‘Noah’ movie review: Russell Crowe is the biblical builder in Aronofsky epic

Woah! A fever-dream spectacle brimming with outré imagination, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah takes the story of the Ark and goes nuts with it – it’s the Old Testament for the Transformers generation, and an endlessly fascinating journey into the mind of madness – both the mind of Russell Crowe’s Noah, and the mind of the filmmaker who carries his weight. This isn’t a stodgy Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic – this is crazy stuff, delivered with the flair and passion and unrelenting vision that will make it a topic of heated discussion no matter what your take.  

Any big-budget, star-studded adaptation of this story is bound to stir controversy (the film has already been banned in Middle-Eastern countries for its depiction of a prophet, and the usual Glenn Beck conservative right has attacked it sight unseen in the US), but the director has taken the material so far off the deep end that the point becomes moot; historical accuracy and theological faithfulness get thrown out the window in Aronofsky’s vision, which is so strange and surreal it may well be taking place at some other time, on some other planet.

Still, the thematic core is retained; religious leaders who have seen the film have praised it and urged their congregations to see it. That’s the director’s greatest accomplishment here: religious yet spiritual, pro-faith and pro-Earth, it has appeal to both Christians and atheists and all other faiths and mindsets (except, of course, those who will outright reject the film’s strong environmental stance).

But studio Paramount – which gave Aronofsky $125 million to make the film, a spiritual successor to his notoriously underperforming The Fountain (which cost a mere $35 million in comparison) – must be shaking in their boots. Promotional material for the film has been restrained to the point of actively hiding the film’s more fantastic elements. 

But that’s all for naught within the first few minutes of Noah, as the lead character, scavenging with his children through a desert landscape, mercilessly disposes of three bandit-hunters and comes to the aid of a feathered dog-like creature that looks like he was borrowed from the set of Riddick. This ain’t ancient Mesopotamia; it’s post-apocalyptic Mad Max territory. 

The dog – and all of Noah’s many creatures, who in short order embark to the Ark in pairs – are vaguely similar to actual animals, but also slightly altered; they’re all mythological beings intended to heighten the film’s fantasy world, but real enough to maintain a connection to ours. They’re also all realized via cartoonish, sometimes substandard CGI – one of the film’s real weaknesses is whenever we see a cartoon Roger Rabbit-like creature grace the screen. 

But other “animated” sequences, like the opening prologue and a stunning creation of life sequence that employs stop-motion-like effects and evokes memories of Terence Malick’s Tree of Life (and seamlessly inserts evolution (!) into this biblical story), are beautifully done. There’s an imagination here that’s lacking in the CGI creature effects.

But the animals aren’t the most fantastic thing about Noah – in the opening prologue, we’re introduced to “The Watchers,” angel-like beings who came down to Earth and were entombed in stone by The Creator (the word “God”, by the way, is never uttered in the film). Reminiscent of The Neverending Story’s Rock Biter and voiced by Nick Nolte and Frank Langella, these rock monsters help Noah and family build the Ark and fight off waves of humans who attempt to board when the rains come. 

Russell Crowe’s Noah isn’t into helping his fellow man; described by Aronofsky as “the first-ever environmentalist”, Noah doesn’t just want to save the creatures – he wants to ensure that mankind, who has poisoned the planet with their evil ways, is wiped off the planet. His interpretation of The Creator’s words just might be deemed as extreme, and the screenplay (by Aronofsky and Ari Handel) carefully tows the line; is Noah good? Is he right?

Noah eventually goes nutso by way of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, dogmatically following the perceived word of The Creator such an extent that it will mean the end of man – including his own family; by the climax, he’s threatening to kill his newborn grandchildren in order to carry out the intended task. 

This deranged adherence to The Plan, to save the innocent and punish the wicked, is the driving force of the first half-plus of the film, and it’s something quite unlike we’ve ever seen: humans are the mindless zombies as they attack the Ark, and Noah shows no mercy to them or to mankind. 

And his own family? How far will he go? The script does a wonderful job of pushing our buttons and letting us decide whether to side with this homicidal madman based on his own communication with an imaginary God; during one scene, Noah asks the heavens for advice, and after staring up at a clear sky, returns with a murderous glint in his eyes. 

Only the film’s final act – ironically, perhaps, the closest in content to the Biblical version – disappoints; the addition of mercy into this story is something that, while entirely expected, doesn’t quite jive with all the madness that has preceded it.

Crowe is terrific in the lead; it’s easily one of the actor’s best performances since A Beautiful Mind. Jennifer Connolly has little to do as wife Naameh; Logan Lerman (as son Ham) and Emma Watson (as adopted daughter Ila) fare a bit better in more significant roles. Ray Winstone’s human king Tubal-Cain is reduced to a one-dimensional villain, while Anthony Hopkins has fun in his too-brief scenes as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah. 

The pervading thought may be to treat Noah as a revisionist fairy tale in the mold of Jack the Giant Slayer, but this crazed vision is something else entirely: Ark-building rock monsters, a murderous ass-kicking Noah, and a tangible wrath of God vibe that’ll send chills down your spine, this outrageous – and courageous – take on biblical mythology is certainly something.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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