Recalling the glossy biblical epics of yesteryear like “The Ten Commandments” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and comparing them to Darren Aronofsky’s new movie, “Noah,” would be like test-driving a ‘74 Chevy and then hopping in a Tesla. Really, there is no comparison with this new modern take on the old Biblical tale of the great flood.
Beginning with the film’s stark realism involving bloody battles and graphic scenes of human degradation, there are many signals that this will not be the simple telling of a man who fashioned a giant boat together and boarded animals two by two. This Noah, played with much gravitas by Russell Crowe, is a peaceful man of faith leading a simple agrarian life who suddenly finds himself with a very heavy burden. After having a vision of seeing a flower spring from a drop of water followed by a nightmare of an endless angry sea, Noah realizes his creator is fed up with mankind’s wicked, selfish ways and is sending a great flood to destroy everyone, sparing all other innocent living creatures. Throughout the film, Aronofsky explores the timeless themes of pride, sin, good, evil, love and forgiveness as Noah grapples with his great responsibility, sometimes failing himself and his family. Nowhere is this more evident than when the flood overtakes the land. Huge geysers of water burst from the ground, launching the ark in a roiling ocean. As Noah and his family huddle inside, they can find no solace from the tortured screams of the many drowning outside. When one of his children implores Noah to save them, he stoically replies, “We have no room,” firm in his conviction he cannot intervene in his creator’s intent.
The distinctive look of the film comes mostly from some of the most intricate computer work ever done by Industrial Light and Magic. It is massive in scale, and in one of the film’s most visually stunning sequences, Noah finds the forest he will need for wood to build the ark by planting a seed from the Garden of Eden given to him by his grandfather, Methuselah (a wizened and wily Anthony Hopkins). An overhead shot pans back to reveal a forest of trees springing up from a rocky barren tundra (filmed in Iceland) and stretching out into an endless sea of green as the sound of branches snapping and rustling crescendos around the clearing where Noah and his family have camped.
To the massive ark that takes Noah years to build, Aronofsky depicts the animals coming on their own and passively taking their places inside where Noah gently puts them to sleep for the duration with a potent incense. Interestingly enough, no actual animals were used in the film. Each is a modified CGI rendering of what Aronofsky believes animals from that period would resemble.
As Naameh, Noah’s long-suffering wife, Jennifer Connelly rises to the task, despite the wincing dialog — one of the movie’s weakest facets, along with some “Mad Max”- inspired costumes that look like Flax rejects. As much as she can be for those times, Naameh is an equal to Noah. While implicitly submissive, she still challenges him often and speaks her mind, as do his sons played by Logan Lerman and Douglas Booth.
For the explicitness, particularly in scenes where mankind’s wickedness is depicted in cannibalistic, orgiastic behavior, this movie will stand apart. This is an old story told in a new way. And there is a sense that Aronofsky has crafted a 21st century cautionary tale not only for us, but for our environment as well. There are frequent references to this throughout the film mostly embodied by an evil king (Ray Winstone), who represents all that is wrong with mankind. In addition to his prideful, hedonistic ways, for centuries, he mindlessly continues to rape the land for the precious abundant jewels that lie just underneath — an ancient version of strip mining. In stark contrast, Noah teaches his children not to take anything from the earth they cannot use, not even the small flower his youngest son, taken by its beauty, impulsively plucks from a shrub.
It’s clear that Aronofsky, with his own highly individual expression, has sought to honor one of the Bible’s most fabled stories. He spares nothing in the retelling. It is gritty and raw — and somewhat flawed. But it is grand and exhilarating — a sensory, visceral experience that is a new kind of biblical epic, and one that resonates for our times.