The information supplied about Noah in the Book of Genesis is scant -- barely enough for a Hollywood pitch meeting, much less a feature film -- but his story is among the strangest and scariest in the Hebrew Bible. At its center is what appears to be an unnerving example of divine self-doubt. Disgusted with his creation, God decides to wipe the slate clean and start again, only to relent and allow Noah, a 500-something-year-old father of three, to save his family and a boatload of animals.
Many versions of the tale -- including that Sunday-school and summer camp song that has been stuck in my head for decades -- emphasize the happy outcome: the rainbow, the dove, the cute paired-off beasts, the repopulation of the flood-cleansed Earth. But Darren Aronofsky, in his ambitious fusion of Old Testament awe with modern blockbuster spectacle, dwells on the dark and troubling implications of Noah’s experience. "Noah," Aronofsky’s earnest, uneven, intermittently powerful film, is both a psychological case study and a parable of hubris and humility. At its best, it shares some its namesake’s ferocious conviction, and not a little of his madness.
Through five features, from "Pi" to "Black Swan," Aronofsky has refined his taste for extremity and his mastery of a queasy, feverish camera style. He specializes in intimate portraits of people whose sense of reality is coming undone, and Noah, played with rabid gloominess by Russell Crowe, is no exception. The difference between him and Aronofsky’s earlier protagonists is that Noah’s mental equilibrium is bound up with the fate of humanity, and that his actions may have a lesson to teach us.
But even though the scale of this film -- the size of its budget and the breadth of its themes -- is larger than anything this director has attempted before, "Noah" is less an epic than a horror movie. There are some big, noisy battle scenes and some whiz-bang computer-generated images, but the dominant moods are claustrophobia and incipient panic. The most potent special effects are Crowe’s eyes and the swelling, discordant strains of Clint Mansell’s score. Once the waters have covered the Earth and the ark is afloat, a clammy fear sets in, for both the audience and the members of Noah’s family: We’re stuck on a boat full of snakes, rats and insects, and Dad’s gone crazy.
Noah’s instability -- he walks up to the boundary that separates faith from fanaticism, and then leaps across it -- is not, strictly speaking, in the source material, and I will hardly be the first or last to note that Aronofsky, who wrote the screenplay with Ari Handel, has taken some liberties with the text. For example, while the Bible does note that "there were giants in those days," it does not specify that they were six-armed stone colossi with the voices of Nick Nolte and Frank Langella. These figures, known as watchers, are cousins of Peter Jackson’s Ents and Michael Bay’s Transformers, and part of a vividly, if not always coherently imagined, pre-diluvian reality.
The earlier chapters of Genesis (the snake, the forbidden fruit) are rendered as brightly hued hallucinations, but the post-Edenic world is a blasted, desolate, shadeless landscape from which Aronofsky and his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, have drained every warm and living color. (That is, until the CGI trees sprout from a magic seed to supply building materials for the ark.)
"Noah" is occasionally clumsy, ridiculous and unconvincing, but it is almost never dull, and very little of it has the careful, by-the-numbers quality that characterizes big-studio action-fantasy entertainment. The riskiest thing about this movie is its sincerity: Aronofsky, while not exactly pious, takes the narrative and its implications seriously. He tries not only to explore what the story of the flood might mean in the present age of environmental anxiety and apocalyptic religion, but also, more radically, to imagine what it might have felt like to live in a newly created, already-ruined world, and to scan the skies for clues about what its creator might be thinking.