Oah, Mistah Croah!
There are, I suppose, weirder choices of film projects than blockbuster fantasy versions of tales from the depths of the Old Testament, but not many. I suspect that the fact Paramount have embarked upon such an adventure, in the form of Noah, is not based upon the studio's confident belief in the bankability of this kind of film, but the past acclaim and success of director Darren Aronofsky and the box office clout of leading man Russell Crowe.
I suspect you know the story to this one already, more or less at least. The script is by Aronofsky and Ari Handel (based on an idea by some 6th century Judaean priests) and is rather coy about the exact setting of the film – you can treat it as proper history if you really want to, but the fantasy quotient is also comfortably high. Ten generations after the creation of the world, humanity has split into two factions along ideological lines – with those who see the Earth as something to be relentlessly exploited very much in the ascendant, and those desiring to live in harmony with nature living in fear of their lives.
Noah (Crowe) and his family are pretty much all that is left of the latter group, eking out a fairly miserable existence in the wasteland the mechanistic civilisation has reduced the world to. But then Noah has a vision: and, not to put too fine a point on it, it looks like rain...
Not quite sure what to make of this, Noah and his nearest and dearest trek off to the remote hermitage of his grandad Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who fills him in on the finer points of what's in the offing. With the help of a gang of fallen angels who look rather like cobbled Ents, Noah sets about measuring his cubits and gathering the gopher wood.
Inevitably, as the time of the inundation draws closer, others take an interest in Noah's little project, particularly Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), king of one of the destructive human nations. Tubal-Cain is quite keen to get a berth on the Ark for himself, and isn't above attempting to suborn Noah's kids to do so. Noah himself has other problems, not least the issue of finding wives for all his sons. Sometimes it never rains, but it pours...
There has been some media coverage of Russell Crowe's industrious efforts to secure a celebrity endorsement for Noah by showing it to the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, mainly (one suspects) because of the sheer size of the potential Christian audience this could help the film tap into. The slightly quirky decision not to use the word 'God' once in the entire movie aside, it seems to me that there's very little here to frighten the Biblical-literalist horses, in the sense that the movie takes the Book of Genesis at face value – for all that it embellishes the story in some fairly eye-opening ways (battles with giant stone angels and so on), there's nothing here that directly contradicts the scriptural account.
There is something compellingly bizarre about the way in which the film works very hard to treat such an extravagant story so seriously. Tranquility on the Ark, for instance, is secured by doping all the animals aboard it into suspended animation for the duration of the voyage (this also explains why it doesn't fill up with dung before the end of the film). Noah himself is treated with an unexpected level of psychological realism, but then in these particular circumstances this makes a certain degree of sense. All in all, watching Noah I had a strange sense that this was a blockbuster fantasy film of which the Christian right might well approve.
I'm not sure I was very comfortable with that, and it did make me wary of the environmental message which is central to the story: the subtext of the film is 'live green or die', which ordinarily I'd agree with, but not when it's presented as some kind of religious fundamentalist dogma. (On the other hand, another major theme is whether the planet wouldn't be better off without the human race, a suggestion which I can't imagine many religions getting behind.) The earnestness of the film in this and other departments is a bit of a problem, too: Anthony Hopkins does his usual formerly-Welsh twinkliness, but apart from this Noah is an extremely po-faced film, presumably in order to avoid charges from its target audience of irreverence towards scripture.
This doesn't stop the film being very, very strange for most of its running time. It looks good, as you'd expect from Aronofsky, with the antediluvian world looking pretty post-apocalyptic anyway, and some decent special effects. Jennifer Connelly honestly doesn't get much to do as Mrs Noah – Emma Watson as the daughter-in-law gets more decent material – but Crowe, Winstone, and Hopkins all bring their customary commitment and presence, as well as a slight tendency to chew on the scenery (in light of which it's a bit unfortunate that various scenes depict characters wandering about shouting 'Ham! Ham!').
On its own peculiar terms the film remains interesting and pacy for its first two acts, but I did find the final third to be rather tough going, to the point of actually being slightly twisted. The stuff with everyone on the Ark, post-flood, does go on a bit, and wanders off into some distinctly unexpected areas (there's some hand-to-hand combat, for instance, plus Noah threatening to turn into a swivel-eyed murderous headcase). I was looking forward to the bit where Noah says 'At my command, unleash doves,' but this doesn't happen. Genesis 9:23 does make it into the movie though, just another example of the permeating weirdness of the project.
Going in to see Noah I was fairly certain that this was the proverbial win-win scenario: either Aronofsky was going to make an interestingly original and visually sumptuous film, or just a hilariously bad one, either of which I would happily watch. In the end, though, I think Noah is somewhere in between: the conception of the film is deeply, deeply odd, unless you genuinely believe the Flood to have been an actual historical event, in which case you may well take exception to some of the film's more idiosyncratic embellishments on the traditional story (wondering what happened to the unicorns? Looks like Ray Winstone ate them both). But set against all this, it is a beautifully designed and photographed film with moments of real vision and power. I don't foresee a full-scale revival of the Biblical Epic as a major genre (though, hey, I'm the guy who predicted that Strictly Come Dancing would be a famous disaster, so what do I know?), nor even a massive box office return for this particular film. But I've never seen another film quite like it, and I've always found it hard to dismiss originality. Even so, Noah is engrossingly strange more than anything else.