Warning: The biblical epic "Noah" contains Darwinian imagery, environmentalist rhetoric and a deeply unflattering portrayal of the Old Testament prophet. Viewer discretion, especially among religious conservatives, is advised.
Then again, the movie that writer-director Darren Aronofsky ("Black Swan") has described as "the least biblical biblical film ever made" yet also one "respecting everything in the Bible" delivers on both counts. Starring Russell Crowe as God's chosen ark-builder and featuring a cast of CGI-generated thousands, "Noah" is part Tolkien-esque fantasy, part comic-book pulp and part scriptural exegesis. That heady blend won't please everybody, but "Noah" is a daringly inventive, thoroughly entertaining and ultimately very serious movie.
The pre-release controversy over Aronofsky's version of a sacred text has been so great that Paramount Pictures added a real disclaimer to its trailers warning moviegoers that "artistic license has been taken." That's an understatement.
"Noah" unfolds in a magical, lushly-colored realm -- shooting locales included Iceland and, more prosaically, Oyster Bay -- populated by semi-mythical beasts and giant rock-creatures called Watchers (listen for the gravelly voice of Nick Nolte). Proving further that this is not your grandfather's "Noah," Anthony Hopkins plays Noah's grandfather, Methuselah, as a hallucinogen-sipping shaman.
"Noah" began as a graphic novel by Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel, and the movie's first half often looks and sounds like one. (The crisp "chomp!" from Eve's apple nearly floats in a dialogue balloon.) As the flood nears, however, darker and more complex currents emerge. A ruthless warlord, Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), vies for the loyalty of Noah's son Ham (Logan Lerman), and Noah himself begins drifting toward madness. His adopted daughter, Ila (Emma Watson), will test Noah's faith in a way that recalls another dark chapter in the Bible, that of Abraham and Isaac. Jennifer Connelly, as Noah's wife, Naameh, provides the voice of reason and mercy.
We've come a long way since "The Ten Commandments" -- or have we? In some ways, "Noah" is thoroughly Hollywood. Crowe is as strong-jawed and patriarchal as Charlton Heston's Moses, and the movie is filled with scenes of spectacular disaster, raging battles and blinding light from heaven. Some may suspect it of pushing an agenda or meddling where it shouldn't, but "Noah" works precisely because it takes so many risks. It isn't preaching to, or against, any choir.