Darren Aronofsky’s Noah pays its source material a rare compliment: It takes Genesis seriously as a landmark of world literature and ancient moral reflection — and a worthy source of artistic inspiration in our day.

It is not a "Bible movie" in the usual sense, with all the story beats predetermined by the text and actors in ancient Near Eastern couture hitting their marks and saying all the expected things.

It is something more vital, surprising and confounding: a work of art and imagination that makes this most familiar of tales strange and new: at times illuminating the text, at times stretching it to the breaking point and at times inviting cross-examination and critique.

For many pious moviegoers, I suspect some of the film’s more provocative flourishes will be a bridge too far, if that’s not mixing metaphors in this context. Less pious viewers, meanwhile, may be deterred by the biblical subject matter. Have Aronofsky (brought up with a Jewish education) and co-writer Ari Handel made a film that’s too religious for secular viewers and too secular for religious ones? Who is the audience?

Well, I am, to begin with. For a lifelong Bible geek and lover of movie-making and storytelling like me, Noah is a rare gift, with its blend of epic spectacle, midrashic reimagining of Scripture and startling character drama. It’s a movie that offers much to look at, much to think about and much to feel — a movie to argue about and argue with.

It’s certainly not the picture-book story that most of us grow up with, all cheerful ark-building, adorable animals and a grave, pious, white-bearded protagonist. Noah, played by a flinty, authoritative Russell Crowe, is the hero, but that doesn’t make him saintly. Or, if he is saintly, it’s worth recalling that some of the saints could be off-putting, harsh and even ruthless.

For millennia, Judeo-Christian imagination has been haunted by the idea of the primordial world before the Flood: a world so close to paradise, in which men lived many hundreds of years, and Eden itself was around some forbidden corner, guarded by cherubim with a flaming sword. Genesis 6 suggests that giants walked the earth then — offspring, in one interpretation, of human women and fallen angelic beings.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories, particularly those of the earlier ages of Middle-Earth, offered an imaginative picture of the primeval earth, and his best-known works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, resound with echoes of this lost world. Aronofsky’s Noah includes imaginative flourishes akin to Tolkien — the first half has grim portents, grotesque Ent-like Watchers and battles in a Mordor-esque blasted waste; the second half has a dark family struggle not unlike that of Denethor and his sons.

Yet the story’s biblical framework is taken seriously and even literally, the narrative rife with scriptural ideas and imagery. We see glimpses of Eden, Adam and Eve in glory, the serpent and the forbidden fruit and the crime of Cain. Though paradise is lost, the Earth has not yet forgotten it, as Tolkien’s rocks and woods remembered the elves after they had gone. In a key sequence, an echo of Eden bursts forth in a rapturous effect that recalls Genesis 2:9-10.

Among the highlights is a recounting of the six days of creation, not in a prologue, but strategically positioned at a key moment when characters have reason to look back. This soaring sequence, in which the six days are artfully dovetailed with imagery that would be at home in a nature documentary, is, for me, the film’s theological pinnacle.

We meet Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), Noah’s great-grandfather — whom even the Watchers call "the old one" — who seems to carry some vestige of Adam’s Edenic glory and preternatural power. There are hints of what will be after the deluge, notably the Tower of Babel, in the proud boast of tyrannical Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), "Men united are invincible!"

Compared to most characters in costume dramas nowadays, characters in Noah are both more recognizably human yet also more persuasively other. The Creator speaks to Noah not in a voice from heaven, but in visions and portents, and Noah’s apprehension of his will may be deeply, even shockingly, flawed. The film proposes that Bible characters faced challenges, dilemmas and uncertainties as knotty as those we face today.

The women in Noah’s life, Naameh, his wife (Jennifer Connelly), and young Ila (Emma Watson), the wife of his son Shem (Douglas Booth), are strong, vivid characters, and both get terrific, wrenching scenes. Yet, provocatively, the story’s ethos is frankly patriarchal; Noah’s word is law for his family — and even venerable Methuselah upholds Noah’s sole right to choose the path for his family and for the whole human race.

The conflict in Noah’s family begins with the resentment of young Ham (Logan Lerman), who has no wife and envies Shem’s relationship with Ila. As the story progresses, the assertion in 1 Peter 3:20 that "eight in all" were saved on the ark (Noah, his wife, their three sons and their wives) seems to be in jeopardy. Yet, in the end, the filmmakers can claim to have satisfied the text.

I could easily write an essay on Aronofky’s Watchers and the film’s reworking of Genesis 6, Enoch and Jubilees. The film’s Watchers are creatures of heaven and earth, beings of light bound in rock, with six misshapen limbs corresponding to the six wings of the seraphim.

In this telling, the Watchers’ misdeeds are not malicious, but ill-fated. Theological correctness is not an absolute necessity for movie angels (think of It’s a Wonderful Life), but some might wonder whether this borders on sympathy for the devil.

I prefer to think of it another way. The satanic presence in Noah is the serpent in the garden, a figure of pure malevolence and evil. These Watchers are not of his ilk. That makes them, to my mind, a fictional class of semi-fallen angels, estranged from the Creator but not wholly corrupted.

What about pre-release fears that Noah would be rife with themes of environmentalism and overpopulation? Thankfully, overpopulation is not a theme in the film, and the biblical theme of "Be fruitful and multiply" is affirmed. There is an environmental slant that, though at times heavy-handed, is generally consistent with the biblical principle of: "In the beginning, God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2402).

Noah’s most notable shortcoming, in my view, is a vision of man that falls somewhat short of the biblical view of man as the pinnacle of God’s creative work. Noah is clear that man has the potential both for good and for evil, and it does affirm that man is created in God’s image — though when the heroes say this, it is always immediately tied to responsibility for creation. Only the villain seems persuaded of the "greatness" of man; only he uses (or misuses) the biblical language of "subduing" and "dominion" to justify his rapacious ways.

Yet the villain also says, "A man isn’t ruled by the heavens; a man is ruled by his will." Noah, meanwhile, says, "Strength comes from the Creator." There is a challenge to the secular mindset that, in context, rings truer than standard Bible movie pieties.

Aronofsky has been pondering the Noah story for decades and working on this film for more than 15 years. Somehow, he has brought the first major big-studio Bible film in decades to the screen. It’s an outlier for the genre, to be sure: the work of an uncompromising filmmaker who makes the movies he wants to make.

It’s not often that a movie with giant rock monsters also has me pondering apocryphal literature and the Big Bang — and also makes me cry.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.

He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

 

Caveat Spectator: Action violence and battle mayhem; a childbirth scene (nothing explicit); brief sensuality; theological ambiguities requiring critical thought. Might be fine for thoughtful, mature teens.