The worst thing Darren Aronofsky could have done with Noah, his big-budget biblical epic, is to make it timid. The story of Noah’s Ark is one of the oldest in Western Civilization, and while the cutesy Sunday school version is digestible for kids, the story still deals with God’s wrath and the extinction of humanity. These ideas require confident direction, and Aronofsky rises to the task with a mix of action, awe, horror, vulnerability, and intellectual depth. Unlike The Fountain, Noah does not veer toward gorgeous folly territory, although Aronofsky’s ambition does get the better of him. This is an epic with purpose, one that will challenge and frighten the devout and non-believers alike.
Clint Mansell’s haunting, jangly score establishes the tone from the get-go. Aronofsky and his co-screenwriter Ari Handel breathlessly cover the basics of Genesis with their prologue, and frightening surreal imagery accompanies their description of the Fall of Man, as well as Cain murdering Abel. We first meet Noah when he’s a boy, and his father falls victim to Cain’s wicked descendants. It follows that as a man, Noah (Russell Crowe) chooses to live far away from civilization, alongside his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and their three sons. Noah notices a minor miracle while foraging the land one day, and a subsequent nightmare implores him to go on a journey to visit his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Though some hallucinogenic tea, Methuselah forces a more intense vision on Noah: the world is going to end, and he must build an ark to protect the innocent.
All the trailers for Noah show the conflict between our hero and Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a fearsome leader of the wicked, and they’re also hiding some important characters. They’re fallen angels, and they look like, well, gigantic rock people. These larger than life characters are ridiculous, Aronofsky knows this, yet his backstory justifies their presence in the film. The watchers are angels who chose to help mankind in defiance of God, and they take their shape because they melt/react with the earth once they land hit the ground. It’s a creepy transformation, and they’re tragic creatures since their outer ugliness betrays the divine light hiding within. The fallen angels are instrumental to the construction of the ark, as well as defending it from Tubal-cain and his hordes.
Aronofsky turns his attention away from the animals – they’re important, but wrapped up in minutes – in favor of the family dynamics. Noah’s children are acutely aware they must propagate mankind after the flood, so his adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) weeps since she’s barren (she lives Shem (Douglas Booth), Noah’s oldest). His middle son Ham (Logan Lerman) is more intriguing since his desire for a wife coincides with adolescence. Ham pleads his father for help, and begins questioning his wisdom once he gets cock-blocked. These sub-plots are put on hold, however, once the flood starts. The enormity of it is awesome: there’s an action sequence before Noah becomes a disaster film, as it must. The loss of humanity does not end once the ark’s door is shut. In Noah’s most haunting moment, the family sits around the fire while there are wails from the outside we see literal pile of humanity who struggles to avoid death. This is not the Noah where an elephant and giraffe make friends.
But for all its remarkable cinematography, including the primordial depiction of a decimated planet and the barbarous nature of Cain’s descendants, Aronofsky and Handel save the heavy material for the long journey aboard the ark. Tubal-cain is a stowaway, for one thing, and he poisons Ham’s mind with the idea that God’s nothing but a bully (this is a well-taken idea, although it’s abandoned once Tubal-cain is nothing but a run-of-the-mill villain). Noah, on the other hand, must deal with horrible commands from God. He intuits that He does not humanity to thrive in a post-flood world, so he handles his family with increasing hostility. This is challenging material for any actor, and Crowe’s admirably transitions from a decent man into one whose mind is warped by divine incongruity. Crowe undergoes a physical transformation during these scenes, and it’s no accident that he looks more Godlike as he enforces a heartbreaking policy.
Crowe is no stranger to historical epics, although Noah predates history, so Connelly and Watson seem more out of place. Naameh is mostly a thankless role – to Connelly’s credit, she seems otherworldly in her tender moments with Noah – but the film finds its moral center once she stands up to him. All the dialogue in Noah is simple and forceful, as if the characters only understand good and evil without nuance, so it’s telling that Connelly finds genuine rhetorical forcefulness. Watson always feels out of place, and Aronofsky uses that to his advantage. When Ila becomes a victim, she seems defenseless and meek while under Noah’s cruel gaze. The intimacy of the climax is about the clash between strength and mercy, and the physical disparity between the actors adds an extra level of suspense.
Aronofsky never depicts God in Noah, and he only refers to Him as “The Creator.” This is ultimately a wise choice: not only would Noah and others have any concept of a biblical God – none of them could read, presumably – but this also adds a level of fear between man and his Maker. Aronofsky cements this relationship in a hallucinatory sequence, one that blends photography with animation, where we see the entire creation story (this is sure to be controversial since there is literal evolution from beast toward man). Noah obeys and fears God, even when His instructions are cruel. The masterstroke of Noah, one that makes it an important film, is that Noah’s ultimate mercy coincides with God’s. By the time we see the magisterial rainbow, it’s a reward full of humility since Noah and God surprise each other through reserves of goodness they finally could not deny.