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Review: 'Noah' is equal parts confounding and astounding (w/video)

Director Darren Aronofsky turns Noah (played by Russell Crowe) into a tormented action hero.
Director Darren Aronofsky turns Noah (played by Russell Crowe) into a tormented action hero.
Published March 28, 2014

Darren Aronofsky's Noah, like the good book it springs from, is wide open to interpretation. Bold yet reverent, his head-trip take on the biblical legend is bound to confound literalists wondering what in the name of Cecil B. DeMille is going on.

To be sure, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel have plenty of open dramatic space to fill. Noah's (story) ark takes up only four Genesis chapters, much of it repeating God's instructions for how and why the vessel must be built and filled. The plot and characterizations devised for the movie are likely to divide viewers on grounds of conventional faith or film taste.

This isn't a kindly old Noah like John Huston but the powderkeg presence of Russell Crowe, in survivalist mode with his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), three sons and orphaned Ila (Emma Watson). The wicked ways of a world ruined by descendants of Cain drove them into seclusion, and Noah will violently defend their turf from intruders. Later, the strain of preserving nature and cabin fever leads to deadlier urges.

While turning Noah into a tormented action hero, Aronofsky retains the character's implicit, slavish devotion to the Creator (never "God" in the script). His movies typically engage obsessions and this is no exception, with Noah's fevered premonitions and suppositions of what the always silent Creator wants from him, even infanticide. The devout may envy; non-believers may see their worst impressions of religion confirmed.

Noah requires help to construct the ark and repel hordes of intruders led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), barely mentioned in the Bible and expanded here to stowaway arch villain status. Assistance comes in the jagged form of the Watchers, fallen angels shamed by allowing original sin on their watch. This is Aronofsky's most audacious revision, adding Transformers caked in lava to build and bash in the Creator's service.

The Watchers were at the core of my initial reservations with Noah's liberties, until reading the New King James version of events. The verse "There were giants on the earth in those days" is a sign of how closely Aronofsky checked Scripture for inspiration, and how far he ran with it. The Watchers are still a jarring intrusion on sensibilities cultivated by all other Bible movies but not as demented as first believed.

Then again, the Watchers aren't any more incredible than thousands of mating-paired species converging upon an ark for survival, an arresting special effect not used enough. Even when puzzling, Noah astonishes, especially when torrential rains and bursting geysers bring the flood.

Noah regularly invokes mystical or cosmic imagery, intelligently designed CGI miracles captured by cinematographer Matthew Libatique. One marvelous time-lapse sequence imagines how life began, blending elements of both creationists and evolutionists, stopping just short of proclaiming Adam and Eve as products of either. Another brilliant montage portrays eons of violence in a near-subliminal rush of silhouetted weapons and death.

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In such transcendent moments, Aronofsky stakes out middle ground for theologians and laypersons alike to discuss, less of a provocateur than an imaginative arbitrator. Despite wild deviations in spiritual themes and execution, nothing in Noah approaches sacrilege or surrender, making this an acutely sensible biblical epic. It may simply be too strange for the masses to notice.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.