It's not only biblical prophets who have visions, movie directors have them too. And when a filmmaker like Darren Aronofsky bring his very personal perspective to the ancient story of Noah and the flood, moviegoers will have to hang on tight to avoid getting washed overboard.
Grandiose, improbable, outlandish and overwrought, "Noah" is the kind of simultaneously preposterous and dead serious movie that has become Aronofsky's specialty. As much a fantasia inspired by the Old Testament as a literal retelling of that tale, "Noah" manages to blend the expected with the unexpected and does it with so much gusto and cinematic energy you won't want to divert your eyes from the screen.
Aronofsky's previous films, including commercial successes "Black Swan" and "The Wrestler," are united by their weakness for all kinds of excess. This too-much-is-not-enough tendency has not gone away but feels more suited to the material on display. If you're going to treat every little thing like it's the end of the world, having the real end of the world to deal with can only be a plus.
On the expected side of the ledger are impressive computer-generated marvels like the world's creatures showing up in the inevitable two by two (no animals were harmed because none were used) and a 5,000 gallons per minute rain scene to end all rain scenes. (This was The Flood, after all.) And production designer Mark Friedberg got to build a big chunk of an imposing 75-foot-high, 45-foot-wide, 450-foot-long ark described in the press notes as "hewing to the most authentic measurements."
This is what moviegoers thought they'd be getting, but there is more going on here, a whole lot more. Aronofsky's "Noah" includes not-so-covert messages about despoiling the planet, a bemused Anthony Hopkins as oldest-man-ever Methuselah, an unlooked-for villain played by Ray Winstone, plus romantic Sturm und Drang about finding appropriate wives for Noah's three sons. And don't forget the Watchers, a bunch of giants who look and act like Stone Age Transformers but are apparently fallen angels marooned on Earth (don't ask.) This is one busy movie.
And then there is the nature of Noah himself. Always a fiercely masculine presence, Russell Crowe plays the patriarch as the ultimate task-oriented guy chosen for this mission because he can be depended on for whatever it takes to do the almighty's will. But when he has a hard time figuring out exactly what that will is, Noah also provides the film with some unexpected, if inevitably overwrought, emotional cliffhanger moments.
Working with co-screenwriter and frequent collaborator Ari Handel, Aronofsky has delved deeply into the bottomless world of biblical legend, apocrypha like the Book of Enoch and midrashic commentary to fill in the blanks in the flooded one's spare story. If you don't remember dialogue like "What are you doing, Noah?" or environmentalist sentiments on the order of "we broke the world, we deserved this" from your Sunday school class, you are not alone.
Yet "Noah," perhaps mindful of the box office power of religious believers, couldn't be more respectful, even reverential to the traditional idea of what Noah calls "the creator" who brought the world into being and very much continues to call all the shots.
It is not, however, a world where people are very happy. A blight of wickedness has fallen on this blighted land (the film was shot in bleakest Iceland) and roving hordes of marauders — more reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" than anything biblical — pillage at will. Only the descendants of Seth, Adam and Eve's third son, care enough about civilization to attempt to protect it.
After a brief prologue, we are introduced to the adult Noah, a vegetarian descendant of Seth presented as perhaps the world's first locavore, advising his two young sons that "we take only what we need, what we can use," and cherishing his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly). When the man comes across a severely wounded young girl whose family has been massacred, it's only natural that he takes her in.
Noah, however, is troubled by recurring dreams involving, yes, water. After consulting with Methuselah, he has to face facts: The creator is going to destroy the world, blotting out all human life. After another dream, he knows his task is to build an ark, which, assisted by those Watchers (voices include Nick Nolte and Frank Langella), is what he sets out to do.
Cut to 10 years later (hey, building an ark takes time). Noah has a new son named Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) and that young girl has grown into the comely Ila (Emma Watson). Though barren because of her wound, she's caught the eye of oldest son Shem (Douglas Booth), which leaves next son Ham (Logan Lerman) feeling left out.
Noah, however, has more pressing problems. Villainous local ruler Tubal-cain (Winstone) has heard about the ark (news travels slowly but it travels) and shows up with his pagan hordes demanding to be taken on board when the time comes. Noah puts the kibosh on that idea, but you don't have to be as wise as Methuselah to predict that this question will be revisited, and violently, once the rains begin.
As "Noah's" hectic plot wends its biblical way, you have to respect this film's colossal nerve even if you can rarely take its situations as seriously as creator Aronofsky does. With its determination to tell this traditional story in its own way, it begins to oddly echo the very different but equally individualistic Old Testament epics put out by the old master himself, Cecil B. DeMille. The creator really does work in mysterious ways.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Playing: In general release