Not since the 1950s has there been anything quite so ambitious as this eye-boggling attempt to re-create one of the greatest stories ever told

In purely literary terms, the story of Noah accounts for barely four short chapters near the beginning of Genesis. You could read the source material a great deal quicker than it takes for Darren Aronofsky’s sprawling adaptation to unfold on the big screen. But what this rather extraordinary, often uneven and controversial epic may lack in strict adherence to the Word it nearly – but not quite – makes up for with shafts of cinematic brilliance.

Certainly not since the 1950s, perhaps the golden age of biblical spectaculars, when filmmakers like Cecil B DeMille regularly employed the proverbial “cast of thousands”, has there been anything quite so ambitious as this often eye-boggling attempt to re-create one of the greatest stories ever told using the kind of technology that would have been unimaginable to the Hollywood of yore. However, after a glimpse at the Bible text it becomes clear: Aronofsky, the American director of films spanning drugs drama Requiem for a Dream to the ballet-set thriller Black Swan, and his co-screenwriter Ari Handel have merely used it as a sketch for their spectacular.

After a tantalising depiction of Creation, we meet Noah (Russell Crowe), his wife Naamah (Jennifer Connelly) and their three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth. They battle alone in a bleak, hostile environment, dominated by Man’s wickedness, that soon, according to Noah’s increasingly vivid dreams, will be destroyed by flood. He interprets this as an edict from the Creator – the word “God” is never used in the film – to save his own family and the animal kingdom by building an ark, surviving the rain and starting civilisation all over again.
And here is where the film rapidly departs from the most familiar take on the tale, mainly because the Bible is, to be sure, more than just a bit sketchy on the actual practicalities for a handful of human beings building the sort of vessel that could house not just themselves but two of every single bird and beast, upright and slithery, that presently roam the earth.

Time to meet hundreds-year-old Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), Noah’s grandfather, a straggly white-haired hermit with magical powers and a twinkle in his eye, and the Watchers, fallen angels who have for their sins been turned into rock giants – perfect, it transpires, for the heavy lifting after the planting of one of grandad’s gizmos appears to have yielded an entire forest with more than enough trees to build… well, you can guess the rest.