The world after the fall from Paradise is corrupt, wicked and in decline, held in thrall by Tubal-cain (Winstone), descendant of the first murderer. But Noah (Crowe), of the righteous line of Seth, receives a vision from the Creator: the world will be cleansed and all its creatures - mankind aside - must be saved.
It is not very often that a movie like Noah comes along: something mounted on a massive scale, employing the full arsenal of a big studio event, but which remains the unmodified fruit of a singular filmmaker's creative passion. Who does Darren Aronofsky think he is? Christopher Nolan?
Of course he doesn't. Nolan, by whichever fiendishly brilliant algorithm that lurks in that perpetual-motion subconscious, has refined his own crowd-wowing formula — oft-imitated, not yet bettered. Aronofsky flickers and changes form, expanding, contracting and adapting his style to his chosen story, which always has something heavily personal at its core and is never modulated to broaden its appeal. He is an auteur who appears to take pride in his assertion (untrue) that no individual could like all of his six films thus far, from the monochromatic migraine Pi, via his surprise-hit ballet-horror Black Swan ($330 million worldwide!), to this astonishing, semi-biblical epic that he's been hankering to execute his entire professional life.
You can see why Paramount got cold feet during the edit and tinkered with its own cuts. Thankfully, Aronofsky's version won out — one which dares to challenge its 12A audience and requires us to embrace some bristly contradictions.
In one magnificent sequence, Noah (Russell Crowe) relates the story of creation while Aronofsky employs aeons-spanning time-lapse to present a strobing vision of Darwinian evolution: the first splitting cell to Adam and Eve — several billion years in seven days in a few minutes of intelligent design.
In the beginning, we are presented a prediluvian world which feels post-apocalyptic. The voracious, rapacious spawn of Cain have hollowed the world, building cities, digging mines, hunting forgotten species to extinction. There is even technology of a kind, powered by divinely glowing and explosive material. Meanwhile, beneath a sky dotted with huge, young stars, Noah and his tiny clan eke out a humble, desperate existence amid deforested wastelands marred by puddles of greenly toxic effluence. It is our worst ecological nightmare.
We are also presented a main character who is both protagonist and antagonist, and therefore perfectly cast in the intimidating, dour and burly form of Russell Crowe. Initially, Noah is saviour: a man who unites with fallen angels, known as Watchers, that are now twisted, multi-limbed giants encrusted in rock and magma, and welcomes even the slithering things into his 300-cubit-long, Watcher-constructed coffin, gently sedating the animals with a soporific incense. Yet he is also an accomplice in the implacable Creator's genocide: just following orders as he allows an innocent young girl, with whom his middle son Ham (Logan Lerman) is besotted, to die violently — soon joined by the wailing multitudes clinging in dread to the diminishing peak beside his unwelcoming ark, their screams falling on Noah's deaf ears. Furthermore, as the storm subsides and the ark bobs about, he terrorises his own family, having become the epitome of patriarchal tyranny through his belief that even Seth's line should not survive the great cleansing. Nominal bad guy Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) has a point when he observes that Noah "fills this ship with beasts while letting children drown".
While there are moments of wonder and creative spectacle, it does make for intense and difficult viewing, a far cry from the sappy Sunday school take on these verses from Genesis. For which we are truly thankful.
Inventive, ambitious, brutal and beautiful: a potent mythological epic. But also wilfully challenging, as likely to infuriate as inspire, whether through its unmitigated Old Testament harshness or its eco-message revisionism. If only more blockbusters were like this.