mine. Years pass, and Tubal-Cain’s people have spread across the land, laying waste to nature with industrial consumption. Dismayed by Tubal-Cain’s encroachment, Noah travels to visit his grandfather Methusaleh (Anthony Hopkins) for answers. Methusaleh gives him some kind of psychotropic tea, and in an ensuing vision Noah learns what the Creator intends to do: literally wash the wicked from the world.
Peter Jackson managed to take the Lord of the Rings’ comparatively shorter and thinner precursor, The Hobbit, and turn it into two bloated movies, with a third on the way. Aronfsky’s take on Noah similarly expands on a notably brief tale, including a backstory involving giant, stone-bodied fallen angels called Watchers and the unfortunate problem of repopulating the human race when your lifeboat has only one eligible bachelorette.
This latter issue, repopulation versus the problem of Too Many Dudes, makes the movie interesting while rendering its characters sort of unlikable. Emma Watson plays Noah’s adopted daughter Ila, who, as the intended wife of his son Shem, is humanity’s last hope, sadly ironic because she is barren. But as the raindrops begin to fall more regularly, so does a pallor over Noah — he decides that his task is to protect the innocent (i.e. animals) and obliterate the unrighteous, a group that includes every member of the human race, including him and his family. Because his wife Naamah (Jennifer Connolly) wishes the best for her sons, she asks Methusaleh to bless Ila, who wastes no time in getting herself pregnant by Shem. And when they notify Noah that there will be two more passengers on their doomsday cruise, he makes it clear that if Ila gives birth to a daughter, he will kill the baby on sight.
What makes this proclamation even more dramatic is that the Noah of the first act is sort of cheerful. His commitment to building the ark is underscored with pious righteousness and even a fair bit of whimsy, like when he helps Naamah make an incense that magically puts every animal into a happy, snoring coma. Like a sudden cloudburst, that righteousness turns into cold, bitter sanctimony. By the end, when Noah is faced with carrying out God’s murderous intent on his own family, his grim visage overwhelms whatever you liked about the character.
And yet, despite a lengthy last third, the film has a lot to enjoy. Nobody wears a robe; everyone wears pants, and coupled with the ever-present volcanic soil and rolling hills, the film feels less a retelling of a Bible story and more of a sci-fi fantasy. Action set pieces, in particular the battle between Tubal-Cain’s army and the craggy, six-armed stone Watchers protecting the ark, are thrilling. Apart from Watson’s clipped, contemporary delivery and Hopkins’ grandpa-wizard performance, the acting is entirely watchable — Connolly especially is good form, and credit goes to Crowe for selling us on both of Noah’s mood swings.
Creationists and similarly minded folk might take issue with the film’s creative license, but it’s not like any of them were there when the flood happened, right? In terms of a good-looking movie, fanciful effects, and thought-provoking commentary on the nature of justice, Noah is worth getting on board with.
Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connolly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, and Anthony Hopkins. Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel and directed by Aronofsky. Rated PG-13.