Your first hint should probably be the poster, which features a menacing-looking Russell Crowe holding a hatchet, with nary an animal (much less two) or an ark in sight. This isn’t the Noah you learned about in Sunday School, kids.

In the hands of director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), Noah has become a complex, almost anti-hero. Yes, he still builds an ark, still has three sons, and still is God’s vessel to continue civilization after the flood, but he also is grappling with some pretty significant issues. Guilt, religious fervor, and his tormented soul are all on full display. And while I can see how many Christians, Jews, and Muslims might get offended at Noah, I choose to look at it another way– as another example of Aronofsky’s stunning artistry.

This isn’t a man who tells a straightforward story with vanilla direction and a straight A-to-B plotline. His wildly inventive Black Swan was one of the best movies of 2010, and though Noah doesn’t quite meet that level of brilliance, it’s darn close.

We begin, appropriately enough, in the beginning– when the earth was without form, and void. And God said, “Let there be light.” After a brief prologue relating the story of Adam and Eve (and, more importantly, Cain and Abel and Seth), we find Noah alone in the wilderness with his wife and three children.

Evil forces are at play. Cain’s descendants, together with Optimus Prime-like stone giants called The Watchers, have brought darkness to the land. It’s about this time that Noah has a vision from The Creator (we never hear the word “God”); the flood is coming, and Noah needs to build a big boat. And everyone but his family (and Emma Watson) will be wiped out.

Crowe, for his part, has finally returned to what made him one of the most respected actors in the late 90s-early 00s. After horribly hammy performances in Broken City, Les Miserables, and Winter’s Tale, he’s back to simple acting– immersing himself in a part and becoming a (restrained) character. Watson (as adopted daughter Ila) and Jennifer Connelly (as Noah’s wife Naameh) are also brilliant, along with Ray Winstone as bad guy Tubal-cain.

The director is the real star here, though, having created a daring, visually-dazzling, complex tale. And even though it gets bogged down a little with the family drama and a slow-ish mid-section, it’s still miles ahead of much of what’s hit screens so far this year.

There’s no question that Aronofsky has taken the Bible (and Torah and Koran) and used it as a basis for his own story (which he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Ari Handel), but what’s the real harm? Don’t people around the world interpret religious texts daily, however they see fit? Sure, I kinda get the hub-bub over The Last Temptation of Christ, but this is an After School Special compared to that. But I digress.

In the end, everyone will look at Noah differently, but there’s no real question at all– it definitely should be looked at.

4/5 stars