To some, the Bible presents a preeminent chronicle of the world's earliest struggles; to others, it's a mess of thinly defined mythological events littered with lush fantasy. Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" paradoxically embodies both of these perspectives. The director's murky, ill-conceived take on the world's oldest disaster story contains some of the most pristine visuals produced on a mass studio scale in some time. But it's also constantly tethered to a dull, melodramatic series of events out of whack with any traditional interpretation of the material. By turning the monolithic odyssey into a sword-and-sandals showdown with occasionally cosmic tangents, the 137-minute studio venture contains the glimmers of a truly visionary achievement flooded by half-baked ideas.
While "Noah" takes plenty of liberties with the source material, the fundamentals remain intact — even viewers oblivious to Sunday school teachings know the gist: Noah (Russell Crowe), is the sole do-gooder in a spare world dominated by corruption, the last line of innocence descended from Seth, while Cain's hedonist offspring populate the Earth. In a vision, Noah learns that "the Creator" intends to destroy all mankind with a catastrophic flood; only Noah, his family, and two pairs of nearly every other species on Earth may survive — for the time being, at least — by riding it out in a giant hunk of wood.
Using this foundation, however, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel pepper the story with a number of flashier ingredients, some fairly routine and others less so. These include Noah's hulking army of four-armed rock giants, an elaboration on the fallen angels known as Nephilim, who initially resist Noah's cries for help and eventually aid in the construction of the Ark; the screenwriters also give Noah a single antagonist, in the form of the scheming Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), who manages to wind up as the Ark's sole human stowaway and attempt to surpass even the will of the Creator to restart civilization.
While still sifting through the meaning of his vision, Noah receives advice from his ancient grandfather Methusaleh (Anthony Hopkins, scowling and smirking in a handful of scenes), while keeping his blandly anxious wife (Jennifer Connelly) at bay. The couple's children include the eternally worried Ila (Emma Watson) and Shem (Douglas Booth), who eventually fall into a perilous romance, as well as Ham (Logan Lerman), whose allegiances to his father grow increasingly dubious as the plans for the Ark take shape.
Unfortunately, few of these elements contain even a modicum of surprise. Nobody in "Noah" ever says the word "god," which makes sense for a movie so firmly grounded in earthly traditions and that only manages to amaze when it deviates from its monotonous core. Unlike Aronofsky's last troubled production, "The Fountain," there's a constant feeling that the director is resisting the material weighing down his ambition. One needs to look no further than the embellished form of Tubal-Cain, a hackneyed villain prone to growling his simplistic intentions with the formulaic routine of a wind-up plot device ("Kill the giants. Kill Noah. Take the Ark.").
Seemingly there to balance off the story's more spectacular tangents, the simplistic villain epitomizes many of the bigger shortcomings throughout "Noah": a ponderous score that overstates every dramatic moment; stagey showdowns between virtually every member of the cast; monochromatic costumes and pale backdrops of empty jungles and muddy fields that look like the idiot's guide to biblical milieu.
All the same, it's virtually impossible to disregard the profound moving images that burst through Aronofksy's cluttered narrative. Noah's early dream visions include snippets of the horrors yet to come, interspersed with glimpses of the forbidden fruit, and threaded together with a speedy rhythm reminiscent of the drug sequences in the director's "Requiem for a Dream." Later, he outdoes any isolated moment of graphic inspiration from "The Fountain" with a tantalizing outline of the creation story, from the big bang to the birth of life. The jittery CGI imagery, produced by the ever-reliable team at Industrial Light & Magic, suggest "The Tree of Life" on Adderall — as the montage speeds from the dark void of space to the progression of sea animals onto land, the cycle is overwhelming in its relentless complexity.
Later, onboard the Ark, Noah tracks the progress of civilization by starting with the story of Adam and Eve, represented by golden figures in the Garden of Eden and the motions of silhouettes against a pink sky to illustrate the passage of violence across generations. Such transfixing moments are sufficient to make one wish the unwieldy main scenario receded to the background.
Instead, no matter how many compelling images Aronofsky and longtime cinematographer Matthew Libatique offer up, "Noah" remains tethered to its cold plot. During the final act, as Noah devolved into a crazy-eyed zealot driven to murderous extremes by his convictions, the movie plunges into a mishmash of suspense and melodrama that suggests a crisis of faith in the material not unlike the one plaguing the characters. The script never musters the same depth afforded its effects: Though it places the concept front and center, "Noah" hardly engages with the struggle to negotiate between free will and a higher calling with much subtlety (Sample dialogue: "What's good? What's right? That choice is yours.") Despite its thundering delusions of grandeur, ideologically speaking, "Noah" is just plain dumb.
Nevertheless, there's a fascinating uneasiness to the movie that makes it stand out from countless blockbusters. It's simple enough to imagine the identity of the proverbial Creator as no less than Aronofsky himself, whose struggles with Paramount over this supremely eccentric take on an overexposed drama have been widely publicized.
Short of transforming Noah into an antediluvian Captain America, there may be no better process of enlivening this seminal archaic tale. "Noah" wrestles with the material from nearly every direction. Libatique's camerawork oscillates from an intimate, shaky cam approach to astounding crane shots worthy of a classic Cecil B. DeMille saga. And even he would never have been able to achieve something on the scale of one memorable shot that manages to capture the Ark from above, while the animated Nephilim continue their construction efforts on the expansive roof, and thousands of virtual animals stream into the vessel many cubits below.
Sadly, these tantalizing ingredients are adrift in a sea of lesser subplots. Aronofsky has gone on the record as taking full responsibility for the theatrical cut of "Noah," but he deserves more credit for pulling it through the commercial system than for the actual quality that came out the other end. The very existence of this abnormal big budget venture was mandated by the unexpected worldwide success of "Black Swan," another screwy project that's at least more in command of its undulating moods. But "Black Swan" was never intended to take the form of a mainstream blockbuster. "Noah" struggles to meet those standards while showing evidence of better pathways left unexplored. It's something of a cautionary tale about the dangers of supposed autonomy promised by commercial success. Aronofsky's worst movie is an epic misfire that, like the source material, offers plenty of lessons even if you don't buy the whole package.
Criticwire Grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A tough sell for both religious and secular audiences, "Noah" could manage a solid box office performance during its initial weekend due the lack of major competition (as well as the studio's careful overseas rollout strategy). But it's unlikely to remain a major player as summer blockbuster season starts to take shape in the coming weeks.