"Noah" is not the greatest story ever told. Or made.
In some ways, it's the opposite of "Son of God," which was built around material already shown on cable television and told in capable but unremarkable fashion.
This is an unconventional account of the righteous man chosen by God to survive, with his family and pairs of animals marched aboard a homemade ark, while a great flood cleanses the Earth of corruption and violence. It has moments of beauty and power -- a sensational sped up dramatization of the six days of creation -- and some silliness, too.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson.
Rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content.
Director Darren Aronofsky ("Black Swan," "The Wrestler") acknowledges his detour from the sacred and succinct text, even while delivering the touchstones of the tale. "Instead of repeating what's been seen before, we looked carefully at what is written in Genesis, and then created a setting on screen where we felt these miracles could take place," he says.
In other words, liberties are taken.
The movie rests on the burly shoulders of Russell Crowe and he is more than up to the task, delivering one of the strongest, most natural performances of his career. But the epic threatens to sink under the weight of a couple of storylines aboard the ark that seem designed to gin up the tension and entertainment value.
"Noah" reunites Mr. Crowe and "A Beautiful Mind" co-star Jennifer Connelly as the title character and his wife, here called Naameh. They are the parents of three boys, Shem, Ham and Japheth, and adopt an orphaned girl, Ila, whom they discover injured amid the dead in a refugee camp.
Noah, a descendant of Seth (brother to Cain and Abel), is a respectful caretaker of the Earth, telling one of his sons early on, "We only collect what we can use." On hunters who think eating animals makes them strong: "Don't forget, strength comes from the Creator."
After God tells Noah in a dream that he is going to destroy the world, Noah seeks the counsel of his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), and embarks on building an ark.
Noah informs his family they have been chosen to save the innocent -- the animals -- and to start again in a "new, better world." Digitally created "Watchers" or fallen angels, here envisioned as stony giants illuminated from within, do much of the heavy lifting for the ark, an enormous rough-hewn rectangle with no cute windows for animals to pop their heads out.
Never far away is a reminder and ringleader of the wicked: Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a descendant of Cain. He tries to rally his troops like a blackhearted Braveheart.
Giving Noah an enemy in human form is not a fatal error, but the script by Mr. Aronofsky and Ari Handel errs in the casting or characterization of Ham, the middle son played by Logan Lerman of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."
He is saddled with a story that is hard to swallow while his "Perks" co-star Emma Watson nicely blends tenderness and toughness as the older Ila. Douglas Booth portrays eldest son Shem, and newcomer Leo Carroll is young Japheth. Ms. Connelly, who made a string of recent movies that were barely distributed to theaters, returns to excellent form here.
The Bible, by the way, mentions that Noah, his wife, their three sons and their three wives enter the ark, which is not exactly how it happens here.
A movie called "Noah" needs to do two things well: Put animals on the screen and make it rain. The filmmaker used digital creations and sculpted replicas of reptiles, mammals and birds that appear lifelike for their limited screen time. As for the rain, it takes a good 75 minutes for the first fierce raindrop and another 10 for the apocalyptic storm to kick in, and it packs a wallop.
"Noah" raises questions about justice, mercy, responsibility ("We broke the world, we did this," Noah laments), and whether man has sovereignty over the animals or is ruled by heaven.
Does wickedness reside within each of us? Can paradise and man coexist? Do innocent people deserve to die with the evil? Has God sent Noah 'round the bend or has he gone mad with the prospect of one more sacrifice?
"Noah" loses its moorings before its 138-minute running time but it's an ambitious, worthwhile undertaking. It doesn't fully succeed but it takes risks, plunging into charged waters where condemnations come from people who may never see the movie, at a time when most directors seek shelter in the tried and true.
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.