Noah isn’t about a massive flood, or animals two by two, or a wrathful God. It features those things, but it is not about them. It’s about how man reacts to the evil of the men around him. Does he let that evil blind him to innocence, to goodness? Or does he accept that humans are not inherently evil, that good can win over the bad?
Noah (Russell Crowe) is certainly surrounded by evil. In a brief montage, we see how the line of Cain has come to dominate creation, despoiling its land and killing its creatures. The industrial cities of Cain’s heirs spread like a plague as descendants of Seth—Abel and Cain’s infrequently mentioned brother—attempt to live in harmony with the world.
When he’s a child, Noah’s father is murdered in front of his eyes. As an adult, he must keep his three sons and his wife safe from bands of marauders. And as Noah’s family treks through the barren wastelands—felled forests, pools of toxic waste, abandoned strip mines—they come across a family of scavengers nearly wiped out in a vicious attack. Only a young girl (Ila, portrayed by Emma Watson as the character ages) survives. Noah adopts her.
The patriarch must teach his boys the right way to live in an evil, fallen world, a world so evil and fallen that its creator has decided it must be cleansed of human life. With the aid of his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) and a collection of fallen angels encased in earth (think Ents, but made of rock rather than wood), Noah will build an ark, protecting two of every creature as floodwaters wipe out humanity.
The effort will not be without peril. Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), the last descendant of Cain, pledges to lead an army to take the ark. He believes in the primacy of man and its dominion over the world: animals are to be eaten; the earth to be mined; and only the fittest are to survive. Angry with the creator for ignoring his pleas, lacking empathy or remorse, Tubal-cain is the embodiment of man’s wickedness. The camp he builds near the ark represents all that disgusts Noah about his fellow man.
In a Bruegel-like sequence in which Noah attempts to find wives for his sons, we see the full horror of humanity’s terrible quest for survival. Children are sold into sex slavery for a handful of meat as the filthy encampment builds weapons with which Tubal-cain plans to take the ark. In one particularly horrifying moment, a mob is sated when a goat, still living, is tossed into the crowd. It is ripped limb from limb as its horribly human-like screams echo, its entrails grabbed by the starving masses. The beast looks at Noah in horror as it is quartered—and Noah sees himself in the crowd.
Man’s inhumanity, he takes this vision to mean, is within us all. There will be no wives for his sons. Noah and his line will be the last of humankind.
Like the pessimists of our own time, Noah has looked on a world wracked with crime and pollution and decided that humanity is little more than a plague, a problem to be wiped from the earth. He is unable to see the good in anyone—even he, who was chosen by God to lead his family to safety and steward the rebirth of the animal kingdom—and this blindness sends Noah down a dark path, a voyage that quickens when it is revealed that Ila is pregnant with his eldest son’s child. The final act of the film revolves around Noah’s internal struggle: Will he condemn humanity to extinction or accept the possibility of its salvation?
Noah is an intense film and not for the faint of heart. The screams of the damned as they drown around the ark are haunting, their impact on Noah and his family plain. The massive battle sequence as Tubal-cain’s clan besieges Noah and his family is both forceful and surprisingly emotionally affecting, given that it involves what amount to giant rock monsters stomping on hordes of computer-generated humans.
Director Darren Aronofsky’s stamp is all over Noah, from montages to nightmarish dream sequences populated with doppelgangers. He seems comfortable working with a nine-figure budget despite never before having made a film for more than $35 million. His vision is not swamped by the film’s epic scope, and for that we should be thankful. Aronofsky has pulled off the rare feat of producing a blockbuster spectacle with unique visual flair, a solid emotional core, and an interesting idea.
Russell Crowe is the perfect actor for Aronofsky’s vision. Gruff and gentle, skilled with a blade and tormented by his visions, Crowe proves yet again that no one anchors an epic as well as he. It will be unfortunate if, come Oscar season, the Academy fails to recognize his brilliant turn.