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MOVIE REVIEW: Sweeping epic 'Noah' mostly runs aground

Sweeping epic ‘Noah’ mostly runs aground

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Russell Crowe stars as Noah in “Noah.”

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From left, Jennifer Connelly is Naameh and Russell Crowe is Noah in “Noah.” (Photo: Paramount)

LOS ANGELES — Unlike the thousands of CGI beasts of the land and air who hitch a ride on “Noah,” Darren Aronofsky’s highly anticipated epic is neither fish nor fowl; in no way is it a straightforward Bible tale (and given the brevity of Genesis’ account of the flood, such a thing would be next to impossible) nor is it the sort of unfettered freak-out that fans of “Black Swan,” “Pi” or “The Fountain” would expect from its director and co-writer (with Ari Handel).

“Noah” has its share of interesting ideas, from rock-covered fallen angels to Noah’s idea that he and his family should be the last human beings on earth, per his interpretation of what “the creator” tells him, but the film winds up feeling like a bit of a soggy slog, both overblown and underwritten.

The tricky thing about adapting Bible stories into drama is that the characters tend to have only one or two dominant traits rather than emerging as richly complicated people. In the case of “Noah,” we not only have to allow for quite literal deus ex machina — a lot of story elements can only be swallowed with a healthy dose of “because God willed it, that’s why” — but we’re also forced to deal with the practical implications of a story that ends up with a handful of people being left to repopulate the planet, most of whom are already related by blood.

As “Noah” tells it, the world was divided after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Abel’s murder of Cain — the line of Cain built decadent cities and exploited the resources, and the line of Seth lived in peace and harmony. As such, Cain’s heirs pretty much wiped out Seth’s, until the only one left among the latter is young Noah, who witnesses the murder of his own father.

Years later, Noah (Russell Crowe) and his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) try to instill their values in their sons. One night, Noah has a vision of a terrible flood; he visits his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who slips him a mickey via some hallucinogenic tea, leaving Noah convinced that he must build an ark to save the animals of the world while the creator wipes out the wicked with a great flood.

Methuselah gives Noah a seed when, which planted, creates a spring (or fountain, for you future MFA candidates looking for motifs in Aronofsky’s work) that in turn causes a forest to spring up all across the wasteland. With the help of the watchers (the aforementioned angels, who were encrusted with rock and lava when they fell to earth trying to help mankind), Noah builds his watercraft. (Aronofsky apparently follows the specs from Genesis, leading to a rather boxy and unwieldy ship and not the usual curved-bow boat we’ve seen in previous adaptations.)

While oldest son Shem (Douglas Booth) is in love with Ila (Emma Watson) — adopted by Noah as a young girl after he finds her wounded and abandoned — there are no potential wives for middle son Ham (Logan Lerman, Watson’s “Perks of Being a Wallflower” co-star) or young Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). Noah goes out amidst the wicked (who have camped out in the area just outside the ark’s construction site) to rustle up some more daughters-in-law, but when he sees Satan with Noah’s face, he thinks this means God intends to wipe out humanity, including Noah’s own bloodline.

This doesn’t go over particularly well with the rest of the family, especially after Methuselah blesses Ila’s previously barren womb. (If you’re prone to inappropriate snickering, bite down hard during this moment.) Once the admittedly impressive flood happens, the third act vacillates between Noah threatening to murder Ila’s child and an embittered Ham hiding the evil Tubal Cain (Ray Winstone), who has stowed away on the ark.

“Noah” has snakes and bears and herbalist anesthesia and rock-angels and rampaging armies and panicky sinners, so why is it such a drag? Clearly Aronofsky isn’t out to make yet another stodgy Bible movie, but it often feels as though he’s reining in his showier artistic impulses lest he offend the faithful. As a result, he’s wound up with a movie that will please neither the “Son of God” crowd nor the people excited about a reunion between the director and leading lady of “Requiem for a Dream.”

Crowe pretty much plays it straight, maintaining his hoarse intensity even when Noah goes to some dark places in what he thinks is the service of the creator. All the other characters are too easily summed up (e.g. “loyal,” “loving,” “duplicitous”), leaving little room for the actors to flesh them out.

Some might consider the story of Noah to be as much of a bad-luck charm to the movies as “Macbeth” is to the stage; the 1928 “Noah’s Ark,” produced by young Darryl F. Zanuck, infamously led to the drowning of several extras during the big flood scene. No animals or cast members were harmed by “Noah,” true, but this new vessel doesn’t do much for the floating zookeeper’s big-screen reputation.