Strange as the idea sounded at first, I can't think of a filmmaker better suited to tackle the story of Noah than Darren Aronofsky. His five previous features, from 1998's Pi to 2010's Black Swan, have all centered on characters driven and usually undone by their obsessions—men and women who cannot turn away from a pursuit, be it artistic achievement, cosmic epiphany, or drug addiction, until it consumes them. Now Aronofsky has added an Old Testament patriarch to his roster of unhinged mathematicians and psychotic ballerinas, and it's a surprisingly good fit.
In case it hasn't been made abundantly clear, this is not your Sunday school teacher's Noah—unless your Sunday school teacher was completely bonkers and spiced up the story with six-armed rock monsters, crazy armadillo-dog creatures, bloody fight scenes, and enough familial melodrama to fuel six seasons of Downton Abbey. Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel have taken a kitchen-sink approach, fleshing out the Bible's bare-bones account of the Great Flood with narrative elements and characters borrowed from Old Testament stories that have little to do with Noah and his brood. It's a hugely ambitious film in every way you can imagine, from its staggering visuals to its heady philosophical and theological ruminations. The director and his team don't always pull it off, and there are plenty of moments when Noah is undone by its own lofty aspirations, but there are enough great moments to render it a success. Even when it falters, it does so in interesting, admirable ways.
All of that is probably cold comfort to literal-minded viewers, who will be turned off and possibly traumatized by the time Noah hits the five-minute mark. Plenty of other reviewers have sketched out the film's specific adherences to, and deviations from, the familiar story; suffice it to say that Aronofsky starts with the Fall and ends with a rainbow but stuffs plenty of inventive craziness between those biblical benchmarks.
After a prologue that suggests we're in for a high-fantasy take on the source material, the movie veers sharply into post-apocalyptic territory when it introduces its title character, part of a nomadic family that sees itself as stewards of a land that has been polluted and stripped of its resources by war, industrialization, and general human shiftiness. Noah, played with hairy-chested, action-hero manliness by Russell Crowe, kicks plenty of ass during an early encounter with hunters; he's pretty spry for 590.
Just when we start to get used to Aronofsky's strangely timeless and utterly alien antediluvian world—Noah's first act could easily be set a thousand years in the future, or even on a different planet altogether—and the weird creatures that populate it, things get even weirder when Noah begins to receive grim dream messages from God.
The film's version of God, usually referred to as the Creator, is pretty elliptical in his communications with Noah. Gone are the matter-of-fact directives described in the Bible; instead, Noah is left to discern meaning from a series of nightmarish visions. The images are disturbing enough—Noah is submerged in a seemingly endless ocean littered with corpses, while animals swim to the surface all around him—but, when paired with composer Clint Mansell's nerve-shredding musical cues, Noah's visions turn truly upsetting. He struggles to interpret them, and even though he gets it right at first, he eventually makes a few leaps that provide the impetus for most of the movie's interpersonal conflict. It's a deviation that gives Noah much of its power, as it places a burden on its eponymous protagonist that's even greater than the task of preserving every species on the planet. Not only must he do what God wants, he also has to figure out exactly what that is.
The divine enterprise to which Noah has been tipped off, of course, is global genocide, and the film doesn't shy away from that. Wickedness is certainly rampant among the civilizations that will be wiped out when the flood comes, but Aronofsky also dwells on the innocent who will die alongside them. He installs a human villain to give Noah someone to rail against: Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a minor character plucked from an unrelated biblical passage and recast as a savage tribal leader who, for all his ugliness, espouses a very humanist viewpoint and swings the story in some unexpected directions.
It all makes for a chaotic, compelling, sometimes disturbing, and occasionally overwrought viewing experience. If you're hoping for either a faithful interpretation of one of Christianity's seminal tales or a refutation of religion altogether, Noah will be frustrating. But if you're cool with a take on the material that is at once reverential and critical and that goes into some very dark, morally challenging territory when it's not busy being an awesomely goofy mashup of Mad Max and Lord of the Rings, you'll probably want to see it more than once. I certainly do.