Jennifer Connelly and Russell Crowe in Noah/Photo © 2012 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Ever since the approach of 2012, the once-predicted date of the Rapture, we've been deluged -- figuratively, at least --with apocalypse movies. Apocalyptic comedies ("This is the End," "The World's End"); apocalyptic zombie movies ("28 Days Later," "Warm Bodies"); apocalyptic romances ("Seeking a Friend for the End of the World"); apocalyptic indies ("It's a Disaster"); apocalyptic action movies ("Pacific Rim," "World War Z"); apocalyptic sci-fi ("Oblivion," "After Earth"). Heck, we've even been treated to apocalyptic auteur vehicles like Abel Ferrara's "4:44 Last Day on Earth," Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion," and Lars von Trier's "Melancholia"-- the latter also comprising a subgenre unto its own: the apocalyptic navel-gazer.
But leave it to Darren Aronofsky, that legendarily big-scale thinker, to tackle the mother lode of all apocalypse stories, not to mention to literally "deluge" us. In the writer-director's latest, our Creator sends a vision to Noah (played, somewhat inevitably, by the thunderously indignant Russell Crowe); Noah builds an ark to save his family and the animals; our Creator floods out the rest of humanity. It's the subtext of nearly every apocalyptic movie ever made -- humankind has made such a mess of it that it's being abolished-- as supertext. In hindsight, it's also what Aronofsky has been working up to ever since his debut feature, "Pi," about a mathematician attempting to explain all of nature through numbers. Not surprisingly given "Noah's" controversial, ahem, source material, nearly every camp has weighed in -- in many cases long before the film's release. Most Christian organizations have cried foul -- so much so that Crowe felt compelled to campaign for the Pope's approval on Twitter -- and Paramount conspicuously hedged its bets, delaying critics screenings and reportedly testing non-director's cuts despite Aronofsky's protests. Some naysayers have expressed dismay about the film's blasphemous hippy-dippiness: This Noah is an eco-moralizing vegetarian. Others have objected to the film's core misanthropy: With his mega-beard, off-the-grid isolationism, and mass homicidal impulses, Noah bears suspicious resemblance to the Unabomber. But what does surprise is how well this film generally has been received, at least if you're not Glenn Beck. (This movie inspired the conservative commentator to try his hand at film criticism: "Like Sinbad the Sailor meets The Shining and Friday the 13th with a sprinkle of Mad Max.") To some extent that's because every aspect of "Noah" is so carefully crafted. The lush naturalism of cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky's long-time collaborator, recalls Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel. The editing -- big hypnagogic loops -- sidesteps the ADD of the typical action movie without ever letting up. The loom-woven apparel is uniquely ungendered. Species of antediluvian animals are imagined in breathtaking CGI sequences. The casting is spot-on, with Anthony Hopkins as a twinkling Methuselah and Jennifer Connelly brimming with compassion and fortitude as Noah's wife. Even good old Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) finds a place in this New World as a match for Noah's good son, Shem.
And Aronofsky's script, co-written by Ari Handel, fills in the somewhat cursorily sketched Biblical story with masterly detail: the animals are herbally anesthetized in the Ark; Noah and Ham's conflict is ratcheted up by Tubal-cain; visions are ushered in with hallucinogens; a dried snakeskin from the Garden of Eden's serpent serves as amulet; forests appear out of thin air; the Ark is built by "Watchers," rock-encased angels of light. You get the sense that the time of Noah is close enough to Creation to still abound in magic -- handy, since Noah refuses to interact with any human outside his clan. He's not even sure if his own line is worth saving. His debate about whether to allow his sons to reproduce in The New World comprises the second half of this film though it's not alluded to in the Bible. That we remain swept up despite knowing his decision is as much a feat as it was to make "Titanic" exciting.
Really, "Noah" works so well because it is such a personal take on this biblical story. All of Aronofsky's favorite themes -- the fine line between soothsaying and madness; the intersection of spirit and science; the wretched state of humanity; the potential meaninglessness of our existences -- are writ large here. And to project our trepidations and obsessions upon the fate of the entire world is the ultimate Hollywood endeavor, which explains the proliferation of all these apocalypse movies. (That, and the satisfaction we secretly feel when our fears are realized.) "Noah" is the origin apocalypse movie, and in making it Aronofsky has called all of our bluffs.