I know very little about the Bible. I’m familiar with the books to a degree, and the most famous stories contained within them, but the details are as foreign to me as ancient Aramaic. For example, if you’d asked me who Noah was before I walked into Darren Aronofsky’s new film of the same name, I would have said that he was that guy who built an ark and saved all the animals because God brought about a great flood to destroy mankind, and then given you a blank stare. I could have told you that he had a wife and children, but not what their names might be, and been perfectly unable to provide the type and quality of wood that was used to build the Ark. And don’t even get me started on the subject of geography, because I couldn’t possibly have told you where this entire Biblical catastrophe was supposed to have started. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’m any more informed now than I was before seeing this movie.
Turns out, my copious ignorance of the Bible was a blessing in disguise: I walked into “Noah” unencumbered by religious disapprobation and the chatterings of our interwebs — all that fearing and fretting about how Aronofsky, a professed Atheist, would almost certainly destroy the inspired word of God — and walked out thinking I’d watched a damned fine epic. How much of the story is true and just to the Book of Genesis, you won’t discover here. But, strictly from my secular vantage point, Aronofsky has managed to create a fantastical adventure, full of magic and mysticism and a little bit of profundity, while remaining remarkably sensitive to the staunchest of believers; a movie universal enough for us without religion, but proudly deferential to its Biblical source material. I can’t imagine even the most hardened Evangelical getting themselves in a tizzy over Aronofsky’s robust creativity, a notion solidified by the movies $40 million dollar opening box office weekend.
Because “Noah” tends to throw not only the kitchen sink but the entire damned house at its story, I can’t get too detailed here. We get a brief opening recap of the brothers Cain, Abel and Seth, before flash forwarding twice to Seth’s descendant Noah as an adult Russell Crowe, now a husband and father to three boys. Noah’s prophesy to build the Ark and save all the animals on earth comes courtesy of several apocalyptic visions; an encounter with the merciless king Tubal-Cain’s (Ray Winstone) vicious army, during which the family rescues the wounded orphan girl, Ila; and a seed provided by Noah’s father, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) that, when planted, grows into a vast forest of sustainable wood (you can’t escape the movie’s eco-friendly message). Eight years and loads of elbow-grease later from Noah and his extended family, the Ark is ready and so are the movie’s central conflicts.
I have to admit there’s more than a bit of silliness in the moments when Noah realizes his destiny is to save all of God’s non-human creatures, largely because the dialogue is so pedestrian that no actor on the planet could possibly save it. But the silliness is erased as the animals start to come out of the woodwork (literally), two by two, and the sky darkens into thick roiling thunderheads. The storm, when it comes, is a masterpiece of special effects, with buckets of rain, geysers of water exploding from the earth, and a simultaneous attack by Tubal-Cain and his army, who hope to commandeer a ride to salvation on the ark. Noah is helped to fulfill his Biblical prophesy by the Watchers, fallen angels punished by God to roam the earth as giant piles of rocks. Fortunately for Noah, the Watchers are as equally adept at cutting down trees as they are at swinging them into oncoming hordes of Tubal-Cain’s men.
Much of the film’s emotional center happens after the ark has leveled out on the sea and the search for land begins. In a pre-flood sequence, Ila (Emma Watson, proving her range beyond Hermione Granger), now a teenager in love with Noah’s son, Shem, has her barrenness cured by Methuselah, and announces on the high seas that she’s pregnant. Noah must make a tough choice: if the child is a girl, she will be killed because Noah made a promise to God to help rid the earth of man’s wicked ways. He prays to God for assistance, but receives no reply, and so is left to make the decision on his own. Noah’s middle son, Ham, decent and kind, must also make a choice that involves the injured stowaway Tubal-Cain, his father, and the bitter sting of having lost his first love. How these threads tie together as the matriarch, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly, very good in a thankless role), does her best to keep a lid on everyone’s sanity is surprisingly touching and satisfying in the wake of the movie’s special effects extravaganza. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this movie.
Russell Crowe has had a tough few years playing largely supporting roles in mediocre movies, but here reminds us again what a terrific actor can be. He has a tough job balancing the action hero who takes on Tubal-Cain’s army against the caring father engaged in a battle for the lives of his wife and son. And the moments when his faith is shaken are quietly powerful. As good as Crowe, Watson, and Connelly are, they’re matched in equal measure by Logan Lerman and Douglas Booth as Ham and Shem, respectively. Here are two young men who look like they stepped off the pages of GQ magazine, but show remarkable depth and clarity to their characters, revealing deep gifts as actors. If their work in “Noah” is any indication of their talent, Lerman and Booth have great things to look forward to.