"Noah" floods theaters this weekend with perhaps as much controversy as it will cash flow. Darren Aronofsky's religious epic cost at least $125 million to make, and now it opens with close eyes on how faith-driven moviegoers respond to the loose biblical interpretation of Genesis' great-flood parable.
After seeing the film, it's clear that "Noah" is not the next "Passion of the Christ." It's weird (but not weird enough), shrouded in fantasy (yet nowhere near as blasphemous as certain Christian bloggers like to espouse) and plastered with just as many Aronofsky-esque qualities as the "Black Swan" and "Requiem for a Dream" auteur could shove into the 138-minute drama (not enough). Here are some observations about the film.
1. Everything you've read in the Bible is there. It just fills in the holes with fantasy. So calm down.
The story of Noah spans four chapters of Genesis, a decent length for a biblical parable. Still, if our ark-building hero is going to appear on the big screen, it's necessary that Aronofsky -- who wrote the screenplay alongside frequent collaborator Ari Handel -- make specific deductions about what happened in between God's apocalyptic request and Noah's fulfillment of his promise. That's not distorting fundamentalism; it's a director retaining his right to shape a classic story in the manner he sees fit. If moviegoers approach "Noah" as the "fantasy epic" Aronofsky billed it to be, they'll understand that aspects like the Watchers -- fallen angels that look like a hybrid between Transformers and Rockbiter from "The NeverEnding Story" -- are not meant to scorn the religious narrative.
2. Speaking of the Watchers, they're pretty ridiculous, but somehow they work.
"This is still a Darren Aronofsky movie, right?" I asked myself when the Watchers made their first appearance. They're towering creatures made of boulders and clearly intended as a crowd-pleaser amid the darkness that envelops the movie. I'd liken them to a displaced "Lord of the Rings" outtake. But these primeval brutes are equal parts goofy and fascinating, just as the Ents were in "The Two Towers." To give the fallen angels wings and frocks would have seemed a pointed effort to thrust the non-biblical approach in our faces, as if Aronofsky wants it known that he can distort religious motifs. Instead, it's overwrought to get lost in the assumption that no such created walked God's early earth, and so we settle back and allow these absurd additions to prance around with their gravelly voices (Nick Nolte, Frank Langella and "Breaking Bad" actor Mark Margolis among them) and unruly demeanor. By the time they're aiding Noah in seeing the ark to completion, I was enamored with their presence.
3. Noah may be heroic, but he's still human.
The Old Testament is nothing short of haunting. It's brimming with destruction, desolation and impressions of a wrathful God. Noah is presented, appropriately, as a lasting bastion of righteousness. Yet why should he be exalted for his heroism in a way that in turn dehumanizes him? Russell Crowe plays Noah as a brooding man, one who's filled with both bitterness and an infinite capacity to adhere to his Creator's commands. In depicting Noah's drunken stupor and avoiding a portrait of obsequious peacekeeper, Aronofsky skips the whitewashed Noah that a more traditional (and less affecting) approach would have employed.
4. And Russell Crowe is pretty good in the role.
Crowe gets into Noah's skin while avoiding a repeat of the repugnant scowl that stank up "Les Misérables" and "Robin Hood." Where you expect a stentorian delivery, Crowe is thoughtful. This Noah is tormented, and -- particularly in the movie's third act, when his devoutness is tested -- he wrestles with some of the same demons that any discerning man or woman of faith should. Crowe is just sensitive enough to make Noah a real person but just domineering enough to shepherd the story's morality.
5. But this is Emma Watson and Jennifer Connelly's show. (Too bad all the other characters are so underdeveloped.)
Watson plays Ila, whom Noah and his three sons and wife adopt as an orphaned child. Ila isn't part of Noah's bloodline, yet she's more essential to the story than any of Noah's offspring, including the one she's in love with (Shem, played by a nondescript Douglas Booth). The movie attempts to make the middle son, Ham (Logan Lerman), the token black sheep of the family, but it's a trite way to enact conflict, and his ultimate fate -- no spoilers -- is inexplicable. So that leaves Watson ample room to shine, and she does, in her best post-Hogwarts performance to date.
Ila is barren, but with the divine help of Noah's grandfather Methuselah (a playful Anthony Hopkins), she and Shem are able to conceive and thereby help to repopulate the world. The turmoil Watson carries through the performance results, in the third act, in an arc so electrifying that even Dumbledore would gawk at the magic she emits. Similarly, Connelly, playing Noah's wife, gets her crowning moment, in which she confronts her husband after he's informed them God has demanded he kill himself and his family as well, including Ila's new baby. These tear-stricken moments give Watson and Connelly a bravado that the movie's male actors don't achieve.
6. The visuals are stunning, but the movie could be weirder.
Aronofsky's indie sensibilities are intact, but sometimes you have to squint to find them. Otherwise, you might mistake "Noah" for apocalypse porn. They're most present via evolution sequences: interludes in which the earth forms and expands before our eyes in a mystical swirl of birth. Like Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life," "Noah" depicts the creation story -- biblical and otherwise -- through the backdrop of nascent landscapes and unripe humanity. But that's about as Aronofskian as the movie gets, since the Watchers feel like they could just as easily hail from a Peter Jackson or -- and I swear I don't mean this as invective -- a Michael Bay effort. The distinctive touches Aronofsky is known for imbuing (the canted camera angles of "Requiem," the unfiltered feel of "The Wrestler," the psychological twilight of "Black Swan") are missing. It's a semi-squandered opportunity for the director to bring his eclecticism to the masses.
7. The third act's tension punches us in the stomach and then hits us over the head with its moral.
Without spoiling what happens with Noah's determination to sacrifice his family so the world can belong to the animals' Eden-like purity, the movie's crescendo is wrenching. It's as much of a CGI-laden spectacle as imaginable, and it works as both a narrative climax and multiplex-friendly grandiosity. The stakes! The drama! It all barrels to a gasp-worthy conclusion, and then, after the action comes to a halt, we're pounded with a conversation designed to exact the moral proclamation we'd already surmised. A ravishing finale is reduced to schmaltz, like the indie-happy Aronofsky expected his biggest-budgeted movie to be too sophisticated for us to gather our own assessments about the denouement's principles. It's patronizing.
8. But, overall, the movie is a success.
Not without its flaws, "Noah" is a valiant effort. It's creative and engrossing, and Aronofsky succeeds in bookending his flat notes with chords of movie magic. There's a sprinkling of a muddy environmentalist message, but it's easy to ignore it if you so choose. The animals are an afterthought in this ark's equation, but the deluge's CGI is cranked up to just the right octave. It's cartoonish enough to remain fantasy but breathtaking enough to be shrouded in terrifying reality. With committed performances and no holier-than-thou overtones, "Noah" is a dreamboat for all sorts of moviegoers -- just as long as you can dismiss some of the murkier storms that precede the rainbow.