Let’s agree that director Darren Aronofsky, who wrote the script for “Noah” with Ari Handel, used only the basis of the Old Testament story for a movie that veers closer to science fiction than biblical history. (Let’s also agree not to debate here whether the Bible is accurate as history.)
Does his concept work? Does it relate to the way we live today? Does it raise thought-provoking questions? The answers are mostly, definitely and absolutely.
The film doesn’t so much contradict or update the biblical tale as use it for a jumping-off point.
The Book of Genesis doesn’t say stone giants (angels sent to Earth but punished for disobedience) helped Noah build his ark. On the other hand, it doesn’t tell us how he did get it finished. It doesn’t mention crowds of angry people swarming Noah’s compound, demanding to be taken aboard after the first showers fall, but we might reasonably assume that happened.
Most crucially, the Old Testament doesn’t tell us what Noah was thinking on that seven-month voyage. This version, played with appropriately furrowed brow and somber mien by Russell Crowe, decides the Creator (as God is called here) simply wanted his family to save animals and allow them to repopulate the world. He believes he, his wife and children are as sinful as the drowning victims, whose screams they hear from inside the ark. So when the craft docks and the animals depart, Noah thinks humankind should die off with the natural passing of his children. We know it won’t, but the speculation doesn’t seem bizarre.
The story begins with a modern parallel: Humanity in the generations after Adam’s expulsion from Eden has clear-cut forests, harvested without replanting and generally been rotten stewards of a once-pristine planet. The Creator speaks to Noah through a small miracle and a dream, and Noah informs his wife (Jennifer Connelly) of their obligation.
Shem, their eldest son (Douglas Booth), goes willingly: He has fallen in love with Ila (Emma Watson), an orphaned girl the family took in 10 years ago. Little Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) follows orders. But middle son Ham (Logan Lerman) realizes he’s about to sail into an unpopulated world without the hope of female company, and he rebels. Ham finds himself drawn to Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), a brilliant inventor who has gathered soldiers for an assault on the ark. (There’s a metalworking Tubal-Cain in Genesis, but he dies generations before Noah.)
Tubal-Cain, a distant but direct descendant of Cain, embodies the charismatic but degrading nature of sin here. He makes a plausible argument that men who take life emulate the Creator, who murders millions at a stroke; if we were made in his image, he must expect us to be ruthless. And we’re entitled to baser forms of happiness, as the gates of Eden remain locked to us forever. Yet Tubal-Cain can’t imagine a way of life in which kindness and love make us better. To him, the ark seems like a floating barbecue pit that can carry him to a world he’ll rule as a dictator.
Aronofsky and Handel try to make the biblical narrative plausible on some level. The animals don’t feel cramped or need to eat each other (or eat at all) because they’re put into a kind of suspended animation. Noah doesn’t round them up; they arrive in flocks, swarms and packs, buzzing and slithering onto the ship. Trees may be scarce, but God makes them grow all around Noah’s home in a grove. (The special effects, especially those of the ark on the churning water, work well.)
At the same time, the writers introduce implausible elements. Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), Noah’s grandfather, makes the barren Ila fertile by touching her belly. Noah has fire crystals that explode within seconds into an inferno. These can be interpreted as miracles, but they come off as shamanistic magic. And the melodramatic moments, of which there are half a dozen, have a Hollywood-style patness.
Yet overall, “Noah” represents a respectful take on an old story by filmmakers who pose a pertinent question. The Creator promises never again to wipe humanity off the face of the Earth, signing that covenant with the cheering image of a rainbow. Does that mean he won’t let us wipe ourselves out millennia later, if we’re hell-bent on doing so?