The Old Testament contains strange creatures and semi-celestial beings along with its primordial stories. Some of those creatures, called the Watchers, are co-stars in Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s often wondrous, sometimes difficult imagining of the Great Flood and the man divinely chosen to save the world’s innocent beasts. Whether Noah (Russell Crowe) also has been chosen to save mankind is the biggest question in a film that is chock-full of quandaries regarding human nature and its place in the cosmos.
For its first half, Noah is a fantastical, engaging imagining of a blasted desert that might be Judea many centuries ago (or Los Angeles a few decades in the future, going by the deconstructed textiles wardrobe), and the man who survives there with his family, separate from the wickedness of other men. When Noah was a child, his father (Martin Csokas) was murdered right in front in him, so he knows from wickedness. Noah and his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and their three young sons live in contented isolation, but men from the cities are getting ever closer, and one day, he and his son Ham have a run-in with a violent band of brigands. Ham witnesses these savages hunt down a foxlike armadillo, and he is astonished—and curious—when his father explains that they were going to eat the animal.
It isn’t until late in the film that the story’s heavy parallel to a post-apocalyptic environmental cautionary tale becomes onerous, and Bible scholars already will have noticed that the story is not in strict accordance to scripture. However, its extraordinary visual vocabulary is reverential in its own right, and quite ingenious in using filmic technique (including boatloads of CGI) and ingenuity to make the Bible plot plausible, all the while making sweeping cosmological leaps, similar to The Fountain (also co-written by Aronofsky with Ari Handel). It also makes a rather frightening case for the rapaciousness of the human race.
Noah has visions, and he is convinced that his visions are communicated to him by the creator. The beginnings of Judaism are related to him to by his father, Lamech the ninth son of Adam, in the prologue from his childhood. Even the emergence of the Watchers, giant beings made from stone that move like Transformers (not as ridiculous as it sounds) but that actually seem more like benevolent cousins of the Balrog in the Lord of the Rings, seems of a piece with the mysteries and miracles of Noah’s life. (Speaking of LOTR, for Aronofsky to be influenced by that fantasy is only fair, since Tolkien himself was influenced by the Old Testament. And not for nothing did the director cast Csokas, LOTR’s Lord of the angel-like High Elves, as Lameth).
More importantly, the element of fantasy saves the film from literal-mindedness, both visually and in terms of the narrative. The animals converge on Noah’s arc (where, in a nice touch that spares the film any cheesiness regarding the humans having to share the arc with, say, restless elephants, they are put into herb-induced suspended animation). Geysers erupt from the earth like reverse comets, and the combination of fantasy and religious fervor merges into an inspired tableaux that ties in with Noah’s soothsayer grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins).
And then it’s downhill from there, as the plot descends into a war most likely intended to earn back the film’s $125 million production costs (as does the casting of Emily Watson as Ila, Noah’s adopted daughter). For the wicked men have a king, Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), who is indeed a descendent of the murderous Cain. And this king is a very modern man who believes in self-will and self-gratification, which is why his city is a violent, horrifying place. Since for some inexplicable reason the king didn’t force his minions to build him his own arc, he is hell-bent on taking Noah’s. Soon enough, he and his leather-wearing, meat-eating centurions are facing off with the divinely sparked Watchers.
Grim under the best of circumstances, Noah becomes a vessel for punitive predeterminism. And then there is a nasty bit of business regarding his unmarried sons, who are rather likely to remain unmarried, and other unhappy inclusions from the Book of Genesis. The weight of the world is one thing—and Crowe, and the cinematography, carry it quite ably—but the relentless heaviness at sea sinks the filmmakers’ best intentions.