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Noah has gotten a lot of flack for its free interpretation of the Genesis Flood narrative; even the Washington Post ran the clickbait headline "How accurate is Noah?" Leaving aside the question of whether religious texts themselves are "accurate," or need to be, it's worth noting that people didn't always seek literalism in their biblical dramatizations.

In the Renaissance, devout Catholics flocked to mystery plays that depicted Noah and his wife squabbling like sitcom characters. They knew scripture just fine; they wanted to be entertained by a storyteller's imaginative retelling. That's precisely what Noah is.

Director Darren Aronofsky and his frequent cowriter Ari Handel haven't added slapstick to scripture, as many anonymous authors of mystery plays did. Rather, they've given the story visual echoes of secular fantasies (like The Lord of the Rings) and elements of tragic drama that bring it closer to the Shakespearean tradition. Finally, they've slathered the whole construction with blockbuster-style epic grandeur as liberally as Noah (Russell Crowe) slathers his Ark with pitch. The resulting cinematic vessel has some leaks, but it's not boring to watch it pitch and roll.

The antediluvian part of the story takes place in a barren landscape reminiscent of The Road, with Noah and his family a last bastion of righteousness among the violent, rapacious kin of Cain. After Noah receives his vision of divine destruction, he's aided in his building of the Ark by Watchers, angels fallen from God's grace because of their Promethean attempts to aid man after the Fall. They're basically computer-animated rock piles, and the movie verges on silliness in scenes where these massive cairns bond with Noah's sons or defend the Ark from the armed hordes of jealous Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone).

Meanwhile, domestic trouble is a-brewing. Noah's wife (Jennifer Connelly) wants their bloodline to continue after the deluge, while his sons Shem and Ham (Douglas Booth and Logan Lerman) are eager to get themselves some conjugal action. But a walk through the hellish stronghold of Tubal-cain convinces Noah that mankind isn't worth saving. It's the Creator's will, he decides, to let the beasts inherit the earth.

Noah as radical environmentalist? The Flood story as a crisis-of-faith tale in which hope and humanism square off against moral absolutism? Noah is far from canonical, but Aronofsky's fans will recognize its overweening philosophical ambitions from his 2006 flop The Fountain, and its trippy visual style from most everything he's done. The Creation story (retold by Noah) is a small hallucinatory masterpiece, and there's an unforgettable shot of the Earth from space, its entire surface whorled by hurricanes.

Once the rain falls and the story becomes Ark-bound, it's less an epic than an overwrought chamber drama. Noah's wife and foster daughter (Emma Watson) clash with the patriarch over the question of progeny, while Ham is tempted by violence. There are hints of King Lear in this family conflict, and Noah's struggle to obey the cruel dictates of the Almighty (as he's chosen to interpret them) evokes the Abraham and Isaac story.

No doubt about it, Aronofsky has ditched the unquestioning Noah of Genesis for one whose God is distant and often inscrutable. This is a dark vision and not a feel-good affirmation, despite the animals boarding two by two. (Think twice about bringing young kids.)

Yet the very elements that make Noah less viable as a biblical blockbuster also mark it as an earnest engagement with faith. Aronofsky's version is far from literal, yet it's suffused with the awe and terror appropriate to a deity's very nearly genocidal wrath. The movie takes the central questions of religion too seriously to offer easy answers.

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Director: Darren Aronofsky

Writer: Darren Aronofsky. Ari Handel

Producer: Scott Franklin, Darren Aronofsky, Mary Parent and Arnon Milchan

Cast: Russell Crowe, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Kevin Durand, Douglas Booth, Dakota Goyo, Mark Margolis and Barry Sloane


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