In the beginning, there was Cecil B. DeMille.
And DeMille said, "Let there be the Bible epic." And they were fruitful, and multiplied ticket sales. Some of them, anyway.
One of their better progeny is Darren Aronofsky's "Noah." It's big, imaginative, exciting, long, and not infrequently given over to camp — but highly enjoyable.
Russell Crowe stars as the titular hero. The trailers make the film seem like "Gladiator" meets "300" meets the Bible, but it's more like "The 10 Commandments" meets contemporary special effects, shepherded by a talented filmmaker expertly integrating small-scale characterization with large-scale action and ideas.
"Noah" begins with a brief recapitulation of what happened to the world after the Garden of Eden, with Cain's slaying Abel, and humanity splitting into generations of good and evil men. In the film, as in the Bible, people go mostly evil.
That brings us to Noah, who's around 13 (played by Dakota Goyo) and in the middle of an ancient bar mitzvah when his father, Lamech (Marton Csokas), is killed by one of the sons of Cain and his army. Noah and his eventual family (Jennifer Connelly plays Noah's wife, Naameh) are doomed to a peripatetic existence. The world is sick with corruption. The environment suffers greatly while festering cities multiply. Sound familiar?
As with many of Hollywood's biblical epics, and adaptations in general, this one is created in our own image. "Noah," to a large degree, transforms the Noah story into something of a pro-environmental and pro-humanitarian fable, something the original certainly was not.
In Aronofsky's version, Noah is saving the innocent animals (and presumably plants) from humankind and their sin. Their leader, Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), thinks God gave men dominion over the animals. They shouldn't be saved. They should be eaten.
Tubal-cain insists to Ham (Logan Lerman) that God gave man dominion over the animals — God's line in the Bible. Yet in the good book, God seems to have a much less modern view of ecology than in the movie. He destroys the world rather impetuously and capriciously. He did, after all, create it. But that's not the deity in "Noah."
Aronofsky amends or skims over the trickier parts of the story, such as why God lumps timid herbivores and birds in with mass murderers and others in need of drowning, and where all these people came from if there were only Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel in the first place. Also in this version, Noah only gets the notion of impending doom and the idea to build the ark through suggestive dreams. Thankfully, no booming voice ever calls out to him from the sky.
The film also uses the words "the creator" in place of "God" very often — so often, you wonder if they're really meant as code, a stand-in for "creation," perhaps. That suggestion is multiplied greatly when one scene turns the Genesis creation story into a segment from Carl Sagan's "Cosmos," re-created frame-for-frame.
"Noah" takes risks, that's for sure. The wildest is the notion of combining creationism with evolution — from the mouth of Noah himself. That's quite a stretch. More dangerous is the film's potential perpetuation of the idea that there's such a thing as a chosen people, who are better than others. That concept has gotten people of many times and nations into a lot of trouble.
Whether in the end the film champions that notion or challenges it is somewhat ambiguous, and mostly Aronofsky's adaptation is more coherent and agreeable than the original. Though occasionally coming unmoored, "Noah" is a Bible epic in league with the best of its genre. It might get a little slow once the rains come and they get in the big boat, but even then it remains a fascinating interpretation worth seeing and considering. (PG-13) 139 min.