Dir: Darren Aronofsky; Starring: Russell Crowe, Emma Watson, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth.
12A cert, 138 min.
Like God, Darren Aronofsky prefers to start with a blank slate. “In the beginning, there was nothing,” runs the opening line of Noah, although the void is quickly filled by three images: a snake gliding through grass, a hand reaching for an apple, and a man dashing out his brother’s skull, silhouetted against a hot, red sky.
The sequence is over in seconds, but as it flashes past, your mind is still picking over that deliberate misquote; sizing up the difference between what you heard and expected to hear, and trying to decode the purpose of the gap. It’s an unsettling feeling, and one you soon get used to.
Most key elements from the Sunday-school jingle – floody-floody, arky-arky, twosie-twosies, et cetera – are present, and broadly recognisable in Noah. But they’re surrounded by apocryphal flourishes that make this old story seem newly strange: six-armed, rock-skinned fallen angels, glowing minerals that tremble with holy power, quasi-baptismal rites performed with a serpent’s shed skin.
In short, Aaronofsky’s sixth film is not the Noah you know, but something provocative, flawed and mostly astonishing: an outsider blockbuster with a mythic texture that’s less Genesis than Revelation.
Noah, played by Russell Crowe with surly, tamped-down righteousness, is a gatherer in a world of hunters, living with his family in the wilderness under glowing, John Ford sunsets. The rest of the Earth is taken up by Cain’s descendants, who haven’t simply multiplied across its face, but chopped down its trees, dug up its ore and slung most of its animals on the barbecue.
Here, sin and pollution are two symptoms of the same sickness, and at night, Noah dreams of blood and ash, and vast seas washing the world clean. These visions, he mutters to his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), are messages from the Creator – the word ‘God’ is never used – who has a plan in mind for the ultimate gritty reboot.
The film folds around the flood itself, which hits with maximal computer-generated force, and naturally at the climax of a pitched battle. Cain’s people are prepared to fight for a place on the ark, and their king, played by a snarling Ray Winstone, leads the charge.
They smash straight into the Watchers: those huge, six-armed rock-creatures who were coyly hidden in the trailers, but clump around here with the shuddery heft of Ray Harryhausen creations. (By contrast, the animals are almost an afterthought: they arrive in three waves, trotting, flapping and scuttling into the belly of the ark, where they’re lulled to sleep with sedative smoke.)
The battle itself might as well be Lord of the Rings, reheated: much better are the apocalyptic scenes that follow, when the water finally rises and humankind’s last scraps lie twisting on the rocks like figures in a Goya etching.
What comes next is, if anything, bolder still: the film’s scope suddenly tightens as Noah and his family drift across the empty, flooded world. The ark-bound scenes have a twitchy claustrophobia, and Ila (an excellent Emma Watson), the girlfriend of Shem, Noah’s eldest son, draws out the story’s broader theme of divine abandonment, which the film commits to with a total and unswerving seriousness.
Bear with these risks, and you’re rewarded with Noah’s centrepiece: a strobing reconstruction of the creation story, from darkness on the face of the deep to Edenic paradise in no more than a minute or two. Think Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, recut as a Requiem for a Dream amphetamine rush: it suggests evolution, but looks wholly miraculous.
Noah has so little in common with the stern excesses of a Cecil B. DeMille picture that comparisons with the Biblical epics of the 1950s are next to worthless. The film does, though, sit comfortably with Aronofsky’s own back catalogue, which swirls around people isolated by their own fixations.
Consider Nina Sayers, the obsessive Black Swan ballerina, or Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson in The Wrestler, fighting lycra-clad has-beens and his own mortality, and you realise Noah might well be their collective ancestor; the mad, damp progenitor of the Aronofsky line. His film stands at a remove, like a lone figure out in the wilds; dreaming its peculiar dreams, shouting into the storm.