The version of the creation story that Noah tells has Cain meeting fallen angels in the wasteland outside of Eden. These sad creatures, banished forever from heaven and stuck in a monstrous earthbound form, help Cain start an industrial civilization. The descendants of Cain turn out to be greedy and venal, waging war against each other and destroying all of creation. Meanwhile the descendants of Adam’s third son Seth remained loyal to the creator, and live out simple lives in respect of every living thing. Noah (Russell Crowe) is mainly trying to keep his family safe from the descendants of Cain, living as a nomad in the wilderness, trying to avoid all contact with man. But then he has a dream of a great flood, and realizes that the creator has a greater purpose for him.
The story of Noah’s Ark is deceptively simple, but its deeper themes are often difficult and contradictory. When broken down into the simplest terms, it is a story of genocide. Taken a step further, it can be seen as either the story of an omnipotent being rectifying a mistake that should have never been made, or a grand divine plan that involves killing almost everything that exists in creation. Any adult interpretation of the story will necessarily be difficult to swallow, and Noah, to its credit, embraces the difficulty rather than simplify the problems. What results is a mess, though a fascinating one for sure.
The movie is divided into three distinct movements. The first part, which follows Noah and his family in the years before the great flood, plays out like a fantasy blockbuster. It is a story of a grand quest, with the virtuous man in the world taking on an evil empire. There are CGI monsters and even one big battle. Once the family gets into the ark, the second movement begins. The movie becomes a psychological family drama, with Noah at odds with his family as he becomes convinced that the creator intends for them to die. And once we’re past that, the film enters an epilogue that details life after the ordeal.
It’s a strange movie to say the least. Any one of these movements could have been a movie of its own, each bearing its own distinct style and tone. The first segment is expansive, with wide barren landscapes and big, CGI-heavy battles. The second is claustrophobic. The third is idyllic. But these are all parts of the same movie, united by the weirdly broad, almost cartoonish treatment of the characters. Though each idea, taken on its own, has some intriguing appeal, together they form an incoherent collage.
The argument for humanism represented by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) is really interesting, but the film makes it difficult to take seriously by having the character be such an openly sneering villain. The film’s expansion of the curse of Ham (played here in adulthood by Logan Lerman) offers intriguing perspective, but it still limits it to the language of big fantasy cinema. The story of the fallen angels is terribly compelling, but in the end they’re just tools to add a sense of scale to big CGI battles. As Noah, Russell Crowe plays both madman and devout, hero and villain. He might be the one thing in the movie that perfectly captures the myriad approaches that it’s trying to take.
Noah tries very hard to reconcile its big blockbuster tendencies with its big questions about the nature of faith. While the effort is admirable, the end product just refuses to cohere. One must give it credit, though: this film is an utterly unique vision. At points, it can be genuinely stunning, the film running deep into the primal conflicts that emerge when one tries to live a life of faith in the face of a seemingly uncaring world. But more often than not, the film just throws in another one of its fanfiction-y ideas, and loses the core of its thinking.