What would happen if one were to take the scant hundred or so verses of Genesis devoted to Noah and the Flood, and expand them into a two-plus-hour Hollywood blockbuster by adding liberal doses of Tolkien, Avatar, Mad Max, and a Roland Emmerich disaster movie?
This is not a question I had contemplated until I was presented with its answer in the form of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Though considerably vaster in scope (and budget) than any of the director’s previous undertakings, it is no less idiosyncratic than his other work, from Pi to Black Swan. The result is an odd and original film, part CGI spectacle and part somber moral meditation. Although occasionally preposterous, it is rarely short of fascinating.
Though not a biblical believer himself, Aronofsky is clearly at pains to adhere to the spirit—and, where possible, the limited details—of his adopted text. Following the fall and the first murder, humankind descended in two lines: the wicked progeny of Cain and the virtuous progeny of Seth. Over the course of eight generations, however, the Cainites have spread across the globe like a cancer, while the Sethians have dwindled until Noah is the last of his line. When the latter comes fully of age (technically when he’s around 600 years old, though as played by Russell Crowe in the film he seems considerably younger), the Creator decides to purge the corrupted world of life, with the exception of Noah, his immediate family, and as many mated animal pairs as they can squeeze into an ark. Here come the birds, spiraling majestically into Noah’s giant box of a boat; then the amphibians and reptiles, hopping and slithering; and finally a rumbling herd of the hooved, toed, and clawed. (The fish, presumably, can fend for themselves.)
Working from these familiar beginnings, Aronofsky begins his extravagant narrative embroidery. After some early mutual suspicion, Noah is befriended by the Watchers, grotesque fallen angels that resemble Peter Jackson’s Ents, except that they’re made out of stone and sport six arms. These powerful creatures (loosely based on references to the Nephilim in Genesis) not only provide the labor to build the massive ark, but also protection from the barbarian hordes, led by King Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), who would very much like to book passage on Noah’s ship when the rains begin to fall.
The Watchers may be Aronofsky’s most peculiar addition, but there are other fantasy elements woven into his tale as well: the glowing energy pellets used to make fire (and primitive firearms); the divine seed with which Noah causes a lush forest to arise from a blighted landscape; the narcotic herbal smoke that he and his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) use to put their zoological passengers into a deep slumber. Adding to the overall air of magic and polytheism are the presences among the cast of an erstwhile Odin (Anthony Hopkins, as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson, as adopted daughter Ila), and Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman, as son Ham).
But despite its flamboyant, and at times goofy, fantasy trappings, Noah is firmly anchored by the fierce moral intensity of Aronofsky’s vision, which is, if anything, more Old Testament than the Old Testament itself. Renditions of the Flood narrative—including the Bible’s—tend to focus on the lucky fate of Noah and his flock rather than that of the millions left behind to die. Aronofsky, by contrast, is unsparing in his portrayal of their agonies. The most striking image of the film is a pinnacle of victims that juts briefly above the waves—a human pyramid of desperate, clawing terror—before being swallowed by them. Even within the ark, the cries of the doomed echo like an infernal whale song.