Noah

The floods is threat'ning
My very life today
Gimme, gimme shelter
Or I'm gonna fade away
—The Rolling Stones

Pick your gospel: the Scriptures or rock & roll. Both figure into director Darren Aronofsky's Noah, a biblical epic that follows no rules except its creator's teeming imagination.

The damn nerve! Yeah, like you'd expect Aronofsky the firebrand to trot out a gentle story of Noah escorting animals two-by-two into his ark while God destroys the world by flood. The Book of Genesis tells us why the Lord wanted a redo on creation, but reveals nothing about what Noah was thinking.

Enter Aronofsky, 45, to grapple with the unanswered Noah questions he has obsessed about since his teens. His Noah, played by Russell Crowe like a gathering storm, is a figure of howling torment, bowing to God's will even as he considers his own fragile humanity.

Heresy? Hardly – though the film will surely jangle scholars with its deviations, digital trickery, souped-up battles, pipe guns, sexual activity, an ark stowaway and what appear to be giant robot refugees from Michael Bay's Transformers protecting Noah and his family.

My advice: Hold off on burning Aronofsky at the stake till you see Noah, a film of grit, grace and visual wonders that for all its tech-head modernity is built on a spiritual core. The Brooklyn-born Aronofsky and his Harvard roomie and writing partner, Ari Handel – "two not very religious Jewish guys," says the director – are hellbent on making their Noah relevant for believers and skeptics alike.

An impossible task? Probably. Noah trips on its ambitions and a need to cram so damn much in. But you never doubt its passion to rise above formula and push boundaries. Aronofsky has been doing that since his 1998 debut feature, Pi, which used math and madness to discover, among other things, God's identity. His movies, from Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain (a test of patience even for die-hard fans) to The Wrestler and Black Swan, differ wildly in style and themes, but all plunge boldly into the minds of characters in crisis.

Crowe's nuanced performance holds steady as the world spins around Noah. It's a world including Noah's wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), unnamed in the Bible, and their three sons, Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo Carroll). The young-Hollywood quotient intensifies with Harry Potter's Emma Watson as the orphan Ila, Shem's intended. Ila is barren, which is a negative if you want to repopulate the world. One touch from Noah's mentor, Methuselah (a nicely droll Anthony Hopkins), followed by a quickie with Shem, solves the problem.

Stay with me. There's Noah's enemy, Tubal-Cain (the great Ray Winstone), whose followers are descended from Cain, the first murderer. They all want on the ark. The Watchers, fallen angels who look like Transformers made of stone, beat them off. Only Tubal-Cain manages to sneak on board, which causes no end of family strife, made worse when Noah wants to kill Ila's baby, since Noah claims God wants only animals to inherit the Earth.

Got that? There's enough plot here to fill 40 days and 40 nights of reality TV. But Crowe makes Noah's self-doubt believable and moving. Aronofsky wants us to share the tension Noah feels between blind faith and free choice. And he's reaching millennials on their own digital terms, making images, gloriously shot by Matthew Libatique, into metaphors in the manner of Bible stories. The ark, built to scale on sets in Long Island and Brooklyn, is a primitive and powerful vessel, much like the movie that houses it. It's not just that Noah denies shelter for his fellow humans. In the name of God, he engages in the slaughter of enemies and innocents. Is he obeying orders or playing God? Miraculously, Aronofsky has spent $130 million of Hollywood money on a visionary art film that asks us to examine what we believe. In this flawed, fiercely relevant film, wonders never cease.

From The Archives Issue 1206: April 10, 2014