What to make of Darren Aronofsky's "Noah"? Perhaps that's the wrong question. Indeed, what NOT to make of "Noah"? Because it is so many things.
It is, of course, a biblical blockbuster, a 21st-century answer to Cecil B. DeMille. It's also a disaster movie - the original disaster, you might say. It's an intense family drama. Part sci-fi film. An action flick? Definitely, along the lines of "The Lord of the Rings." At times you might also think of "Transformers," and at one point, even "The Shining."
But there's one thing "Noah" is not, for a moment: Dull. So, what to make of "Noah"? It's a movie that, with all its occasional excess, is utterly worth your time - 138 minutes of it.
Although the real star of the film is its visual ingenuity, particularly in a few stunning sequences, one must give ample credit to Russell Crowe, who lends Noah the moral heft and groundedness we need to believe everything that ends up happening to him. Noah's near-descent into madness would not be nearly as effective had Crowe not already convinced us of his essential decency. At the same time, the actor is believable when pondering the most heinous crime imaginable. It's one of Crowe's more effective performances.
It wouldn't have been possible, though, without considerable liberties taken by Aronofsky and his co-screenwriter, Ari Handel, in framing Noah's story. There's been controversy here, but if you glance at the Bible, you'll see why liberties are necessary: the story takes up only a few passages, hardly enough for a feature-length script.
And yet, it's one of the best-known tales in the Bible, if most of us only remember the children's version, with visions of brightly painted animals standing two-by-two on the ark. But there's a much more serious backdrop: Man's wickedness, and God's desire to purge the earth of that wickedness. Aronofsky dives headlong into this story of good vs. evil, not only between men, but within one man's soul.
We meet Noah and his family as they're attempting to live peacefully off the land, and ward off the greedy, violent descendants of Cain. Noah has three sons and a wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly, genuine and appealing). Along the way they pick up Ila, an injured young girl who will grow to love Noah's son Shem (an invented character, played with sensitivity by Emma Watson.)
Noah visits his grandfather, Methuselah, embodied with scene-stealing vigor by Anthony Hopkins. The old man - and by the way, this is relative, because Noah himself is already over 500 years old, according to the Bible - helps him induce a hallucination, which brings a vision. The Creator will destroy the Earth in a great flood. Noah's job, of course, is to build that great ark, and get out of Dixie.
It's a monumental task, but Noah has help: the Watchers, huge, lumbering creatures made of rock, who, for Aronofsky, represent the biblical Nephilim. Are they angels, giants or men? Interpretation varies.
But it is here that the movie courts ridicule. These creatures look a little too much like Transformers, and detract from the mystical feel of the film. A giggle is surely not what the director was going for here, but he may get a few.
But that ark? It's a wondrous thing - constructed on a Long Island field, according to measurements specified in Genesis, and finished up digitally.
Also stunning: the flood itself, more chilling than any you've seen in a disaster flick. It's also rather magical to watch the animals arrive, two by two (and by virtue of CGI) at the ark.
But for sheer cinematic beauty, it's hard to beat the dreamlike sequence in which Aronofsky illustrates the story of creation, as recounted by Noah. At this moment, you may well forgive any excesses in the film. Like his flawed hero, Aronofsky has a vision - a cinematic one - and the results, if not perfect, are pretty darned compelling.
"Noah," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content." Running time: 138 minutes. Three stars out of four.