Anyone who's seen Aronofsky's previous film might be wondering what is up with this one, for it's about the inverse of "Black Swan." In "Black Swan," a parent's control over her child has to be breached in order for her to realize her potential. To facilitate this is another ballerina, who consistently prompts her to explore her rebellious side, to live a little. No snake in the garden is she, but someone with good intentions -- and who is in fact necessary to assist Natalie Portman's Nina in shoving her mother aside and embracing her own fate.
In "Noah," Noah is the parent determined to have his will hold over his children, and he is leveraged powerfully; impossibly powerfully -- by God. One of his boys -- Ham -- to some extent plays the equivalent of Natalie Portman's rebellious child Nina, in that he shows signs of wanting to step outside of his father's influence and discover the world for himself. But those he'd discover there to enwisen him -- specifically Ray Winstone's formidable near half-god, Tubal-Cain -- tempt for a variety of legitimate reasons, but not in the least for any goodness of heart. Basically he's the one guy left -- other than a rapidly aging grandfather -- who is a serious rival to Noah in presence and will, so is appealing, drawing, mostly on this score. When Ham slays Tubal-Cain, to frustrate his own self-development and to grant Noah his ongoing dominion over his whole family's fate, it might read a little bit as if Portman's swan had relapsed and handed herself over to her mother; but Tubal-Cain just can't register as someone other than someone who mostly just has to be destroyed -- let loose, all Ham's sisters would be under his concubinage, and all the other boys, no doubt slain. In fact, the only reason you can believe Ham went along with Tubal-Cain to the extent that he did was because some pent up need to rebel against his father was having to play out with material far too hot for the matter: There's a sense that he's just the kid who wants to balk back against his overdetermining parents by bringing unwelcome company home for dinner, but that this instinct has to play out with his escorting to the table the most dangerous of men. In this early, heavily macho universe, rightful child rebellion has to play distant second fiddle to letting the one good man heavily laden in rightful purpose, escort everyone through to an environment where they might breathe a bit easier.
So Ham relapses to Noah, and the women do too -- they plead with him as powerfully as possible, threaten him their rejection of their love if he slays the two newly born girls. But however much they were both responsible for introducing the possibility of new human life to the fore, they offer no sense that they can really do anything to ultimately thwart him if he means for the human race to perish. However, when Noah sees the girls, he can't bring himself to kill them. It's not failure in nerve, but that he saw only goodness in them.
Once they've struck land, their main odyssey is over. And as Ham goes off alone, he'll surely be reconsidering a lot of what went on in that dense period of time from the beginning to completion of the arc, with the first thing being his father's conviction that each of them were full of sin. To his father, the baby girls were clear of it. But one would have thought that compared to whom they as a family were being likened to, Noah would have realized how comparatively free they all were. Every other human they come across is pure mongrel -- absolutely terrifying, daunting in motive: rape-and-cannibalism-for-kicks types. Noah pairs his family with them, likens them to them, even though their difference is so obvious and extreme the only thing they ever do when they stumble upon them is flee. As film watchers, it's obvious that Noah has likened a very decent nuclear family to what you'd only become once lost to the human race -- zombies from humans, a la "World War Z."
He might also ask himself if his father's finding all good in infants but only corrupted souls with the rest of them, fits with his incrementally harsh response to their independent actions as they age. The youngest boy plucks a flower to claim its beauty, and Noah tells him not to do so, but kindly, and with explanation. The middling -- Ham himself -- introductorily hefts an axe he's been given, and Noah yells at him to drop it immediately. The eldest builds a raft so to flee with his wife, and Noah strides forward and launches a fire bomb at it. Regarding the axe, knowledge of the close-call Tubal-Cain presented to their freedom might ebb, and he might keep faith that his desire to continue holding the axe, to keep it, had nothing to do with some innate desire for violence but just possessing something party to the fully self-realized Tubal-Cain. Regarding his anger at his father for not letting him continue to try and free the girl he had just "claimed," he might realize it wasn't so much about virtues of the girl herself but that she represented something he'd obtained -- won -- independently. And he might realize that his decision to lead his father down a path where he might be slain, owed not to sin, nor to his fealty to the girl, but to the fact that Tubal-Cain was legitimately beguiling him as a preferable leader for suggesting that life isn't about obeisance but about exhilarating, incorrigible appropriation.
Russell Crowe's Noah is a giant of a man. When Tubal-Cain arrives to challenge him, asking how he would dare challenge his army all alone, his response -- "I'm not alone" -- could of had him motioning his biceps and his barrel chest rather than to their accents -- the rock ogres at his behest -- and still seemed half credible. A man like that is going to do well for himself in any age associated primarily with the type of weapons that can be forged -- a stone-aged, a bronze-aged, an iron-aged one. But not necessarily when even a man of a build like that could be conclusively stopped by a phone call to the police made by any wimpy lad, and what is visceral and compelling is more likely to be the perfectly played ballet. That is, you put Noah into the early 21st century, shepherding, domineering his children, directing them not to touch, try, experiment with "that," to obey his will in all things, then he'd be more like Nina's mother -- Barbara Hershey's Erica. And the axe Ham so wants to experiment as his own becomes the cosmetics Nina steals from the dressing quarters of the long-reigning star of the New York ballet -- Winona Ryder's Beth -- one of the first things she does to show she isn't content to forever be the accent-role player her narcissist mother would be happy for her to be, for it meaning her never growing outside her orbit. And the journey into the wild lands he undertakes alone, would be Nina's letting herself stay late at the bar, ignoring her mother's phone calls, experimenting with a space where for the first time her mother doesn't exist for her. And Tubal-Cain's casually snatching one of precious only-two-of-each-species beasts in the arc to snack upon, which drew Ham's stunned, admonishing but also admiring "you're not allowed to do that," would be Mila Kunis's Lilly's smoking where she wasn't supposed to: evidence not so much of sin but of being undaunted by one's surroundings. And Ham's leading his father to where Tubal-Cain might kill him, would be Nina crushing the door on her mother's hand, beating her until she intuits where her mother had hid the key to the door confining her, fully prepared for this to be the last contact she ever has with her. And Tubal-Cain's "I am your king" … would of course be Nina's "I'm the swan queen, you're the one who never left the corps!" Not hubris, that is, but self-actualization, self-completion.
Set in the 21st-century, the flower that mustn't be plucked becomes the one that must be, that actually wants to be, even as much as its mostly about the thrill of appropriating a world to suit your own delight, even if it means incurring damage and harm. It becomes Nina's digging her teeth into her instructor's lip, hurting him, and later seducing him like a succubus; it's about awing an audience, quite prepared to have them leave so affected they're distraught, showing how she's become all bite and them, the performance, her prey.
"Black Swan" can be found in the virile moments of resistance of "Noah," including Tubal-Cain's fantastic declaration that he isn't afraid of magic, nor -- quite obviously -- of God. But as enlivened as it often is, you almost have a sense that here there's no time for it, for what is key is that Noah himself remains immune to influence outside of God -- that he remains the stalwart who doesn't change at all. The strange result is that if I was to encapsulate this film with two images it isn't really what I've done here, but rather just of Noah and Tubal-Cain: the two giant hefts of will and muscle. At the finish I'm not sure if the thrill you experience from the film owes much different from what you'd get from a Arnold Schwarzenegger "Conan" flick, which I should relish only if I'm in the mood for a stripped down, simplified time, where bludgeoning meaty patriarchs not visceral rebellious swan queens ruled.