"Noah" delivers a visionary storm

Today we are living through an age of pure spectacle at the movies. Here comes Darren Aronofsky, director of the acclaimed psychological ballet drama "Black Swan," to prove that you can still use $130 million to make something with soul, intense vision and drama. His "Noah" is a grand epic and a film that is more than just a retelling of the Biblical tale. It has universal themes that are urgent and relevant.

Russell Crowe stars as Noah, a man living in a time long ago when humans have first begun corrupting the world through violence, war and avarice. Tribal groups stalk the land and cities are crumbling. Noah begins to dream visions of a coming judgment in the form of a flood to be unleashed by The Creator to cleanse the world. He warns his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and his sons, Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), of the impending storm.

With the help of the elder prophet Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), Noah's visions become clearer and he learns that he must build a great ship, an ark, to shelter the animal species of the world in order to replenish it once the coming flood subsides. It falls on Noah to carry out a task that means witnessing the annihilation of the world he knows.

Before the ideas and depth of the story, "Noah" is a notable experience because of its sheer visual beauty. Aronofsky shot the film in Iceland and presents vast landscapes embraced by earth and distant fog. He imagines a pre-historical world where stars are still visible in the sky during the day, where sunsets have a richer palette of color.

Aronofsky's usual cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, frames moments with such elegance and a lush use of firelight and daylight that you would think he was more a painter than filmmaker. One moment, where Noah steps out of his tent after dreaming of the flood into a lush sunset and is joined by his wife, was stunning in the way we only see their silhouettes. Aronofsky lets the scene play out with just their shadows. The music score by Clint Mansell adds to the power of the images with its atmosphere.

The big attraction is of course the flood and Aronofsky brings it to life convincingly. The moment when the rains come and desperate crowds, led by the film's warlord villain Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), lunge for the ark only to be thrashed by erupting gorges of water never felt false; instead it was visceral. It was wonderful to see Aronofsky use a shot I have always envisioned when reading this tale- the Earth from space, shrouded in storm clouds.

A sequence describing the Genesis version of creation is imagined with beautiful originality and a feverish, hypnotic rhythm in the editing of sequences showing the growth of nature, Adam & Eve as two luminous beings and the snake in the garden leading them to the forbidden fruit.

"Noah" has the unique quality of always feeling organic. The settings and visual effects always feel real because Aronofsky uses them to measured, precise effect. He never overloads the screen with CGI gimmicks because he cares about telling a story. The great storm, the mass of animals marching towards the ark, fallen angels turned into stone giants who help Noah, the ark itself, all feel like elements in a story, not its main attraction.

There is a great balance here of special effects and characters. The people feel real. Russell Crowe's Noah is a man feeling immense pressure and driven by a powerful, messianic vision. Yet he's not perfect. He feels doubt and is torn by what's happening.

Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson are also stand outs and play their roles with grace and strength. Watson continues her streak of breaking out of "Harry Potter" and into diverse, memorable roles.

But "Noah" is worth seeing for what it has to say.

With "Noah," Aronofsky does something special. He has been given a big Hollywood budget and utilizes it to re-imagine a story shared by several faiths including Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and craft it into a kind of universal parable about who we are as a civilization.

The script by Aronofsky and Ari Handel is full of intensity in the way it writes Noah as a good, fragile man in a world where the drive to conquer, destroy and devour is scarring the planet beyond repair.

The prologue which opens the film starts with text from the Book of Genesis but describes how after the fall of Adam and Eve an "industrialized" civilization has colonized and mined Earth. In the opening scenes we see warlords fighting over a golden substance of great value. Noah starts noticing that nature is acting off kilter and vegetation is growing unnaturally. Crowds of barbarous people fight each other for food.

In this film Noah almost becomes a prophet fit for the age of global warming, Fukushima and the ongoing wars raging in the Middle East.

In the style of writers like Walter Benjamin, Aronofsky is using theological texts to express truths about what is happening in the modern world. The script is full of themes dealing with how we treat each other, how we can be cruel, and yet how mercy and love can mean survival and regeneration for both a society and individuals.

For many, the story this film interprets is a matter of faith, but it can have for anyone the power of great literature, because it is about how we should take care of our home and ourselves.

These are themes not readily found in Hollywood action movies, and it was refreshing to find them here. "Noah" is special because of the breadth of its imagination and the power of its words.