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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. The story of Noah's ark is getting the blockbuster treatment in Hollywood's new biblical epic "Noah." Darren Aronofsky's film about the Old Testament shipbuilder has been sparking controversy. But Bob Mondello says there's no denying that the great flood digitized is a pretty great flood.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: In the beginning, there was nothing, say the first words you see onscreen, and then there's everything: a swirling cosmos, Adam and Eve, a fall from grace, a fall of angels, teeming industrial cities spreading so much sin and darkness that the creator has second thoughts, communicated to a 500-year-old family man in a nightmare.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NOAH")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Noah, what did he say?

RUSSELL CROWE: (As Noah) He's going to destroy the world.

MONDELLO: Noah sees a planet submerged, and inspired by that vision tells his wife and three sons they have work to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NOAH")

CROWE: (As Noah) Our family has been chosen for a great task: to save the innocent.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (As character) The innocent?

CROWE: (As Noah) The animals.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (As character) Why are they innocent?

(As character) Because they still live as they did in the garden.

CROWE: (As Noah) Yes, and we need to save enough of them to start again.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (As character) But what of us?

CROWE: (As Noah) I guess we get to start again, too.

MONDELLO: If only it were that simple. The Bible story is short on the sort of detail required to flesh out two-plus hours of movie-making, but the filmmakers have happily supplied it, everything from why the lions wouldn't just eat the gazelles to what a real ark might look like: no prow because it's not going anywhere, it just has to float. Also how much help a family of five would need to build a structure 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits.

You may not remember stone giants in this story from Sunday school; the movie makes them literally Earth-bound angels, huge like those talking trees in "Lord of the Rings" and helpful as backup when a snarling king from Cain's side of the family shows up with an army.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NOAH")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) I have men at my back, and you stand alone and defy me?

CROWE: (As Noah) I'm not alone.

MONDELLO: There is a lot of inventing going on in "Noah," which has raised a flood of criticism in literalist circles that did not flow when, say, Bill Cosby did his what's-a-cubit routine. Take the Bible seriously, without winks or jokes, and you court arguments with traditionalists. Darren Aronofsky's tree-hugging, intimately intense movie, I'd argue, gets things righter than it's reasonable to expect a big Hollywood blockbuster to.

Oh, there are things I wish the director had not done. When a little girl asks Russell Crowe's Noah to sing her to sleep, all I could think was didn't she see "Les Mis"? But when comes the deluge, it lives up to scripture. All the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens opened.

At which point we and Noah's family are sharing an ark with an unraveling Noah, who seems to be channeling some of the more unhinged characters from previous Aronofsky movies, not unreasonable considering that he's a good man who has just shut the door to the ark, condemning millions of souls to watery graves. But if his psychological flailing is unnerving, it has the effect of making the film unpredictable and suspenseful, dramatically the most welcome thing you could ask of a biblical epic. I'm Bob Mondello.

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