Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky specializes in movies about people driven to extremes — by drug addiction (Requiem for a Dream), by the quest for glory (The Wrestler), by madness (Black Swan). In Noah, God Himself is the force driving the hero (Russell Crowe) to build an enormous ark big enough to hold members of every species of animal on the planet. Man has grown evil and greedy and lazy and unworthy, and God has decided to reboot, leaving only Noah and his family as survivors. When they die, so will all of humankind, and the innocents will inherit the Earth.
This would seem to be odd material for a movie, leaving little room for suspense or ingenuity. The biblical story of the flood is common to many of the world’s religions in one form or another, and although God doesn’t utter a peep in the film (He communicates with Noah through dreams), the movie could be interpreted as a story of faith as easily as it could be a fairy tale. Throw in some fallen angels (or Nephilim) that have taken the form of giant rock monsters with an unfortunate resemblance to prehistoric Transformers, and the movie starts to seem more like a summer blockbuster than a Sunday school lesson. The Passion of the Christ, this is not.
And yet Aronofsky, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ari Handel and is working on his largest canvas to date, manages to sneak enough difficult questions about following God’s will blindly and the selfish nature of man to give Noah enough heft to go along with the giant spectacle. As played by Crowe in his kind-brute Gladiator mode, Noah is a man who will not question his master’s orders, no matter how difficult or illogical they may seem. This doesn’t always sit well with his wife (Jennifer Connelly) or son (Logan Lerman) or their adopted daughter (Emma Watson). But Noah, like most men possessed by what they believe to be right and true, doesn’t think or question: He simply does as he is told. This is expected for the first half of the movie, during the building of the Ark and the amassing of the animals, which are spectacularly created by dazzling CGI.
But Noah’s faith is tested as deeply as Abraham’s in the second half of the movie, when Aronofsky throws some wrinkles into the story that, while not part of any known theology, deepen the film’s exploration of the relationship between God and man and the lengths to which true believers are sometimes forced to go in the name of their deity. Even though everyone knows how the story ends, Noah is unexpectedly exciting and emotional, and Aronofsky, always a great stylist, constantly does things with the camera that keep the movie visually entrancing (like giving you a point-of-view shot of the first raindrop falling high from the heavens down onto Noah’s face).
Will Noah anger some rigid purists and scholars because of the liberties it takes? Perhaps. But the point to take home is the message the movie leaves you with, which works regardless of your faith (or lack thereof). Humans are inherently flawed. How we deal with those defects is what truly matters.