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Movie review: ‘Noah’ entertains as a dazzling, biblical epic

Russell Crowe is Noah in “Noah,” a film by Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises. (Niko Tavernise / MCT)

This is not your father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s Noah.

This is a “Noah” for the 21st century, one of the most dazzling and unforgettable biblical epics ever put on film.

It’s also already ticking off some people, including a few who haven’t actually seen the film before deciding it is blasphemous propaganda.

What it actually is is a movie — a stylized but never disrespectful take on one of the most well-known stories in the history of civilization.

Director and co-writer Darren Aronofsky has delivered a bold, visually stunning, emotionally involving and sometimes just plain loony interpretation of the legendary tale from the Book of Genesis of the man and the ark and the two-of-every-kind animals and the 40 days and nights of rain. This is a biblical epic with an apocalyptic look, filled with thunderous special effects and amazing sets. “Noah” looks as pricey and ambitious as a “Lord of the Rings” movie and sometimes plays like the Old Testament as filtered through a “Braveheart” lens.

In a ferocious, razor-sharp performance — one of his best in years — Russell Crowe gives us a God-loving, God-obeying, hard-core, knife-wielding, fireball-hurling, stick-fighting, villain-stomping, sometimes tormented Noah who literally looks to the skies for answers.

He’s on a mission from God.

On a number of occasions, I half-expected the blood- and mud-spattered Noah to hold his arms out and bellow, “Are you not ENTERTAINED?!”

“Noah” sticks to the basic elements of the story, though Aronofsky almost immediately serves notice this is not going to be a by-the-Good-Book telling when he gives us a title card that reads, “In the beginning, there was nothing.”

There’s no booming Voice of God from the sky; Noah gets his instructions from God via hallucinatory dreams and visions, and once he gets his marching (or building) orders, there’s no stopping him — even when his interpretation of those commands makes him seem like a danger to his own family.

Noah, his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly, who played Crowe’s wife in “A Beautiful Mind”), and their sons, Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo Carroll), live a nomadic existence in isolation from humankind, which has grown corrupt and violent and has scorched the Earth to the point where the planet is on the verge of dying. (The Icelandic locations, mixed in with CGI magic, are breathtaking.) Whenever Noah says “Men!” it serves as a warning for the family to head for cover, because those men inevitably will be bloodthirsty warriors who will slice a stranger’s throat to take a morsel of food from his hands.

Although we get some beautiful and sometimes frightening flashbacks to the dawn of time and the creation of creatures and man, the bulk of “Noah” is set during the building of the ark and the subsequent flood, and, my word, is there a lot of drama and tension and violence surrounding those two major events.

Wearing garb and a beard that wouldn’t seem out of place at the head of the table on “Sons of Anarchy,” Noah has a vision of a great cleansing — a flood that will wipe out humanity, with only Noah and his family and God’s innocent creatures surviving. In addition to his wife and three sons, that unit includes Ila (Emma Watson), who was rescued by the family as a little girl and is now in love with Noah’s eldest son. (She was raised as Noah’s daughter, but she’s not a blood relative, so the whole post-flood “be fruitful and multiply” thing doesn’t have an ick factor, at least not for the first generation.)

How can one small family build an enormous, multitiered ark designed to contain two of nearly every species on Earth? It would be impossible were it not for the assistance of the giant, rock-encrusted, talking creatures that have come to Noah’s aid. They are fallen angels that were turned to stone after disobeying the Creator’s orders and trying to help mankind. They’ve long since abandoned man, but now they’re united in a mission to aid Noah, for they believe he has truly heard the word of God.

Sidebar re the giant rock creatures: They’re one of the reasons I’m giving “Noah” three and a half stars and not the full four. They’re just kind of ... silly. Like something we’d expect to see in a middle passage in some Tolkienesque adventure. When they speak in the classic, deep, echoing voice of nearly all giant creatures in all movies that contain giant creatures (Nick Nolte and Frank Langella are among those speaking the dialogue), “Noah” loses its gravitas.

Ah, but the performances and the overall tone easily overcome this stumble. Anthony Hopkins is perfectly cast as Noah’s ancient grandfather Methuselah, who has a Yoda-like wisdom, and the great Ray Winstone sinks his teeth into the role of Tubal-cain, the ruthless king who is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with man.

In Aronofsky’s “Noah,” it turns out herding the creatures onto the ark and getting them to settle down, while not a snap, is among the least difficult tasks. Noah also has to contend with a rebellious middle son, that evil king and the thousands of men literally storming the gates of the ark, and a wife who looks on in horror as he explains they’re not the beginning of a new era — they’re the last of a dying breed.

In the most powerful scene in the film, Noah tells his family about the dawn of life, and we see visuals combining elements of evolution and creationism. (Not a single character in this film actually doubts the existence of the Creator. But many have forsaken Him.) To be sure, some will be offended by Aronofsky’s interpretation of the Noah story, but amidst all the amazing effects and all the flights of creative risk-taking and all the liberties taken in the name of mainstream entertainment, this is the story of a great and greatly flawed man who did everything in the name of serving his God.

‘Noah’ 3.5 stars

Running time: 131 minutes.

Rated: PG-13 (for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content).