To hear Darren Aronofsky tell it, in the interviews he's given recently to the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker, there was no way in hell he'd let his special-effects extravaganza Noah, years in the planning, be your run-of-the-mill, candy-ass biblical epic. The ark built by Russell Crowe's Noah couldn't be some SS Minnow–style thing with a cute little peaked-roof house at the top; it had to be a majestically ugly barge approximately the size of three airplane hangars, the better to fit thousands of two-by-two CG beasties. Instead of trying to wring some drama out of that hoary old contretemps between Noah and God, Aronofsky took a minor Old Testament figure, Tubal-cain, and hired Ray Winstone to play him. This reimagined Tubal-cain is a tough who murdered Noah's father long ago; now he wants to elbow his way onto the ark, and possibly — shudder — eat some of the animals. Also, Aronofsky has introduced a group of fallen angels known as the Watchers, a race of crabby rock people who have become disgusted with the mess mankind has made, and who never got over being defeated by Flash Gordon.
OK, Flash Gordon isn't in the Book of Genesis, but that was probably just an oversight. Noah is here not to set the record straight but to set it on its head. This isn't a lavish work of mad genius, it's a movie designed to be a lavish work of mad genius — and there's a difference.
Aronofsky is an uncompromising director: He wants everything just so, and he knows what he's doing, to such an extent that audiences always do, too — you can feel the gears behind it all noisily grinding. The Wrestler, for my money his finest movie, at least had a noble, battered heart, which made his overbearing mannerisms tolerable. But generally, there's no spontaneity in an Aronofsky movie and no real sense of risk. If Noah, his costliest and splashiest film, has any splendor at all, it's the business-as-usual CGI-spectacle kind.
Yet for some reason, the seriousness of Aronofsky's intent — he dares to make a biblical film about climate change! And about how ugly mankind can be! — and his haute-auteur status are supposed to buoy Noah high above the dross of the average blockbuster superhero movie, even though that's exactly what he's made. Crowe's Noah is, like Christopher Nolan's Batman, not terrifically likable yet is somehow supposed to inspire our respect.
The Creator — “God” is never spoken — appears to Noah in a dream, alerting him in a rather oblique way that He's about to destroy humankind, which has gotten way too evil: In the dream, blood seeps out of the soil Noah steps on, and then his body sinks to the floor of the sea, where the corpses of the naughty are piled up like discarded tires. A second dream gives somewhat clearer instruction: Noah once again sinks to the depths, but this time a bevy of animals rises from the ocean floor and paddles hopefully toward the surface, where salvation, in the form of that giant, flat-bottomed barge, awaits.
Those dream sequences are the best things in Noah: There's some beauty, and not just raw ambition, in their poetry. (The cinematographer is Aronofsky regular Matthew Libatique.) But the rest of the time, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel are too busy building their Noah up as an allegedly complex character to recognize what an A-1 biblical asshole they've created; Crowe, furrowing his brow and declaiming his lines like a Roman senator, seems to be enjoying the role a little too much.
In the beginning, Noah seems like a nice enough guy, telling his young sons not to pick wildflowers or eat the flesh of animals. He kisses his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly, dressed in an assortment of Old Testament–by-way-of–Eileen Fisher tunics), tenderly on the lips as a greeting. But in his zeal to follow the Creator's mandates, he ends up a version of the character played by Terry O'Quinn in The Stepfather, Joseph Ruben's 1987 suburban horror parable: When he learns that Ila (Emma Watson), girlfriend of his oldest son, Shem (Douglas Booth), has become pregnant, Noah vows that if the child is a girl, and thus capable of propagating the species, she must be killed. In another scene, he calmly informs his youngest, Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), that because the boy will be the last human being on the planet to die, there will be no one to bury him. Thanks, Pop! Naameh looks on anxiously yet supportively, wondering if her husband has totally lost it, but realizing her options are limited since she's trapped on an ark full of stinky animals. Much later — and be forewarned that a small spoiler is approaching — Noah realizes the error of his ways and retreats from the family for a time. Upon his return, he sidles up to Mrs. Noah and gives her that look the old dudes give their wives in the Cialis commercials, so you can presume everything turns out OK.
Noah's middle son, Ham (Logan Lerman), rebels, and as ill-tempered as he is, at least his behavior makes sense. But then, this is the Old Testament, a book of rough justice, and as a filmmaker, Aronofsky is an Old Testament guy. He wants his audience to blanch, to suffer, to feel just a little (or perhaps a lot) unworthy — of his talents, of life, of everything. Get ready to see animals disemboweled and a young girl trampled by a senseless herd of humans. Aronofsky does have a heart: As a reward for being a ticket-buying human being, you'll also get an attempt at a rousing battle sequence that's more noisy than it is exciting.
Noah gets some brief jolts of life from Anthony Hopkins, as wrinkly old Methuselah, and from Nick Nolte, who provides the weary, grizzled voice for one of the rock people. Yet Aronofsky blows what should be the greatest scene, the one in which the animals are loaded into the ark: They're a mass of gray and brown creatures viewed mostly from above, their great variety of size, shape, color and temperament hardly in evidence. That's a long way from John Huston's Noah tootling his flute as camels, giraffes, goats and a few tigers placidly step onto his attractive (if not so watertight-looking) boat in The Bible: In the Beginning.
Aronofsky doesn't want to instill wonder; he's more interested in drab yet expensive-looking wrath. He's made a movie about judgment that itself feels judgmental. Like his Creator giving mixed signals to his poor servants, Aronofsky doesn't seem to think much of his audience. He ordered them moved, and lo, they were moved. If only it were that easy.