For at least the first half of Darren Aronofsky’s expensive, splashy (cough) adaptation of the bibilical story of Noah’s Ark, the preemptive “artistic license has been taken” disclaimer added to some trailers and posters almost seems sensible. Aronofsky very early on establishes his Book of Genesis as a patchwork of astrological mysticism interconnected with a fascination in the progress of lineage itself, very much in line with his open-hearted maudit The Fountain. Here, bibilical narrative as the origin of human history intermingles with scriptural interpretation as a form of literary criticism. The resulting leaps of fantasy—such as the depiction of fallen angels as a band of massive, lumbering, stone-encased hulks known as the Watchers—may be irrefutably free of malice. But try telling that to a demographic trained to object to anything that walks the line between apocrypha and reportage—the people who need the crusts cut off of their white bread sandwiches. Disappointingly for the rest of us, Noah offers them the last word.
Noah (Russell Crowe, playing 500, but looking not a day over 230) is the last remaining thread of the ancestral line extending down from Seth, the ecological Jonathan Livingston Seagull counterpart to the metallurgical Earth-devouring proto-corporation of Cain. Noah’s vegan clan dwells under the radar in volcano-scorched outskirts, until their patriarch starts having visions of blood seeping from the bedrock and the waters of the Earth reaching to meet the sky. They traverse into claimed territory to draw on the wisdom of Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah (played by Anthony Hopkins as a berry-obsessed locavore), but his tealeaves offer cold comfort. The Creator is discouraged by the barbarity of humans, and plans to hit the reset button. (It’s a missed opportunity on the Paramount publicity team’s behalf not to tag this film The Greatest Reboot Ever Told.) God’s plan bids Noah to build an ark large enough to hold two of every animal, which might seem confounding for any plan intent on wiping the slate clean. But once the money shots of Aronofsky’s version recede, it becomes ever more clear that his intention is to tackle the capriciousness of Old Testament logic. And, ultimately, to assent to it.
But up until the heavens fall and columns of ocean spray up from the ground surrounding Noah’s ark, the whole spectacle carries on with Cecil B. DeMille’s sense of showmanship along with the same sense of jagged reverence to scripture that linked the numerology of the Torah with NIN music video-worthy scenes of power drill-assisted bathroom surgery in Pi. (On a related note, it’s nice to know that the image of a CGI lamb pulled apart by a frenzied mob can still earn a PG-13 rating so long as the rest of the movie retains potential as a future Sunday-school staple.) Beyond the destruction porn, though, Aronofsky’s alternately earthy and lurid images—or, if you prefer, sacred and profane—reach their climax during a sequence depicting Noah telling his sons the opening verses of the Bible, paired against a time-accelerated montage literalizing the days-as-epochs evolutionary process by which phagocytosis led to new phylums, culminating in a dramatic pullback to show the entire Earth enveloped by hundreds of cyclones.
Noah’s new-age overtures work well enough that it’s a shame, no matter how predictable and true to the film’s message, to see it fall off into formal and spiritual asceticism as Noah wrestles with his belief that the human race is meant to die out with his youngest son—a deduction that pleases neither his wifeless-and-horny middle son, Ham (Logan Lerman), nor his formerly barren but now miraculously pregnant daughter-in-law, Ila (Emma Watson, who gets to go full Laura Dern cry-face at Noah’s promise to kill her baby should it be a girl). In the Book of Genesis, Ham is cast away after he “looks upon” his father’s nakedness (a term that scholars have bent over backward to justify in the least perverse terms). In Noah, he just walks away while the rest of his rainbow-beholding family fails to comprehend the generations upon generations of incest it will take to repopulate the world. To put far too fine a point on it, if the gnarly mercilessness of the Old Testament gave way to the revolutionary altruism of the New Testament, Noah’s trajectory works in reverse, regressing from a new school full-bloom blockbuster teeming with the thrill of divine destruction and implied kink into a grounded reaffirmation of the genre’s stodgy rules as they were written at Charlton Heston’s flank.