Russell Crowe prepares to set sail in "Noah." Credit: Paramount Pictures
‘Noah’ Director: Darren Aronofsky Stars: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly Rating: PG-13 2 (out of 5) Globes
We need to talk about the rock monsters. They’re not mentioned in the ads for “Noah,” nor seen in publicity stills. They are in fact in Genesis, or at least a version of them are. (There’s talk of “giants” roaming the Earth, which presumably didn’t fit inside the ark.) But in "The Wrestler" and "Black Swan" director Darren Aronofsky’s weirdo $130 million production, starring Russell Crowe, they’re promoted to a major role. If you've always wondered how a nice family was able to erect a massive vessel that would a) withstand an actual Biblical deluge and b) house two of every animal (and plant, and disease), then this, at least, gives them lumbering rock monsters with multiple arms to do the brunt of the work. Later they beat up storming barbarians. They are a literal, not figurative, deus ex machina, sent by God (and Aronofsky) to fix narrative problems.
The rock monsters are both silly and endearing, which also describes “Noah,” but only to a point. This is a deeply personal Bible movie — not unlike “The Passion of the Christ,” in a sense, though it will likely alienate faith-driven audiences as well as the secular. It is not a soothing bedtime story. It understands — in a way even it ultimately can’t deal with — the gravity of what is essentially a tale of genocide, one that wipes out the wicked and the innocent. There’s a scene where Noah and his saved family sit inside the ark, trying to ignore the shrieks and cries for help from those still not submerged. Death is not abstract, to be skipped by in dry verse. It’s very real.
But this isn’t a revisionist Bible movie. Aronofsky doubles down on the fantastical. God doesn’t talk; this isn’t the famous Bill Cosby routine. God isn’t even called “God,” but “The Creator," and Noah gets his messages in vivid, sometimes horrifying dreams. These segments play to Aronofsky’s strengths as a stylist who designs his movies in bold images, shot by shot. He's not above CGI, as witness the rock monsters. But even those have an affable, handmade quality. They look stop-motion, like Will Vinton’s Gnome King in “Return to Oz.” His staging of creation is actually stop-motion, and even makes way for a quicksilver demonstration of evolution that could be slipped into “Cosmos” (that is, if you can ignore all the talk about God creating all of it over a week).
What doesn't play to his strengths is a story, co-conceived by him, that’s been beefed up from three Bible chapters to include such fat as Noah’s sons rushing to procure wives before the flood (gotta go forth and multiply, after all) and a hammy bad guy (Ray Winstone) who leads an assault on the ark. (“WE TAKE THE ARK!” he bellows amidst downpour.) There’s only one eye-searing shot that truly conveys the magnitude of what’s happening: It’s of the ark floating in the background while doomed stragglers in the foreground try to survive atop a rock. Aronofsky's too busy with story to even nail a shot of the animals inside the ark, presumably pooping up a storm.
There was some worry, mostly from the far right, that this would be an environmentalist screed about global warming. It touches on that, and vegetarianism. (Winstone’s baddie makes a speech about man’s dominion over the animals that was probably lifted verbatim from Ted Nugent.) It even has a hippie-ish "protect the flowers" moment. But it’s mostly about man’s violence and arrogance, with Noah the lone pious man in a species of murderous heathens.
It's also about the burden of faith. Jennifer Connelly, as Mrs. Noah, is mostly wasted, but she gets to tear into one screamy speech, where she informs her husband that by following all of God’s orders, he may lose the love of those closest to him. Crowe, oozing gravitas throughout, plays Noah as introspective, sometimes terrifyingly so. But in this scene you can catch a glimmer of anguish in the back of his eye — as though he’s finally fully realized the severity of the task for which he’s been hired, but can’t talk or do anything about it. Such moments are rare in “Noah,” but when they occur, a bloated, humorless but still goofy production — that was already better than vacuous trinkets like “Son of God” — seems briefly worth it.