Noah is no by-the-book Bible story. Think of it as a visually mesmerizing sci-fi adventure saga loosely based on the book of Genesis.
Where it does adhere to its source material is in its 139-minute length: About halfway in, it starts to feel as though it's been going on for 40 days and 40 nights.
Along the way, however, Noah (** ½ out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday nationwide) offers plenty of visual splendor. A vividly stirring time-lapse montage of the creation story is marked by stunning and original computer-generated imagery.
The world surrounding Noah (Russell Crowe) is hollow and desolate. The landscape looks post-apocalyptic, though the real apocalypse — a great flood and its annihilation — looms. Those descended from Cain, driven by greed and hedonism, have brought about the destruction. Noah has a vision in which he is chosen by God (referred to throughout only as "the Creator) to survive a catastrophic flood and protect the innocent beasts of the world.
Director Darren Aronofsky is known for his inventive filmmaking. While his re-envisioning of Scripture is certainly not stodgy or bound by sacred text, it's not as audacious as he seeks to make it.
A revisionist version of the well-known tale is not problematic in itself. And the cautionary environmentalist message is an intriguing perspective on a story that involves saving animals from extinction. What trips up the film is the addition of a reductive subplot where a power-mad marauder named Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) menaces Noah and his family. Noah had a rough enough road without Aronofsky shoehorning the scheming Tubal-Cain into the mix. As a dramatic device it's more appropriate for a superhero movie than a biblical epic. Worse, the villain spouts cliched evil-speak such as "Kill the giants. Kill Noah. Take the ark."
Crowe does a credible job playing the brooding, single-minded Noah. He is a man obsessed, often to the detriment of his family. He and his wife Naameh(Jennifer Connelly) devise a method to sedate the animals so they can live within confined quarters in relative harmony. After they arrive and board the ark, however, the animals play a mystifyingly small part in Aronofsky's vision.
To build his vessel, the beleaguered Noah enlists the aid of stone-encrusted giants — a version of fallen angels known as Watchers, voiced by Frank Langella, Nick Nolte and Mark Margolis. The rock creatures give the film the distinctive feel of a fantasy adventure.
The ancient-but-ageless Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) pops up to help out in mystical ways. He's Noah's grandfather and lives in a cave nearby, but rarely visits. What he is most focused on is berries. While Noah can think of nothing but building his ark, Methuselah's berry craving forms the arc of his character.
Noah and Naameh have three sons, Ham (Logan Lerman), Shem (Douglas Booth) and Japheth (Leo Carroll), whose stories add little to the saga. They adopt Ila, an abandoned and wounded baby (played as an adult by Emma Watson) who grows into a preternaturally wise, if ever-worried, character.
Noah laments, "We broke the world" as he struggles to right the wrongs of his fellow man. But the film grows overheated as he's driven to drink and insanity, feeling he's failed in his mission.
Aronofsky seems drawn to stories of obsessed individuals driven to madness, such as the intense mathematician in Pi and the deranged ballerina in Black Swan.
A massively scaled undertaking, Noah is a bold re-telling with plenty of spectacle, undercut by its own sprawling ambitions, fantasy elements and formulaic villain.