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Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Regency Entertainment

Noah may not be a perfect film, or even a great one, but it has much to recommend it: tremendous ambition, an intelligent concept and superior craftsmanship. At the outset, I was reminded of Darren Aronofsky’s audacious debut feature pi; it’s a long road from that provocative indie to this $130 million dollar epic, but the filmmaker is still an original thinker and visualist. Not that Noah is aimed at the art-house crowd: it’s a mass-audience movie that dares to expand upon what we know about a famous Biblical figure. (Two nuns sitting near me were impressed with Aronofsky’s research and gave the picture their wholehearted approval.)

Trouble begins with Original Sin. Some generations later, Noah has a vision which he doesn’t understand, at first. Gradually he realizes that the Creator has chosen him to help the innocents of the world (namely, the animals) survive a flood that will wipe humankind off the face of the earth.

In terms of spectacle, Noah delivers what you would expect in the era of CGI: the building of the ark and the coming of the flood are particularly impressive. Oddly, the parade of animals toward the ark doesn’t have the impact it should because we’ve been conditioned to take this kind of imagery for granted. If there had been just one live elephant or giraffe it might have sold the sequence better; it’s an unfortunate missed opportunity.

What one doesn’t expect to see is a collection of characters who might have come from a Ray Harryhausen feature. These fallen angels are known as the Watchers and look like a string of boulders cobbled together in skeletal form. They serve an important role in the saga and certainly enliven the film as a piece of entertainment.

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Photo by Niko Tavernise - Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises

But Noah rises or falls on the human element of its story, largely invented by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky and his screenwriting partner Ari Handel. They succeed in the expositional portion of the film, as we meet the devout, kindhearted hero and his loving family. Russell Crowe gives one of his best performances in the lead, and Jennifer Connelly is quite good as his loving, patient wife. The younger leads do their best, but their roles—and dialogue—are more problematic.

The film faces its greatest challenge in the climactic portion of the story, as Noah is put to his ultimate test. Here the movie becomes overheated and angst-ridden, as Noah alienates himself from his own family, for the sake of fulfilling his covenant with the Creator. We understand what is at stake, but some of the histrionics flirt uncomfortably with melodrama.  

Noah benefits from standout performances in two key supporting roles. Anthony Hopkins brings a welcome, unexpected lightness of touch to his portrayal of Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather, while Ray Winstone reminds us of his extraordinary power as Tubal-cain, the ferocious leader who dares to defy Noah. It takes a commanding actor to stand toe to toe with Russell Crowe at his most imposing, and Winstone is the man for the job.

I give Aronofsky credit, not just for tackling this subject matter, but for making a broadly entertaining, great-looking movie, even with its flaws. Noah is a distinctive film, even with its flaws, and certainly worth seeing.