Sadly, we will never see the definitive version of the story of Noah’s Ark as envisioned by Eddie Izzard (starring James Mason as God with Sean Connery as Noah), so we’ll have to make do with Darren Aronofsky’s take on possibly the most famous Old Testament fable.
With ‘Biblical Accuracy’ being something of an oxymoron, Aronofsky neatly sidesteps the whole issue by taking the key aspects of the legend and restaging them as mythology by way of Tolkein-esque fantasy with a strong and topical environmental undercurrent. He also borrows the Bible’s structure of two separate testaments by presenting the story of “Noah” (and it is, very much, the story of Noah, not his ark) in two distinct episodes, with the flood providing the…ahem…watershed.
The first half is a superbly mounted disaster movie, beginning in a paradoxically post-apocalyptic pre-apocalypse. Quickly and effectively covering the first ten generations of humankind from Eden to the wastelands of the despoiled Earth, we briefly see Noah witness his father’s murder at the hands of the young king Tubal-Cain before we flash forward to Noah (Russell Crowe), his wife (Jennifer Connolly) and three sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) eking out a living in the wilderness. Following prophetic visions from ‘The Creator’ – there is no mention of the G-word in the film – Noah sets off to consult with his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Along the way, they encounter the petrified rock forms of fallen angels, The Watchers, and rescue Ila, a little girl orphaned by a vicious attack by Tubal-Cain’s increasingly aggressive forces.
With his destiny clear to him, Noah bends his efforts and those of his family and Watcher allies to constructing the ark over the next eight years. As the beasts and birds arrive, they are put into hibernation by some narrative handwaving ‘special incense’ but when Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) arrives and threatens to take the Ark by force, Noah knows his time is short. Shem has grown up and paired with Ila (Emma Watson) but the family has no wives for Ham and Japheth. Before they can find wives for their sons, Tubal-Cain and his army attack and the Creator unleashes the flood.
With a wardrobe straight out of Mad Max’s Outerwear collection and an attitude that reminds you we’re watching a time pre-commandments, this is a Noah whose single tenet seems to be thou shalt kick ass, with extreme prejudice. In expanding the story of Noah to movie length, Aronofsky has been obliged to flesh out a lot of the details, creating characters and storylines which extrapolate from and beyond the four short bible verses that cover the event. We get expanded roles for Noah and Shem’s wives plus a nemesis for Noah to repeatedly confront. Ham and Japheth’s wives are removed from the story to provide more conflict within the confines of the ark, as the film turns from disaster epic to dark, overwrought family melodrama, a transition that’s a little bit jarring and bogs the latter half of the film down after a powerful first hour. We’re even given a chilling sequence where Noah and his family sit solemnly in the ark while the screams of the dying gradually fade to silence outside.
The film generally tries to avoid dwelling on the many contradictions and inconsistencies of the biblical story, for instance gingerly stepping around the issue of incest, and despite having a good opportunity to include them, there are no signs of dinosaurs or, bizarrely, giraffes. Magical talking rock monsters are okay, but dinosaurs would have been a step too far? However, Aronofsky can’t help but tweak the noses of the devout with a couple of sequences, the standout being Noah’s recounting of the beginning of the universe, quoting the Book of Genesis while the imagery shown on screen is straight out of Darwin’s ‘The Origin Of Species’. In focusing on the character of Noah, we’re also allowed to see the formidable burden the Creator’s demands place on him and the anguish and conflict caused as he’s driven close to madness trying to reconcile his duty to the Creator with his love for his family, underlining the monstrous evil that can be done in the name of belief and faith.
Russell Crowe delivers a typically powerful performance as the gravelly-voiced, noble Noah while Ray Winstone’s Tubal-Cain (potentially responsible for more than a few extinctions due to his snacking) matches him growl for growl in the gruff-voiced leader of men stakes. The other characters have little of substance to do, with Emma Watson and Jennifer Connelly only really contributing towards the end of the film with some impassioned moments. Anthony Hopkins’ Methuselah is formed almost entirely of Odin offcuts but is still good value for his small amount of screen time; however, Logan Lerman (“Percy Jackson And The Sea Of Monsters”) is out of his depth, coming across as petulant and whiny as Noah’s troubled son Ham.
The effects are generally spectacular, with the exception of the serpent in the Eden flashbacks which is some of the poorest CGI I’ve seen in a long time and the repellently pulsating fruit of knowledge that you’ll have a hard time believing anyone could be talked into eating, let alone by a crappy animated snake. There are also a couple of CGI babies later on which suggest the Ark is about to make landfall in the Uncanny Valley rather than the slopes of Mount Ararat.
Ultimately less controversial than it has been made out to be, it’s a moderately successful adaptation of a popular and well-known myth, finding new things to say about an old, old story. It won’t convert any non-believers but likewise there shouldn’t be anything here to justifiably offend the devout. It loses momentum in its last hour and the ending is a bit muddled as the story just kind of fizzles out, but it’s bolstered by some stunning cinematography and a committed, earnest central performance by Russell Crowe.