Rock monsters. This movie has rock monsters.
Technically, they’re fallen angels – cursed by God to dwell on earth as towering, Ent-like beasts – but they’re one of several bizarre creative choices in Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH that never quite mesh with the biblical source material. It’s like watching THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and noticing that the first nail in Christ’s palm is being hammered in by Megatron.
Russell Crowe is Noah, an ordinary man charged with the daunting task of building a big you-know-what before an even bigger you-know-what reboots the earth. To be fair, mankind deserves it. This prehistoric world is a Cormac McCarthy-esque wasteland of stripped forests and roving cannibals. As Noah and his family construct the ark and the rain begins, a Cain-descendant warrior-king (Ray Winstone) takes notice and marshals his forces to attack. Now Noah must fend off both a desperate world that’s not ready to be exterminated, and his own decaying sanity.
Aronofsky is fearless in his retelling, taking one artistic gamble after another. Aside from the rock monster subplot (which doesn’t pay off), he visualizes the creation of the earth via still photography (which does). We also get glimpses of the garden of Eden, hellish panoramas, and a nifty spin on Darwinism. I was stunned by how often NOAH showed things that other films would have only alluded to.
Too bad so much of the first half feels like an artsy spinoff of LORD OF THE RINGS. The rock monsters are the most glaring problem (they were scrubbed from the trailers because they’re so breathtakingly stupid), but Aronofsky takes other fantastical liberties – including lizard-dogs, fire-rocks, and magic pregnancy tests - that are almost as distracting. Some viewers will find them flat-out insulting.
The second half, and the real focus of the film, is Noah’s personal struggle with the enormity of God’s task – and luckily it’s terrific. Crowe is utterly convincing as a flawed man caught between the apocalypse and the corrupted race that earned it. Emma Watson owns several heartbreaking scenes, and Ray Winstone manages to be both credibly evil and oddly persuasive. He is, after all, merely fighting for his life as the water rises. Wouldn’t you?
That’s what makes NOAH worth watching, rock monsters and all. It embraces the moral complexities of a story that ends in the deaths of millions. It dares to ask tough questions of its characters, and of us. God’s messages to Noah are absolute but not always clear, so where do you draw the line between faith and blind obedience? The climax resonates because it presents a situation where doing the wrong thing makes sense – and doing the right thing doesn’t.
It’s a brave and fascinating movie, but the book was better.