"Noah" is an ambitious but unwieldy Biblical epic that is a mishmash of special effects and psychodrama, of hard-scrabble realism and worlds of fantasy, of mundane family conflicts and difficult theological concepts.
Sometimes, it's visually stunning and other times it's woefully under-imagined. Even the strong acting is counterbalanced with a fair share of wooden dialogue. All in all, "Noah" is a decidedly mixed blessing.
Russell Crowe makes for an impressive Noah, the demanding patriarch of a family of three boys. When he has a nightmare about drowning amidst dozens of corpses, he puzzles out its meaning with the help of his grandfather, Methuselah, who seems to have magical powers.
Noah eventually realizes his mission from God - to build an ark and save the animals, two by two.
Once the flood hits in earnest, the Bible doesn't provide a lot of information about the goings-on aboard the ark.
The opportunities for action scenes are pretty limited, and that poses a serious problem for an action-oriented epic. Curiously, director Darren Aronofsky decides to fill in the "action" gaps by giving Noah a dramatic crisis of conscience.
As if cribbing from Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard's analysis of Abraham's dilemma with God's order to sacrifice his son Isaac, the screenplay gives Noah a similar dilemma: whether to follow God's commands or to do what seems morally right.
For a mainstream movie, it's a daring take on the extremes to which faith can push us. Unfortunately, the film's resolution of that dilemma is surprisingly weak and makes you wonder why it was brought up at all, if it was only going to to be resolved so simplistically.
But if the film doesn't work dramatically or philosophically/theologically, it doesn't mean it's all for naught. The ark is truly impressive in its scale and brute design. Hewing closely to the description in the Bible, this ark is no fancy ship but rather a crude, massive long box made of nothing but logs and tar. After all, the ark was not meant to be steered anywhere. Its function was merely to survive the non-stop buffeting of the pounding waves and rain. The film does a very convincing job of presenting just how such a back-to-basics vessel could survive for 40 days and 40 nights. If nothing else, it's a great corrective to all those other Biblical movies with their prettified arks.
And the march of thousands of computer-generated animals into the ark is definitely epic-worthy - first the swooping birds, then the lumbering four-legged creatures, and finally the slithering reptiles and insects.
Even then, with the greatest of arks and the best CGI animals imaginable, the movie seems to miss out on some major opportunities to wow and marvel us. Once the animals board the magnificent ark, they're rarely seen again and the ark itself is hardly explored at all.
Despite the mandatory rainbow at movie's end, the overall tone remains dark and brooding.