The biblical epic “Noah” achieves something unique, almost a miracle, as director Darren Aronofsky deftly mixes epic scope and human-sized scale to interpret a classic story in a way that will anger all sides.
The story begins at the beginning — as in “in the beginning” — with Adam and Eve and their three sons: Cain, Abel and Seth. Cain slew Abel and brought a curse down upon himself and his descendants. Seth’s line went on for generations, leading to Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family.
Here, Aronofsky (“Black Swan”) and co-screenwriter Ari Handel depict Cain’s descendants — led by a king played by Ray Winstone — rapaciously despoiling the land for its resources. Meanwhile, Noah’s family is shown as proto-environmentalists, practicing sustainability and vegetarianism. This, Noah comes to understand, is why “The Creator” has decided to destroy humanity and start over.
In a vision, Noah sees that The Creator will not burn up the Earth, but flood it. “Fire consumes all, water cleanses,” Noah says to his wise grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopikins).
So Noah sets about to build an ark, which will carry two of every animal as well as Noah’s family — his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), their sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), and their adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), who becomes Shem’s wife. Also helping out the cause are The Watchers, massive guardian angels encased in stone.
If The Watchers sound like something you missed in Sunday School, that’s because they are derived from the Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish text that’s not in the traditional biblical canon. And that’s not the only place “Noah” diverts from a strict reading of Genesis. For example, the movie’s second half deals with Noah’s stubborn belief that a post-flood Earth should carry on without humanity.
Those who read the Bible literally may be upset that the film refers to The Creator, never the word “God.” It also never says Jehovah, Yahweh or Allah. (Noah is an important figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, after all.)
This same group also may object that this Creator speaks to Noah not directly but through visions — or that Noah’s a tree-hugger.
People who prefer a gentler reading of the Bible may be put off by Noah’s Old Testament rigidity or by an animated creation sequence that looks like “Cosmos” if you edited out Carl Sagan’s narration (as Seth McFarlane famously did on “Family Guy”).
Even with those caveats, there is much about “Noah” that is fascinating, even thrilling. Aronofsky’s visual interpretations of Eden, the flood and the ark are arresting, and the performances — particularly Crowe’s bearlike gruffness and Watson’s vulnerability — make this ancient story approachable for a modern audience.
That may be Aronofsky’s greatest gift in “Noah”: telling a story everyone thinks they know in a new and intriguing way.
A bold, intriguing look at the biblical story of the flood, visually striking and powerfully acted.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content.
Running time • 138 minutes.