Russell Crowe in Noah movie

Paramount Pictures

If you were raised by parents who even loosely identified as practitioners of a Western religion, then chances are you were brought up being told some version of the Noah story. You know the one—God becomes upset with the wickedness of man, decides to flood the Earth and wipe everything out so that he can start over, Noah is tasked with building a giant boat that can save a male and female from every species of animal, and then, wickedness wiped out, Noah’s family and all of the critters are encouraged to be fruitful and multiply. It’s a good story for kids. It sends the message that if you don’t behave morally, the world will punish you, it involves a bunch of furry creatures, and it’s easy to summarize.

Which is why Darren Aronofsky is kind of taking a risk by turning it into a big budget, epic adventure film. Not only do most people think of the Noah story as existing within the realm of childhood fairy tale, but those who are devout are likely to bristle at the idea of having one of their sacred stories blown up and turned into Hollywood fare, and those who don’t respond well to religion aren’t likely to look forward to reliving their early days sitting through Sunday School lectures. There’s good news here for all of these potential whiners though, because Noah is far too dark and complex to be confused for a childhood fairy tale, it takes great pains to pull its inspiration straight from text that actually appears in the bible, and its visuals are far too eye-popping and its adventure far too thrilling for it to be confused with any dry, didactic lesson. Mostly Noah just plays like somebody gave Aronofsky a bunch of money to make the usual disturbing, intense sort of movie that he always makes, only bigger.

Calling it an epic fantasy take on the Noah story doesn’t do what this movie actually is justice though. This isn’t just a religious drama with some Lord of the Rings visuals thrown on top, though it is that for a while. The tone is adventure drama right up until the flood happens, which would have been the climax of most Noah movies, but after that Noah transitions into what is almost an entirely different film—a psychological thriller that digs into questions about the nature of man, fanaticism, and how intensely one can be focused on a goal before their singularity of mind stops being a virtue and starts to do them harm. There are also some moments that bring to mind apocalypse movies like The Road, some moments with a race of lumbering, gigantic fallen angels that make one think of The Iron Giant, and even some glimpses of a deteriorating social order that bring about memories of the last third of Apocalypse Now. To get to the point, there are a ton of disparate elements working simultaneously in Noah, and audiences who aren’t used to seeing outside of the box movies might find themselves initially put off by that, but if you stick with the film, eventually you find that Aronofsky is able to bring everything together as a coherent whole. It’s something of a magic trick.

The other thing you should know about Noah before you decide to go see it is that it gets dark. Like, really dark for a wide release movie with a PG-13 rating. Maybe that should be expected from a film whose primary subject is the wiping out of the entire human race, but Aronofsky is able to make you feel the reality of that situation so viscerally that it still might come as a surprise for some. Noah’s divine visions of a drowned Earth are bone-chilling, the depiction we get of a depraved humanity on its last legs is revolting, and there is a scene that takes place during the last moments of life on Earth that will stick with you for weeks.

A lot of Noah is so dark that you wonder how a big studio let a director get away with making it, and it’s not just specific moments I’m talking about here. There’s a tension that runs through the whole film about who you should be rooting for, or if it’s even possible to root for anyone in this situation. Noah goes to such dark places over the course of the movie that it’s impossible to keep relating to him as a protagonist (sometimes to the point of comedy, intentional or otherwise), and it becomes necessary for the narrative to switch its viewpoint from character to character. There are moments of mass death so casually presented that they almost feel mindless, and then they get followed up by character beats so focused that they almost chastise you for getting caught up in the spectacle and forgetting to remain compassionate. Noah is the sort of movie that takes multiple viewings and a little bit of time to fully digest.

What jumps out at you immediately though are the scenes that tell their story purely through visuals. There are a handful of sequences here that use time lapse photography and montage editing to get a whole lot of information across very quickly, and they’re not only effective as bits of economic storytelling, they’re also the hands-down most memorable bits of the film. Aronofsky has built his fanbase through flashy filmmaking, and these are the sequences that are going to have those who saw the film based on his involvement leaving the theater buzzing. The sequence that takes us from the creation of the universe all the way through to the birth of man is especially impressive. Advertise the movie with footage from that sequence, and there would be no question in anyone’s minds that they’re in for an Aronofsky film. Advertise it solely with glimpses of the most generic actiony stuff from the first half like they have? Then it becomes understandable why some are weary of what they’re getting. Russell Crowe vehicles haven’t been what they used to be lately, after all.

The good news is that this is the best Russell Crowe performance we’ve gotten in quite a while. Wipe the camp of his turn in The Man With the Iron Fists, the uncomfortable memories of listening to him sing in Les Misérables, and the horror of whatever he was doing in Winter’s Tale out of your mind, because his portrayal of Noah has much more in common with the intensity he brought to L.A. Confidential and the restraint he showed in The Insider. Actually, Noah feels quite a lot like the good work he did in the first act of Man of Steel, before Superman got introduced and the rest of that movie went downhill.

The supporting cast is all pretty great too. There might be a monologue scene that Jennifer Connelly overplays a bit, and a medical emergency scene that Emma Watson underplays a bit, but there are no performances you can point to as being a detriment to the film. Anthony Hopkins is pretty damned charming as Methuselah. He offers the movie a few moments of much needed levity, and he brings so much inherent weight to all his roles that he’s able to play the oldest man in the world here without having any trouble making it believable. Ray Winstone is memorable as Tubal Cain, the self-appointed King of Man who is willing to do anything to survive. He’s probably the most blatant antagonist the story has, and he relishes being bad so much that he ultimately works as a pretty great personification of the evil that exists in all of us.

When all is said and done, who exactly is the movie Noah going to work best for? Probably not the hardcore religious audience, who is going to see it simply because of its source material. And probably not the mainstream multiplex audience, who is going to see it because of its teen stars or because of its moments of spectacle. After the movie is out and people actually get a chance to see it, the ones who are really going to respond to it are likely going to be fans of film—the people who regularly seek out risk-taking, emotionally authentic art in all of its forms. That might not be good news for fans of strict interpretations of bible stories, or those who like their big budget movies to be as loud and as brainless as possible, but for my money I wish that the same could be said of more of the big movies that get put out every year.

The Upside: Dark, complex, intense; basically just the sort of thing you’ve come to expect from Aronofsky.

The Downside: Bleak, divisive, will likely go too far for many; basically just the sort of thing you’ve come to expect from Aronofsky.

On the Side: Aronofsky first dabbled with adapting the Noah story when he wrote a poem about it at the age of 13. If you catch him in the right mood, he’ll even read you a few lines.

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