‘Noah’ branches outside typical blockbuster

Even for those who are unfamiliar with the Bible, the story of Noah’s Ark is a well-known tale, one that conjures up happy images of pairs of animals peacefully walking aboard a giant ark, shepherded by an old man with a flowing white beard. So while it seems like it was only a matter of time before Hollywood decided to remake this Biblical tale, it came as a surprise to many when it was announced that Darren Aronofsky would be helming a film adaptation with a $125 million budget. After all, this is the same director whose black and white feature debut “Pi” (1998) depicted a mathematician going insane over a number — so he’s not exactly the most obvious choice to direct a big budget Biblical epic. While some may have worried that the auteur was going mainstream with this latest film, “Noah” still retains Aronofsky’s unique imprint, making it a delightfully strange interpretation that — though far from perfect — is an engaging, thought-provoking film.

“Noah” centers on its titular character, played by Russell Crowe, who has descended from the line of Seth and works to protect and nourish all living things (i.e. plants and animals) made by the Creator. His nature stands in sharp contrast with the rest of humanity: descendents of Cain who have laid waste to the Earth by consuming its resources without regard for its environmental impact — an unsettling parallel to one of today’s main issues. This sector of mankind, led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), has devolved to the point where people are being traded for food. Noah, in the midst of this corrupt society, experiences a series of vivid hallucinations that convince him that God will cleanse the world of a sinful humanity and that he must build an ark.

While the rest of the initial story is probably familiar to viewers (hint: it involves 40 days and nights of rain), Aronofsky has taken significant creative license with the adaptation, making for a fascinating take on a story that, in another director’s hands, could have easily been a paint-by-the-numbers blockbuster. Unsurprisingly, the innovative detours Aronofsky has inserted have caused controversy, so much so that Paramount Pictures felt compelled to issue a statement clarifying that the film is not meant to be an entirely accurate depiction of the Bible. In fact, if one were shown only a few minutes from the first part of the film with no context, it could easily be confused for a post-apocalyptic fantasy saga. The pre-flood world in “Noah” contains fascinating visuals, from a bleak and barren landscape to the giant CGI angels trapped in rock bodies (known in the film as the Watchers). Indeed, the pre-flood portion of “Noah” certainly has the scope of an epic yet also possesses enough quirks to keep the proceedings interesting.

However, it’s not until Noah and his family are locked onboard the ark that things start to get truly weird. Following in the footsteps of his previous films “The Wrestler” (2008) and “Black Swan” (2010), Aronofsky once again traces the deteriorating effect that a singular obsession has on his protagonist. Noah is unwavering in his belief that God chose him to help cleanse the scourge of humanity from the face of the earth, and he will let no one — not even his own family — stop him from completing this task. This places Noah in direct conflict with his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), providing much of the film’s dramatic arc and ethical dilemmas.

Through Crowe’s fierce energy, Aronofsky explores how this manic obsession can approach insanity and highlights how this familial drama is escalated by the confined quarters of the ark. These themes, along with subtleties such as the screams of millions dying outside the ark while Noah’s family eats supper, make “Noah” seem more like a horror movie than a traditional epic film. While the second half of the movie lacks some momentum, this bizarre tension is what keeps “Noah” engrossing.

While “Noah” certainly takes risks for a traditional big budget film, it still has its fair share of issues. The film seems unsure of which tone it wants to adopt, alternating between a genuine sincerity and a dark edginess that leads to a somewhat confusing mixture. The script also has weak moments due to its heavy focus on Noah, which leaves many secondary characters relatively underdeveloped. Despite these issues, Aronofsky’s willingness to combine big budget spectacle with more unnerving elements makes “Noah” an entertaining film that may be divisive but definitely is far from boring.