There's a sequence in director and co-writer (with Ari Handel) Darren Aronofsky's Noah in which the title character (Russell Crowe) is relaying to one of his children the story of creation, pretty much word for word right as we know it from the Bible—six days, ending in the creation of man and woman. But the visuals that accompany this telling are what makes the sequence so magnificent, and in many ways, best explain Aronofsky's take of his version of NOAH, his ark, the great flood, and the restart that humanity and civilization got as a result of said event.
What we see when being told the creationism version of life on Earth is actually the scientific version, including evolution—a creature crawls up out of the water, stands upright and takes on human qualities. It's all shown in an accelerated manner, but there's no doubt that Aronofsky isn't so much placating both sides of the discussion; he's attempting to find a way to see if both versions would exist in the same universe. It's as if he's saying, "Let's assume all of these events happened as written in the Bible. How would that be possible?" In some cases, the answer is simply, "It isn't." But in other cases, he attempts to find ways in which religious mysticism and hard fact work together to create circumstances and beings that might be easier to accept.
Aronofsky (BLACK SWAN, THE WRESTLER, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM) isn't dismissing the possibility that a divine hand (known as "the creator"; the word God is never spoken in the film) was at work in Noah's time, but he also wonders if hearing voices and receiving visions might have been a little less of a direct line from the creator and a little more wishful thinking on Noah's part. It's a fascinating and ambitious approach in this biblical work from one of modern cinema's true visionaries.
A few early reviews have poked fun at the rock giants known as Watchers that assist Noah in building his ark and protect him from King Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone); they seem to be right out of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but in fact Watchers (said to be fallen angels who merged with the earth as a punishment from God for wanting to live among humans) were featured in the Dead Sea Scrolls (minus the stony skin), and having them as part of this story make a degree of sense since there's no way Noah and his family could have carried the massive logs to build the ark on their own. Sometimes being practical also amounts to good storytelling. I'm not saying it's believable; I just like the thinking behind it.
Crowe is especially good playing a man who is psychologically tormented on many levels. He believes he possesses knowledge about the world's end, and that weighs heavy on him. But he also thinks that he and his family will die when all is said and done (the creator wasn't real clear on that point), which seems to make sense since his oldest son Shem (Douglas Booth) is in love with Noah's adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), who is barren; and his other two sons are either too young or simply don't have women in their lives to make procreation possible. Logan Lerman plays the middle son, Ham, and he's just beginning to have slightly uncontrollable feelings about many things, including women, so much so that he openly defies his father more than once.
Attempting to hold the family together is Noah's wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), who must balance her husband's plan with her belief that the creator wants them to live and perhaps even multiply. As we already know from A BEAUTIFUL MIND, Crowe and Connelly form an interesting dynamic on screen. Noah is a strange combination of stoic and full-bore passion, while she is the grounding force in his life that allows him not to be consumed by this all-consuming task. Pitting Noah against Tubal-cain's army seems a bit too on the nose (apparently the king killed Noah's father before his eyes when Noah was a young boy), and a final battle between the two men borders on silly. But too much about Noah's conflicted nature works to quibble over an unnecessary fight.
I've somehow made it this far in the review without mentioning animals. What's perhaps most remarkable about NOAH are the subtle ways special effects are used in ways I've never seen. The waves of paired animals that come to the ark makes for astonishing visuals, especially when the snakes, lizards and amphibians make their way through the woods surrounding it. That scene actually made me want to lift my feet off the ground for fear of feeling those creatures slide by them, and this isn't even in 3-D.
Tossed in almost more for humor and a touch of winking magic is Anthony Hopkins as Noah's grandfather Methuselah (that casting is almost too easy), but I won't lie, I loved seeing his interplay with his great grandchildren and how he turns a simple desire to taste berries again into some of the more important miracles on display in the film. And speaking of creaky older men, if you listen carefully, you'll hear the voice of Nick Nolte as the lead Watcher, Samyaza; I'm guessing no audio tricks were needed to make his voice sound extra gravelly.
I was told recently by the producer of another Bible-based film that when you stray from the gospel's dialogue, people get angry. And that may be true of the most devout believers. But it's difficult to imagine anyone taking issue with this version of Noah's story. It's faithful in spirit and often text to the source material, and the alterations and additional material are all in spiritual alignment with the Bible. Noah certainly isn't trying to strip away at a believer's faith—far from it. This is the story of a man of faith who was willing to sacrifice everything to adhere to what he believed were his creator's wishes.
NOAH works as both a sweeping testament to spiritual belief and a strong fantasy adventure story with religious undertones. The emphasis will depend on what an audience member brings into the theater with them, but it's all there, in all its power and glory. It saddens me to think that some believers and non-believers will dismiss the film for their respective reason, because this is truly a film that bows to neither side but should still satisfy all. See it because Aronofsky rarely disappoints, and this film is damn near a masterpiece.