Jennifer Connelly and Russell Crowe in NoahNOAH

Like most of you, I'd presume, I've known the biblical story of Noah's Ark since early childhood. And also, presumably like most of you, I've always kind of wondered how Noah was able to construct a floating vessel big and sturdy enough to carry "two of all living creatures, male and female" through 40 days and 40 nights of torrential downpours and Earth-engulfing floods. But with the release of Darren Aronofsky's Noah, the answer to the question of "Who built the Ark?" has finally been provided, and - who woulda thunk it? - apparently we have Frank Langella and Nick Nolte to thank.

Well, not the actors so much as the characters they voice here: enormous, six-legged creatures of stone referred to as the Watchers. In Aronofsky's and co-screenwriter Ari Handel's re-imagining of the Noah tale, you see, the Watchers are former angels who risked God's wrath by displaying undue empathy for human beings, and who were subsequently banished from heaven, their earthbound spirits encased in ambulatory slabs of granite. Yet while it clearly sucks to be a Watcher - a point underlined by Langella's and Nolte's growling, dolorous readings and the mournful, lumbering movements of this pair and their fellow fallen angels - boy, are these things convenient!

They help Noah (Russell Crowe) locate his aged, berry-craving grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), and they babysit Noah's children while he's gone; one of the kids is shown having a great time playfully running between a Watcher's legs shouting, "You can't get me!" (An exclamation, as I recall, that we won't find in Genesis.) When God creates a miraculous forest from which Noah can cull timber for the Ark, the gigantic rock figures, for years, do most of the heavy lifting and, their size would suggest, probably all of the work on the craft's upper levels. And when, with good times clearly not in store, an Ark-jacking is attempted by the descendants of Cain - a grimy, murderous collection of hundreds led by Ray Winstone's Tubal-cain - it's again up to the Watchers to save the day; they swat the hordes away while Noah and his clan safely enter the Ark, and sacrifice themselves to ensure humanity's survival. Not since Lassie saved Timmy from the well has a screen pet shown such fanatical devotion.

Russell Crowe in NoahIf you've noticed more than a twinge of derision in the preceding paragraphs, it's not unintentional, and there were other elements in Aronofsy's latest that I found nearly as ridiculous as those contrived, Lord of the Rings-y Watchers. (Personally, I could've done without the climactic, mano a mano slugfest between Noah and the stowaway Tubal-cain that began with the latter screaming, "I should've killed you when I killed your father!", which is a line I'm pretty sure we just heard in Pompeii, as well as in a few dozen other movies over the years.) Yet here's the rub: As a plot device, the combined presence of the Watchers works. It works because of the deep imagination behind the Watchers' conception and the unbridled, unembarrassed sincerity with which Aronofsky stages their actions (and because, really, no one else has yet come up with a more plausible explanation for the Ark's creation and successful launch). You go with the notion of these stony, heaven-sent saviors - at least I did - because Aronofsky so obviously, fervently believes in them, just as he believes in Noah's escalating, completely understandable insanity, and his family's gnawing terror before and after they've boarded the Ark. With Noah, Aronofsky isn't interpreting the Bible literally. He's interpreting it emotionally, and what results is both occasionally silly and, oftentimes, staggeringly powerful - a fever dream of moral conundrums and theological debate that's also, almost throughout, fantastically entertaining.

The literal-minded and the devout may well hate Aronofsky's achievement, or at least hate the director's hubris in peppering Noah's saga - an inarguably thin one in Genesis - with invented situations and characters (among them Emma Watson's initially barren, eventually pregnant love interest Ila). Viewed solely as a movie experience, however, I was nearly blown away by the beauty and horror and grandeur of the effects, and the harrowing, tortured madness of Crowe's Noah, and, in a lovely surprise, the fully realized arc of Noah's wife Naameh, whom Jennifer Connelly plays with such luminous conviction that you hardly have time to think, "Hey ... didn't she play this same role opposite Crowe in A Beautiful Mind?" (I had less success here watching Logan Lerman, as Noah's son Ham, pine over Watson, who played the object of his affections in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.)

In terms of sheer visceral impact, Noah delivers the goods and then some; on more than a few occasions, I gasped at the startling ferocity of the on-screen violence, and couldn't help but wipe away a tear at the happy ending we all saw coming. Yet what, in the end, was even more impressive to me was Aronofsky's utter conviction in his project - and in his willingness to go to such incredible narrative and visual extremes that so frequently risk the audience's contempt, he has made what might be the most thrillingly alive biblical epic since The Last Temptation of Christ. Noah may be its hero's story as seen through a Hollywood-blockbuster lens, but in nearly every regard, it's a Hollywood blockbuster suffused with grace.

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