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Film review: ‘Noah’ is an ambitious, exciting adaptation

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Russell Crowe is about as intense a Noah as you could want in Darren Aronofsky’s thrilling adaptation of the Bible story.

Three and a half stars

Noah Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Rated PG-13.

If somehow a viewer were to come to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah having never read or even heard of the Bible, they probably wouldn’t notice much difference between Noah and other recent mythology-based blockbusters, whether the mythology they’re adapting is from ancient Greece or J.R.R. Tolkien. Of course, Aronofsky would never actually be able to escape the cultural baggage of the story, and the Bible’s central role in our culture is part of why he was interested in making the movie in the first place. But Noah is very much about the filmmaker bringing his own interpretation to the story, just as any great artist should when adapting a familiar tale.

Aronofsky’s interpretation is remarkably bleak, at least up until the very end of the movie. His Noah (Russell Crowe) is a grim, humorless man who lives apart from the corrupt society about to inspire God’s wrath. Instead, Noah, his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and their three sons live an ascetic, nomadic existence, taking only what they need from nature, eating a vegetarian diet and looking with scorn on the excesses of the descendants of Cain. When Noah receives a vision from God (there are no booming voices from the sky in this movie) that humanity will be wiped out by a giant flood, he embraces the coming apocalypse, not only because it’s what he believes God wants of him, but also because he seems to have nothing but contempt for his fellow man (and, in many cases, even for himself).

The first half of the movie is an apocalyptic action blockbuster, as Noah fights the forces of sneering villain Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) and enlists the help of the Watchers, a race of fallen angels trapped on Earth as giant rock creatures. It’s a more somber, thoughtful version of something like Clash of the Titans, with Crowe anchoring the fantastical ideas by giving Noah a genuine anguish even as he’s commanding a legion of giant rock creatures. Noah sets himself apart from humanity so resolutely that even his own family comes to resent him; eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth) wants to start a family with Ila (Emma Watson), but Noah is determined that humanity will die out with Shem’s generation. And middle son Ham (Logan Lerman) is seduced by Tubal-Cain’s promises of strength and power, and jealous that Noah denies him the chance to find the companionship that his brother is allowed.

All of this culminates in a magnificent battle scene as both the skies and the ground open up with floodwaters, and Aronofsky delivers large-scale spectacle as well as any other major filmmaker. The film shifts gears in its second half, with Noah and his family isolated together on the giant ark he has built to survive the flood, filled with beasts meant to repopulate the Earth. There Noah’s anguish and contempt for humanity grow, and Crowe delivers those emotions with quiet power. It’s a bit of a jarring shift from the sweeping first half, and Aronofsky struggles a bit to integrate his multifaceted approach to the material. He also struggles to bring Noah around to a relatively happy, uplifting ending, one that expresses optimism for humanity’s future after so much relentless pessimism.

At the same time, Noah is a powerful, singular vision, and one that coheres better than Aronofsky’s last attempt at a mystical epic, 2006’s The Fountain. It has moments of visual grandeur to rival any effects-driven tent-pole, from a forest magically sprouting up around Noah to give him wood to build his vessel, to the hordes of animals rushing toward the ark, guided by a divine hand. And its quieter moments are often just as beautiful; a sequence in which Noah retells the story of creation, illustrated as a series of time-lapse images, recalls the most breathtaking images from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

In the end, Aronofsky comes around to a bit of reverence for the source material, which is somewhat disappointing given his radical departures in the rest of the movie. Noah can’t quite shake the sense of being at odds with itself, a movie that wants to reject overt religiosity (the word “God” is never mentioned; instead characters refer only to “the creator”) but also glorify humanity’s relationship to the divine. Even if not everything about the film succeeds, it still has more ambition and unique artistry than pretty much any so-called “faith-based” film, and that’s something to value in the adaptation of any kind of treasured source material, wherever it may come from.

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