04/01/2014 12:39 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2014

Zaki's Review: Noah

One thing you can't say about Noah, the big budget reimagining of the biblical flood fable (starring Russell Crowe as the titular boat builder) is that it lacks in ambition. The long-held passion project for director Darren Aronofsky, upon which Paramount lavished a cool $125 mil in production costs, has been in development since at least '07, but he's been nurturing the core concept going all the way back to his teen years. So while it's chock full of big ideas and big spectacle, I guess it's not too surprising that it also feels like exactly the kind of jumbled deluge of ideas and images you'd expect to emerge after so many years bouncing around the back of his cerebrum.

Now, the framework of this story is familiar to most folks irrespective of how much time they spent in Sunday school during their formative years (or which -- if any -- religious belief they subscribe to), so I'm not sure how in-depth I need to go on that. The gist: man receives divine visions of impending flood, builds giant boat to save the animals and the righteous. It starts raining. The end. What really distinguishes this telling, then, is how it's been uprooted it from its Old Testament underpinnings. Eschewing any attempt at "truth" or "accuracy" (however ill-suited those terms might be to the subject matter), Aronofsky treats this oldest of parables no differently than something like, say, The Lord of the Rings.

While I can see how that approach is enough to court controversy (then again, it's not like you need to tackle a beloved Bible story for that, just ask the producers of the Fantastic Four reboot), I actually think that's the film's most appealing trait. As a Muslim, I found that looking at Noah as a straight fantasy flick (even the production design makes clear that this is a story that exists outside of time) made it easier to disconnect my own perceptions. Per the movie, following the expulsion from Eden and Cain's murder of Abel, the world has come to be populated by the descendants of Cain, who've wreaked much destruction and ruin in their wake. It's thus fallen to the few scions of Seth, third son of Adam, to preserve the will of God (referred to throughout only as the Creator), who has seemingly abandoned this realm.

This is where we join Noah, one of Seth's last descendants, first as a boy who watches his father murdered in front of him by the evil Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), then jumping ahead to his middle age (and then his slightly older middle age). Beset by cryptic images of the coming flood, he recruits his family (with Aronofsky regular Jennifer Connolly playing long-suffering wife Naameh) as well as some misshapen, rock-encrusted creatures called Watchers (trust me, it makes slightly more sense in context) to aid him in constructing the ark tasked with preserving the future. Of course, folks soon start noticing all those animals two-and-two heading in one direction, and before long Noah is confronted Tubal-cain once again, along with his army of heathens, all demanding entry onto the big boat, with much CGI-laden fighting ensuing.

Most of the building and battling actually works pretty well (though I unconsciously kept waiting for Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn to show up). Aronofsky brings his usual painterly panache to the proceedings, and Crowe (marking his second recent turn as a man predicting the end of the world) does a nice job bouncing between stolid, kind, resolute, and totally cray cray. In fact, it's only when the flood has commenced and the boat is adrift that the plot starts to runs aground. As they wait out the end of the storms, Noah's divine fervor sends him on a heel turn that alienates his family, including son Shem (Douglas Booth) and stepdaughter Ila (Emma Watson), but none more than middle son Ham (Logan Lerman) who'd really hoped his dad would have found a wife for him before settling in for an open-ended ocean cruise).

While that particular plotline actually has a pretty effective pay-off, the build-up is downright torturous, stretching both credulity and our sustaining interest to near-breaking thanks to poor pacing and logic problems. Still, at a relatively breezy 138 minutes (relative as compared to bladder-busting biblical epics like DeMille's The Ten Commandments), Noah doesn't really have time to get bogged down in its own self-importance even as it brings up some pretty thought-provoking questions about the nature of, well, nature. Just to be clear, anyone seeking the "real" version of this story (if such a thing is even possible) should probably keep right on looking, but Noah is a worthy, ambitious mess of a movie, and as a deeply personal new take on an old tale, it's the kind of mess we could use a bit more often from Hollwood. B+