Film Review: Noah

Biblical flood gets the blockbuster treatment in Darren Aronofsky's ambitious adaptation.

Disasters and religion go together like, well, disasters and movies. And for all-out destruction, few stories top the great flood, a fixture in just about every culture and religion. Noah brings modern effects to its ancient story, hoping to snare an audience that's supported a decade and more of special-effects epics.

On its surface, the story of Noah (Russell Crowe) is simple. A righteous man, he is singled out by God to save innocent life so the evil and corrupt can perish in a cataclysmic flood that covers the earth.

Encouraged by his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who hands him a seed from the Garden of Eden, Noah begins building an ark that will contain two of every beast and plant, as well as his family. Wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) supports her husband, as does eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth). Younger son Ham (Logan Lerman) isn't so sure, in part because he lacks a spouse like Shem's Ila (Emma Watson).

As birds, reptiles, and then mammals enter the ark, humans gather nearby, anxious for their own boarding passes. Led by evil king Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), they personify the wickedness God intends to eradicate.

Once the waters rise, Noah faces new challenges. Does God want to end humanity? Because it will be up to Noah to stop any chance at procreation, even if it means killing Ila's offspring.

 As played by Crowe, Noah is strong and decisive on the outside, but torn by troubling visions. The role is ideally suited for the actor, whose surly line readings and sullen glares form the backbone of the movie. The actor shows just how thin the line is between man of God and tortured zealot.

You will recognize the other characters from Sunday school, Bible movies and—minus the sex and nudity—TV shows like "Game of Thrones" and "The Vikings." Noah sometimes seems like the Bible had it been written by J.R.R. Tolkien, full of monsters and magic and stiff, clunky dialogue.

Take "The Watchers," in this account, fallen angels sent to Earth to help humans. Voiced by the likes of Nick Nolte and Frank Langella, they resemble nothing so much as Ents make out of rocks instead of wood. On one level they help explain how Noah could erect a massive ark with primitive tools; on the other, they allow Aronofsky to stage giant battle scenes straight out of Middle-earth.

Aronofsky, who co-wrote the script with Ari Handel, isn't afraid of bold imagery and elemental gestures. Like Black Swan before it, Noah moves with purpose and conviction, so focused and forceful that it crushes all opposition in its way. So what if this biblical story takes place in Iceland? Or that Tubal-cain shoots off what looks like a mortar?

And like Black Swan, viewers looking for meaning beyond spectacle will be disappointed. Aronofsky does an excellent job presenting the story, even finessing the creation in a way that mollifies both sides of evolutionary theory. But the director makes almost no attempt to explore the moral and philosophical issues behind the flood. God is essentially absent from Noah, a good thing if you're a nervous Paramount executive, but a letdown if you're expecting something more than a special-effects extravaganza.