Of all the Bible stories, the account of Noah and the Ark from Genesis is almost certainly the one that most fascinates children, and it’s not hard to see why—it’s the animals. I remember, as a kid, having a toy Noah’s Ark from some gas station, and every week they’d offer a new pair of animals with a fill-up. I think I eventually had the complete set.
But the animals are bit players in Darren Aronofsky’s new film Noah. They show up in waves—pairs of birds first, then reptiles, then the large mammals, many in prehistoric-looking species that suggest considerable evolution is still to take place post-Flood. They placidly enter the Ark, then lie down and go to sleep, like business travelers settling in to a red eye.
These sequences are sort of magical, but they’re brief, and not at all the point of this Noah. It’s only at first glance, after all, that this seems like a charming fable. Aronofsky remembers what it’s really about—the destruction of the world. Some embellishment was inevitable—in Genesis, for instance, Noah doesn’t even get any lines until after the Flood, when he curses his grandson Canaan, rather passive-aggressively, because Canaan’s father Ham told his brothers about seeing Noah sleeping off a toot in the buff.
Thus the script, which Aronofsky co-wrote with Ari Handel, envisions the pre-flood world as an industrial civilization in decline. The mines are played out, and the landscapes are bleak, scarred gravel fields denuded of trees. It doesn’t look that different than the world through which Viggo Mortensen led his son in The Road. Human society is warlike and hungry, and Noah (Russell Crowe), his anxious wife (Jennifer Connelly) and their three sons hunker down in the rocks, practicing environmental husbandry, avoiding the brutal city folk—though Noah can kick ass with a quarterstaff when necessary—and waiting to see what comes next.
This turns out to be a vision from You Know Who, telling Noah that He’s fed up with people and is about to give the planet a good wash. Noah enlists the aid of hobbling, multi-armed rock giants—Aronofsky’s backstory is that they’re angels who, having tried to help the human race after the Fall, are in a sort of semi-Fallen state themselves—and gets to work.
Human forces, led by the metalsmith/chieftain Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), cause trouble for the Noahs, but not as much as the trouble caused by Noah’s reluctance to provide wives for his sons. He’s pretty sure that “The Creator” (the film avoids the G word) is so done with humanity that he wants them to get the animals through the flood and then let themselves go extinct.
So despite the pre-emptive complaints from conservative Christians and Muslims (Noah is an important prophet in the Quran) about the movie’s liberties and its environmentalism (horrors!), this Noah features war and violence, patriarchal rigidity, generational conflict, terror of women, Abrahamic threats of infanticide—in short, it feels pretty Biblical. Especially, it feels pretty Old Testament Biblical, which is to say it’s strange, and harsh, and morally baffling, and—for me at least—quite compelling.
I went in hoping for an entertaining camp epic in the DeMille manner, and came out appreciating Aronofsky’s efforts to take the material seriously on its own terms. Not everything in the movie works, to be sure, but the occasional unintentional laughs are a relief, and the central drama—the title character’s inner struggle with whether or not humanity has any business carrying on—plays far more satisfyingly than I would have guessed it could.
This is, in large part, thanks to Crowe’s understated, haunted performance. Balancing him is Connelly’s Mrs. Noah, who ages far better over the course of the story than her hubby. She’s not the comic shrew that the role was in the medieval miracle plays, but she wants grandkids, and she’s very in touch with her feelings on this. Emma Watson also pours a lot of emotion into her role as Noah’s daughter-in-law, allowed on the Ark because she’s thought to be barren. The standout in the small supporting cast, however, is Logan Lerman as Ham, the wifeless, brooding, sympathetic middle son.
Anthony Hopkins does drop in long enough to contribute a few wry line readings as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah. At this point, one almost wonders if the makers of big blockbusters even need to call Hopkins any more, or if he just mysteriously shows up at the set, like the animals showing up at the Ark.