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God stars as destroyer

In Darren Aronofsky's 'Noah.'


'NOAH': Russell Crowe stars.
  • 'NOAH': Russell Crowe stars.

The epic "Noah," a watchable if relentlessly weird adaptation of the book of Genesis' grisliest passage, carries a rating of PG-13, for all the things that make the Bible such a favorite around the holidays: "violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content." For anyone who spent Sunday school sleeping in, this is the episode in which the Creator, as Noah and his family call God, notices what a bunch of irredeemable scoundrels humans have become and decides to push the reset button. Violent and disturbing only begins to sketch it.

To our everlasting luck, there was one fellow — Russell Crowe, as a proto-steampunk vegetarian — whom the Creator tipped off. Noah builds a triple-decker brick-shaped boat the size of a small mall, and when the rains come, he and a menagerie of birds, beasts and bugs ride out the tempest while everyone and everything else, including the dinosaurs, we can only presume, are duly and permanently smote.

This is a story so short and simple that you could read the King James version fully during the end credits of "Noah." And yet what a tale! It has been nightmare fuel for millennia, but the Bible tells us little about Noah, other than that he could build a boat like a boss. The Noah of "Noah" has a nice thing going — married to Jennifer Connelly, got three kids, grandson to Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) — in a bleak Icelandic dirtscape, until he starts getting pretty explicit signs from God, in the form of creepy dreams full of undersea corpses, that He's about to take a mulligan and it's going to get ugly.

Also, in a twist that you didn't see coming, there are some pious stone giants handy to help Noah and his family slap the ol' ark together on deadline. Not kidding.

Some of director/writer Darren Aronofsky's past work, not least "Requiem for a Dream," has suffered because of his apparent malice toward his characters. In this, he's not a bad fit to adapt Genesis. His Noah is a hero touched by God who cannot help but overthink the Creator's aims. When his three sons look around and find that only the eldest is bringing a wife (Emma Watson), Noah quells a family insurrection and surmises, not unreasonably, that their job is not to perpetuate this benighted species, but merely to shepherd the rest of the animal kingdom through the flood and then to die off slowly and in loneliness afterward. If Noah like Aronofsky seems like a misanthrope, well, remember that they like all of us were created in God's image.

For all of the clunkiness of "Noah," it does pick the right aspect of this fable to dote upon. Once the family escapes an army of would-be ark pirates (led by a Mad Maxish Ray Winstone) they're left to their own existential dread, huddled in a dark box as the screams of the dying leak in through the timber-and-pitch walls. Any bright child has picked apart this story with such questions as "How do the animals eat?" (turns out, they hibernate) and "Where does everyone go to the bathroom?" (unanswered, still). The slightly more advanced question is, "During months at sea, carrying the fate of every species including our own, in the dark and atop genocidal waves, how does everyone not go crazy?"

Madness may be inevitable on such a mission from God, as the Blues Brothers would likewise tell you, especially when the Creator becomes the Destroyer. Here's where "Noah" veers into the subversive, even as it takes a respectful route to smelting scripture into a big-budget spectacle. At some level, it's about how wrong we can be when we feel certain we understand God. This in a film about the guy who saved all life on the planet (except, like, all the plants, right? How did any plants survive? (etc., etc.) and yet not even he gets close enough to God to really understand what He wants, nor to play God, as it were. A Biblical epic that celebrates a dose of healthy skepticism is a "Noah" for modern times.

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