Noah (M) ****
Director: Darren Aronofsky.
Cast: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Anthony Hopkins, Douglas Booth.
DARREN Aronofsky moves in mysterious ways.
He's won swags of awards for films about wrestlers and ballet dancers (The Wrestler and Black Swan), confounded fans and critics with strange eon-spanning sci-fi (The Fountain), and made one of the bleakest and devastating addiction movies of all time (Requiem For A Dream).
It was more than a little surprising to hear his next film was a big budget take on the Biblical story of Noah, which sounded on paper to be more like something Roland Emmerich would do.
But the common thread of his work has been the theme of obsession, and it carries on in his ark tale.
Noah intriguingly has a bet each way on its subject matter - yes, all the animals turn up at Noah's boat and the earth floods, but as the story progresses you can't help but wonder if Noah has indeed been touched by God or whether he's just off his trolley. Is his holy task just that or has he become obsessed by it, and driven mad? Where does the voice of the Creator stop and the voices in his head start?
Riding this line between appeasing the faithful and making an interesting film with an internal logic for the questioning non-believers is one of the most interesting and appealing aspects of Noah (although I say that as a devout atheist).
The basic Biblical plot remains in tact - men are wicked, the world floods and wipes them out, Noah and his family survive in an ark with two of each animal.
But the film adds layers of the depth and, dare I say it, reality to the story, making it far more morally complex and fascinating than the few chapters of Genesis indicate. For example, if all these so-called wicked humans found out someone was building a giant boat, don't you think they'd be a little bit interested in what was going on? And don't you think they'd try to get on board when it starts raining a lot?
And how does Noah deal with the guilt of condemning all these people to death? And if God really wants to wipe out mankind, does that include Noah and his family? How does Noah know where God's will ends and his own interpretation begins?
There are liberties taken here that may displease the faithful. I'm still searching the Old Testament for references to giant four-armed rock monsters, Methuselah being a wizard, and hallucinogenic tea, but the biggest bet each way is in a scene where Noah narrates the Biblical creation tale while Aronofsky matches it to imagery telling the scientific version, from the Big Bang all the way through evolution. It's sure to rile more than a few Christians.
But Aronofsky is to be applauded for delving so deeply into his source text to create a natural-seeming world beyond the basics. There are plenty of theories about what the world was like in a biblically Old Testament sense, and Aronofsky touches on them. He treats his movie world like Peter Jackson treated Lord Of The Rings - he's read the appendices and wants you to feel like you're visiting a fantastical place made real.
The people in that world feel equally real. Crowe gives one of his best memorable performances to date, Connelly has some great moments, Hopkins coasts along as Methuselah, and Winstone is particularly nasty as the film's token villain, despite his Cockney grumble.
There are frustrating elements to Noah - a few dud lines, an overly bombastic score, and the way the plot stretches for closure and climax - but it provides a lot to think about. Beyond the moral complexities and religious ramifications, there is a pro-vegan and pro-environment message, and hinting themes of climate change, man's place in the world, and the very nature of mankind and evil.
If there were no Hobbit movie coming out this year, Noah would be a serious contender for best fantasy film of the year.