As related in the Book of Genesis, the story of Noah and the Flood is pretty cut and (not very) dried, with few details and some confusion resulting from the fact that it’s obviously cobbled together from several different accounts. When Yahweh became disgusted with human wickedness, he decided to obliterate mankind (and originally the animal kingdom, too). But the goodness of Noah, described as being in his six hundredth year of life, and his family prompted a change of heart: he instructed Noah to build an ark that would save him, his wife, their three sons and their wives, along with a matched pair of every creature, from the deluge he intended to unleash. Noah did as ordered, and after forty days of rain and time for evaporation, all emerged from the ark with the injunction to be fruitful and multiply. The fact that the sons of Noah took this seriously is confirmed by their genealogies, which follow the tale without pause and led to the re-peopling of the earth.
This little sketch is hardly enough for a full-scale Hollywood Biblical epic (in John Huston’s 1966 misfire “The Bible,” it formed just one of several episodes, though much the best), and certainly not one by Darren Aronofsky, who specializes in cinematically challenging portraits of psychologically tortured individuals and could never embrace the sort of genial account Huston managed. So Aronofsky, while in certain respects exhibiting an almost naively faithful approach to the Scriptural narrative, departs from it in significant ways to add material of his own devising. The result won’t please literalists, of course, and on its own terms it’s frequently a bit absurd. But visually “Noah” evinces a sort of loony grandeur, and emotionally it possesses much stronger resonance than one might expect, not least because of Russell Crowe’s zealous performance in the title role as a man tormented by the task he has been given but determined to fulfill it.
What are the special peculiarities Aronofsky brings to the tale, apart from his characteristically idiosyncratic camera moves, montages, and compositions? Well, first he adds an element of spectacle beyond the appearance of the ark itself by choosing to depict the evil men that Yahweh intends to destroy as a bunch of pillagers of the earth under the dominion of King Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), a descendant of the first murderer, whose arrogance challenges divine rule as much as Lucifer’s ever did. Tubal-Cain becomes Noah’s nemesis: he killed Noah’s father Lamech (Marton Csokas), as we see in a prologue, and now threatens to take over the ark to save himself and his men, whatever Yahweh’s plan might be.
It should be noted, moreover, that the wickedness of Tubal-Cain and his crew takes on an environmental cast. Yahweh chooses to wipe them out because they have ravaged the earth, cutting down the trees and strip-mining the land for gold and metal, with which they’ve built cities. In effect they represent an early form of industrialization that rapes the earth of its natural resources and leaves a ruin in its wake—a fact depicted in landscapes, shot in Iceland, that are filled with tundra covered with tree stumps and valleys denuded of their minerals.
And that’s not all: the Cainites aren’t just environmentally destructive, they’re also carnivores. Noah and his family subsist on plant life, and consider the killing of animals for food something to be abhorred as a sign of deviance. So Aronofsky uses the Noah story to promote a vegan, or at least a vegetarian, message as well as an environmental one.
Moreover, the sight of Tubal-Cain’s thousands attacking the ark as the rain starts to fall by itself wasn’t spectacular enough. So Aronofsky said: Let there be Watchers; and behold, there were Watchers. These are his version of the Nephilim mentioned in Genesis right before the Flood narrative. Aronofsky recasts them as angels ejected from heaven for assisting mankind and being transformed into giant rock creatures not unlike the one from “The Neverending Story,” but in much improved CGI format. Voiced by such redoubtable souls as Nick Nolte and Frank Langella, they become Noah’s helpers in building the ark and its main defenders when Tubal-Cain and his troops attack.
But these additions aren’t enough, because the family dynamic in Genesis is much too bland. So Aronofsky said, Let there be domestic discord; and behold, there was domestic discord. In the Bible, Noah’s sons were all married, apparently happily. Here Shem (Douglas Booth) is an unwed young man, Ham (Logan Lerman) is a horny adolescent and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) is just a kid. And though on their trek to visit Noah’s grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), an old man in a cave, for advice on how to fulfill Yahweh’s command (a task he performs by inducing a vision via some hallucinogen-promoting tea), they rescue an injured girl, Ila (Emma Watson), who becomes the apple of Shem’s eye; but her wound has left her barren. Methuselah, a handy fellow to have around, will rectify that, but the cure is almost worse than the disease, since Noah, who’s convinced that their family must die out to bring Yahweh’s plan to fruition, threatens to murder any female children they might have in order to complete his mission. Obviously that’s not pleasing news to Seth, Ila, or Noah’s wife—and prospective grandmother—Naameh (Jennifer Connelly).
As if that weren’t enough, Ham is irked that he will be left with no female companion, since Noah had failed to save a girl his son had rescued from Tubal-Cain’s camp and hoped would become his wife. His irritation with his father leads to downright betrayal when he helps Tubal-Cain takes refuge on the ark and conspires with him to kill Noah (here Tubal-Cain again acts like Lucifer, this time seducing Ham just as the snake did Adam and Eve). And even though the boy pulls back at the last minute, the rift between father and son is irreparable.
All of this may be denounced by literalists as modern baggage willfully imposed on the Scriptural story, but in a way it has a certain Biblical resonance, among other things putting Noah in a position similar to Abraham’s when he was commanded to sacrifice Isaac. And it does flesh out the slight Genesis narrative in a fashion that both might satisfy both the modern audience’s taste for “Lord of the Rings”-style battles and their need for romance, especially when it leads to sibling rivalry and father-son hostility. (It does, however, leave a major question at the close: if the only humans left on earth are Noah, Naameh, Shem, Ila, their two infant daughters, Ham and Japheth, how exactly is the injunction to be fruitful and multiply supposed to be fulfilled? Wouldn’t all the begetting that takes place afterward necessitate breaking a major taboo?)
Setting that aside, however, “Noah” represents a considerable accomplishment for Aronofsky, certainly superior to his major catastrophe, “The Fountain” (2006). And while it’s hard for any actor to compete with the flamboyance of the director’s visual technique (abetted, of course, by Matthew Libatique’s sterling cinematography and effects that—while they’re not particularly convincing in terms of the Watchers or of the hordes of animals that come calling to the ark—are pretty eye-catching), Crowe certainly does his best work in a long while as the increasingly unhinged paterfamilias. Of the other family members, Lerman and Watson come off best, both having scenes where they can really let loose; and Winstone evinces surprisingly understated menace as Tubal-Cain. By contrast Connelly, Booth and Carroll get little chance to shine. Hopkins, on the other hand, excels again as the grizzled father (or grandfather) figure—first to Thor and now to Noah. He chews the scenery mercilessly, of course, but he’s still fun to watch.
One of the repeated bits about Methuselah in Aronofsky’s script, incidentally, is that he has a hankering for some berries—apparently a delicacy in his cave. Mention of them naturally leads to thoughts of nuts, too—an entirely appropriate reaction, since “Noah” is slightly nutty in its combination of an almost childish fidelity to certain elements of the Scriptural narrative with a nearly wanton willingness to add stuff to it. Ultimately what rescues it from sheer absurdity is Aronofsky’s obvious commitment to examining the story’s deeper, darker undercurrents—in terms of both its mythic origin and its contemporary relevance. That certainly distinguishes it from the usual run of Hollywood blockbusters, and, warts and all, it makes for a welcome change.