At first it sounds as if the wind is making a strangled wailing as it blows through the slats of Noah’s Ark. But a closer listen reveals it as the sound of people screaming, of thousands trying to stay afloat and sinking. It’s layer upon layer of human noise, piled and piled until it sounds elemental — as Noah and his family sit in the middle of the ark, dry, safe and horrified.
"Noah" is no silly action blockbuster with a Biblical pretext. Rather, it’s the product of writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s vigorous engagement with the biblical story and what it might mean in our time. The story itself has demands built in: It posits a vision of humanity gone astray, in which those on the side of the creator are pitted against those opposed to the divine will. Right off, that means a filmmaker’s choosing sides and making decisions about good and bad, right and wrong.
In Aronofsky’s telling, humanity went in two directions after the murder of Abel by Cain. The godless sons of Cain went off and created the industrial world, raping the earth. They became warriors, fashioned metal weapons and began eating animals. They ignored the demands of stewardship and stressed only their dominion over the earth and other living creatures. Meanwhile, the virtuous sons of Seth lived off the land, in harmony with creation. They were vegetarians, anti-industry and proto-environmentalists.
Of course, "Noah" is going to be controversial. It was either that or have something dead on screen, and "Noah" is most certainly not dead. Yet even those who think a meal isn’t a meal without a hunk of bleeding pain on the plate might be assuaged by the movie’s pro-industry statement, hiding there in plain sight: The sons of Cain are living a lot better than the sons of Seth. Ten generations since Adam, and all Noah has to show for himself is a tattered tent pitched amid the rocks.
In fact, as the movie begins, Seth’s descendants consist of no one but Noah’s family, as the murderous sons of Cain draw nearer. Things are looking hopeless when Noah (Russell Crowe) has a curious dream in which he envisions the destruction of the world. He doesn’t know what it means, or what he’s supposed to do about it, and so he goes in search of his grandfather, Methusaleh, for guidance. And Methusaleh can only be Anthony Hopkins, who plays the oldest man in the world like a chipper, jovial Welsh Yoda.
The early biblical world is portrayed by Aronofsky as a place of barren desolation, of rocks and hard earth. When characters talk about saying goodbye to life as they know it, one has to wonder what’s there to miss. At the same time, the film is full of beautiful visuals, as when two doves suddenly decide to head toward the ark and the camera tracks them above as they fly.
"Noah" provides two striking instances of silhouettes against the sky. In the first, Noah and his wife (Jennifer Connelly) discuss their options, just as the night is cracking and a new day is vibrating a golden glow on the horizon. In another scene, we see men killing each other — time-lapse photography of various silhouettes in various hats swinging various weapons — a succession that, when reduced to spectacle, looks like nothing but madness.
The film’s special effects never seem special in the moment, which is as it should be. When every snake and reptile on the earth starts heading in one direction, the viewer’s response isn’t awe at what can be done on a computer but awe at the abundant forms that life takes. Everything must be saved, Noah says, lest a "small piece of creation" be "lost forever. It’s our job to look after them."
Crowe ably conveys the oppressive weight of Noah’s responsibility, the burden of enacting God’s will. But then, all the performances are strong, which is the mark of good direction. No one postures, no one plays history. Every actor has clearly spent time contemplating and working through the specific and real emotions being experienced by the character. Emma Watson is lovely as a young woman whose inability to conceive makes her an odd match for Noah’s eldest son. Ray Winstone, as a general of the house of Cain, is a complex figure — a villain, perhaps, but the one character that sounds most like a modern man.
"Noah" is a great movie until the ark’s doors close. Then for a half-hour, it becomes a strange and difficult movie, more interesting than satisfying. But ultimately, "Noah" finds its way back to land. Unlike most action movies, it’s the furthest thing from a cynical piece of work. It’s a movie to wrestle with and talk about.