I can almost guarantee that there are people who are going to hate Noah, the latest film from auteur Darren Aronofsky. And no, I’m not just talking about the easily offended religious – of which I’m certain there will be plenty. The suspected hatred will probably come from the fact that what Aronofksy has created here, is a challenging, idiosyncratic, contradictory experience unlike anything I’ve experienced in the cinema in ages.

It’s almost pompous in its ambition, never once acquiescing to what one particular audience demands of it. It is an intensely personal character study, it is a dark and outlandish fantasy epic, it is a wide-scoped action blockbuster, it is an unnervingly complex morality tale. It is all of these things, all at once, and although it occasionally stumbles over itself as result of this gargantuan vision, it never once wavers in its conviction to tell its particular story.

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And as we know from the title, that story being the one of Noah (Russell Crowe), he of the Ark and the great flood and the animals two-by-two. Only this is not the story you may have heard in Sunday School. Nor is it even the world you may have read about in geography/history textbooks. Aronofsky’s world of Genesis is a strange, primordial place, boasting an alien sky looking down on a proto-Earth still only consisting of the supercontinent, Pangaea. It is a land of magic and myth, where fallen angels called Watchers, encased in the very crust they struck when they fell from heaven, helped the descendants of Cain (of Cain and Abel fame) to establish a vast industrial empire that ravages the land. The same land that the descendants of Cain’s younger brother, Seth, have been tasked to protect. Noah and his family are the last of the line of Seth, living away from the sooty cities, never harming animals, eating only what they can forage, and protecting nature as they can from the murderous bands of roving city-men.

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And when the devout Noah receives a disturbing vision from the Creator, informing him that this wicked world will be washed away in a great deluge, it sets him on an arduous 10-year path, ending in that infamous ark. A path that will test his convictions, test his family’s bond, test his very belief in his own morality. And so in the process, Noah also poses to the audiences the type of torturous philosophical and spiritual questions that have nothing but hard answers, if they have any at all.

Aronofksy’s script – co-written by Ari Handel – digs to the marrow of this supposedly well known and admittedly most unbelievable of Biblical tales, unblinkingly asking questions that will not sit easy with many viewers. How could every single person apart from Noah’s family be wicked? And if they weren’t, does that mean that Noah is essentially complicit in the greatest mass murder the world has ever seen? How could a merciful God ask that of any man? What would a man have to do to live with himself, faced with a task such as this? What would he be willing to do to see that task finished?

But Aronofsky, a self-confessed atheist, isn’t just here to shine the interrogation light on God and the god-fearing. He skewers those dismissive of miracles, he comments on the devastation of industrialization, he laments on the loss of our link with nature. And time and again he comes back to what he considers the true original sin: not the eating of the apple in the Garden of Eden, but what followed it – the murder of brother by brother, the first murderous act that echoes through time, and the souls of men.

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Men like Ray Winstone’s Tubal-Cain, a King and descendant of Cain who had a murderous run-in with Noah when he was a boy, and who has now led his desperate people from the dying cities to this miraculous ark being built, searching for a means to survive what is to come. Based on that description, you may think Tubal-Cain this film’s villain, the snarling big bad for our hero Noah to oppose and slay. But as I said earlier, Noah is not that type of movie. Here the “villain” has a defensible argument, and the “hero” commits acts far worse than anybody else.

And this complexity of character is portrayed powerfully by both men, but especially Crowe, who goes from quiet solidity to awe-inspiring mythological hero to stalking the ark, all draped in shadow, like a creature of nightmares. Crowe, as essentially both the film’s protagonist and antagonist, offers the type of titanic, nuanced and tragic performance that could easily dwarf everything around him. But luckily, his is not a singular bit of acting, with strong, affecting performances from virtually the entire cast – Jennifer Connelly as Noah’s wife, Naameh; Douglas Booth as his oldest son, Shem; Emma Watson as Shem’s wife, Ila; Logan Lerman as Noah’s middle son, Ham; and Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah.

Watson and Lerman are the standouts here though, but unfortunately for slightly different reasons. Their stories offer arguably the biggest emotional gut-punches of the entire film, and Watson carries hers superbly, putting in a heartbreaking turn as she is faced with unthinkable tragedy. But Lerman, though never overtly fumbling anything, just never quite rises to the challenge of the material, making what is an emotionally complicated role feel almost whiny and teen-angsty. Jennifer Connelly also, though very solid for most of her screen time, unfortunately offers one of the film’s few other hollow notes when it comes to performances. She has a big emotional scene that slips into melodrama a bit, especially when compared to how Watson handles a similar burden later on with just the right amount of restraint.

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And as if gripping, multi-faceted performances and soul-searching moral conundrums weren’t enough, Aronofsky presents it all in an incredible visual dreamscape, combining both practical and digital effects. There’s the shattered, post-apocalyptic pre-apocalyptic (if that makes sense) landscape that make up this antediluvian world, the highly stylized animated sequences portraying the original sin and its consequences, the weirdly fantastical Watchers, with their almost stop-motion, rickety strides, the epic and fantastical battle at the film’s 2/3 mark, and the horrific cataclysmic floods that drown the world in watery violence. Coupled with Matthew Libatique’s grand cinematography (which occasionally makes good use of the film’s 3D effects) and Clint Mansell’s sweeping score, it is a audiovisual tour de force, especially one visually inventive sequence in which Aronofksy tells the entire story of creation, compressing millions of years of evolution down to just a few minutes.

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Yes, evolution, because this is the type of contradictory film that Aronofsky has somehow convinced a studio to make – one that will simultaneously appeal and repel both sides of the religious divide. And even if religion, or lack of it, is not your preferred yardstick, the film can also be a bit overblown and just plain weird at times. Very occasionally it overreaches with it’s drama, feeling slightly manufactured, and there are elements of it, like silly rock monsters, that will be unnecessarily grating.

But this is brave, epic filmmaking filled with big ideas and even bigger questions, which you just cannot ignore, no matter how polarizing they may be. Whether you end up hating Noah or skipping over some of it’s foibles and loving it like I did, there’s simply no denying that it’s an intensely interesting and very, very well made film that should have you thinking about it long after the credits have rolled.

Last Updated: April 4, 2014

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