(I preface this review by admitting I have only an elementary knowledge of the Biblical tale of Noah and his ark. My primary concern is not with how literal, inaccurate, religious, or blasphemous the new Noah is, but solely with how strong or weak a movie I felt it to be.)
There is a long history of religious movies, dating nearly a hundred years. And for nearly as long as there have been religious movies, there have been movies that tackle religion controversially, from The Last Temptation of Christ and Water to Monty Python’s The Life of Brian and Dogma. Noah, directed by the polarizing Darren Aronofsky, seems destined to join such lightning rods, though the liberties it takes in its adaptation threaten to alienate it from both the religious and the secular.
Noah, played by Russell Crowe in full-beard mode, receives wordless messages from God – rain falling from a clear sky, dreams of being submerged in water – that tell him a great flood is coming to cleanse mankind from the Earth and that he is to save the innocent (animals), leading him to build a massive ark in which to house two of every creature.
All of this will be familiar to any moviegoer who’s so much as heard the name of Noah. Fewer, though, will have envisioned the ark as a giant cargo container, Noah as a good man driven to near madness, or fallen angels that resemble rock monsters.
Aronofsky is the director responsible for the disturbing and provocative Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Black Swan, so it shouldn’t surprise that Noah is such a bold take on the Biblical tale. Unfortunately, both Noah’s Biblically accurate parts and its radically different takes on the material fail to work for much of the time.
From a narrative standpoint, Noah is a movie told in two halves. The first hour or so deals with Noah discovering his chosen destiny and constructing his ark. Doing so angers the wicked King Tubel-cain (Ray Winstone), who concurrently builds an army to overtake the ark and save himself from God’s flood.
Halfway through, the film turns into an action epic, kick-started by a massive battle between Tubel-cain’s followers and Noah’s protectors. As the second half continues, depicting Noah’s continued trials as the ark’s captain and shepherd, Aronofsky turns Noah into a look at the thin line between righteous faith and zealous madness.
Despite a strong turn from Crowe, too much of Noah just doesn’t click. The film doesn’t feel like a cohesive whole and even its individual scenes often fail to connect with the either audience or its own story. The visual effects are impressive and several shots are truly awe-inspiring, but much of the rest of the movie adds nothing and even negates some of the good will the movie’s effective moments earn.
Noah’s ultimate problem is that by trying to have something for everyone, it actually ostracises both of its main audiences. Much of the movie’s plot and character alterations will offend those who view The Old Testament as sacred, while many of the overtly spiritual and ecclesiastical scenes will seem hokey and mawkish to those who don’t know their Abel from their Abraham. Perhaps the people who should most be offended, though, are simply those who expected better from the envelope-pushing Aronofsky.