Darren Aronofsky has, we are told, been nursing the idea behind Noah for fifteen years, or basically immediately after making his feature debut with π. It was only the spectacular and unexpected success of his 2010 Black Swan that finally convinced a studio to give him the giant sum of money needed to make it, because if there's one thing that obviously equips a man to make a tremendously costly Bible epic, it's the skills he learned in making a movie where a ballerina imagines having destructive lesbian hatesex with her alter ego.

I do not know what drives a man to nurture this concept for so long, but it clearly wasn't religious faith. And it also clearly wasn't an irreligious tendency leading him to critique the faith of others. I'm not sure what that leaves, but Noah isn't the kind of movie that's interested in being easily pegged down. The one word that best describes it above all others is "weird"; if we allow ourselves two, I would go with "fucking weird".

At any rate, it's vintage Aronofsky: where Black Swan and The Wrestler both suggested a certain flattening-out of his aesthetic into something reasonably conventional and even realistic at points, Noah jumps headlong back into the metallic colors and expressionistic cutting of his early, idiosyncratic ones. It is not the film's signature moment, nor by any means its most characteristic, but the scene in Noah that unquestionably has stuck the most in my brain is a montage, against a pungent, cherry-red sunset, of silhouettes of murder and war, with a quick succession (like, "two or three frames per image" quick) of profiles of soldiers from the Paleolithic right up to the 20th Century attacking, and a quick succession of profiles of their victims falling back in death agonies. It is garish and brave and stupid and wholly visionary, in the sense that it makes an emphatic point using image and editing and sound without any need to rely on words, and it is a moment that made me think two thoughts at the exact same time: "I am so thrilled that Aronofsky is back in his gonzo phase without a hint of apology" and "Wow, I'd forgotten how goddamn annoying Aronofsky's movies are."

But you know who doesn't care what I or anyone else thinks about Darren Aronofsky's filmmaking? Darren Aronofsky. Good, bad, or ugly, Noah is a transcendently personal piece of cinema, telling a weird version of the iconic story that, while not contradicting a single word of the Torah, ends up a piece of overheated fantasy in ancient Hebrew drag, colliding ideas from the religious text, the rabbinical texts elucidating the religious text, and the author's own mind, and turning out something that's half '50s Bible movie, half Lord of the Rings (the rock angels are a dead ringer for the Ents in The Two Towers - oh, yes, there are rock angels), half Soviet Montage, half work of grimy historical realism that finds Aronofsky and his longterm cinematographer Matthew Libatique parading around a series of muddy greys in between the more dazzling, chromatic fantasy landscapes and evocatively deep shadows of the Ark interior.

There's so much visual and tonal excess that it would almost be possible to lose sight of the family drama that Aronofsky has fashioned out of the story, except for the operatic rage with which he and the actors portray that drama. Here, Noah (Russell Crowe) isn't just a personality-free patriarch, but a tormented man of principle who believes deep in his soul that he has been charged with stewarding the whole of creation though a massive apocalypse, and who is certain that he and his kin have no place in this new order other than to observe it and die, saving the planet from the ravages of mankind that have brought it so close to ruin (that is, incidentally, the whole of the alleged "environmentalist" message, and anyone who lets that offend them, out of all the wacky shit going on here, went in looking to be offended). It's a role written in bold, broad strokes and emphatic emotions, and Crowe breathes life into with the most robust, alive performance he's given in a decade or more.

And the rest of the characters are… that's part of the problem, ain't it? As much as Noah is enthusiastic about providing a totally modern experience in some ways, in others its as ossified and dusty as any plodding epic from the days of The Robe, and that includes its treatment of the supporting players, who with the possible exception of Ray Winstone as the unnuanced villain Tubalcain, the human king looking to steal the ark and replace Noah as the chief conduit for the unnamed creator of the universe, play stock characters with stock emotions. It's all well and good for Aronofsky's script to specifically indict the authority of old men who insist that they alone can correctly interpret the lessons handed down by God (and he so indicts), but it's hard to give the film any anti-patriarchy points when the best it can do for its female characters is to cast Jennifer Connelly as the Loyal Wife Who Is Clearer-Headed Than Her Husband (Who Cries), and Emma Watson as the Clever, Preternaturally Wise Young Pregnant Woman (Who Cries). And they're robust paragons of human drama compared to Noah's sons, Shem (Douglas Booth) and Ham (Logan Lerman), the latter of whom at least gets to shade some resentment into his bland meat prop of a role, but only in the film's last half.

The balance between the realistic, the heavily stylised, and the insipidly hokey is one that Noah proudly ignores: achingly corny dramatic touches and overwrought visual metaphors sit right alongside some brilliantly fragmentary, high-contrast dream images, effectively high-scale fantasy-style action scenes, and an outstanding sound mix (the damp wooden creaks and sleepy animal noises inside the Ark make for one of the most persuasive movie spaces in a long while). Undeliverable wooden dialogue gives way to some wonderfully tiny and humane character moments. Anthony Hopkins is more subdued than he's been in some years, and then starts babbling about berries for like, 40 minutes in the next instant.

It is messy as all hell, and wonderfully incoherent, pummeling along with enough momentum that it's not hard to overlook how utterly it fails to draw all of its shifting moods and thematic threads into any kind of conclusion. But at the same time, it doesn't disguise that failure, either. Anyway, I am very glad that I saw the movie, and I am also virtually certain that it's no damn good at all: but it's completely singular and an obvious passion project, and its sloppy weirdness has the merit of being very much unlike anything else out there.