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By Ryan Faughnder, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — An Old Testament epic will storm theaters this weekend with hopes of attracting a boatload of moviegoers.

Director Darren Aronofsky’s $130 million-budgeted “Noah” is expected to generate around $40 million in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada through Sunday, according to people who have seen pre-release audience surveys. Paramount Pictures, which is releasing the film, has predicted a softer gross of $30 million to $33 million.

An opening in the projected range for the special effects-heavy, big-budget disaster film — starring Russell Crowe as the biblical boat-builder — will almost certainly make it the No. 1 movie at the domestic box office. If “Noah” is a hit, it will be the latest in a string of religion-inspired successes.

“Son of God,” a less-expensive New Testament retelling culled from Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s “Bible” miniseries, opened this year with $25.6 million in revenue, propped up by bulk purchases from Christian groups, and has since gone on to gross $56 million. The modern-day campus drama “God’s Not Dead” opened last weekend with a surprisingly strong $9.2 million from just 780 theaters.

Aronofsky’s dark take on the Book of Genesis story of Noah’s ark, financed by Paramount and Regency Enterprises, marks a departure for a director best known for lower-budget fare such as “Black Swan,” “The Wrestler” and “Requiem for a Dream.”

The PG-13-rated film has faced criticism from the outset, both from religious groups that questioned how faithfully it would treat its source material along with conservatives who decried its emphasis on environmental themes. Reviews by film critics have been generally positive, according to Rotten Tomatoes.

The Scripture-sourced slate won’t end with “Noah.” Upcoming God-themed movies include “Heaven Is For Real,” “Exodus,” “Last Days in the Desert” and “Mary,” all coming at least a decade after the massive success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

“Noah” began its maiden voyage in Mexico and South Korea a week ago with a strong $14 million, and it’s likely to play well overseas. Alongside Crowe, the disaster picture’s stars include Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson.

Last week’s chart-topper “Divergent,” the teen dystopian adventure starring Shailene Woodley, should continue to pull in plenty of box-office cash. Lionsgate is hoping the Summit Entertainment film will kick off another strong young-adult franchise after the massive success of the “Hunger Games” series. Its second weekend could add around $25 million to its domestic total of more than $60 million.

In “Noah’s” wake, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new crime thriller “Sabotage” is not likely to see much action at the multiplex. The movie about a DEA team whose elite agents are targeted by a ruthless drug cartel, is expected to take in less than $10 million in its debut. The $35 million picture was financed and produced by QED International and is getting its U.S. release from Open Road Films.

Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” expanding to 970 theaters, should continue to impress with a weekend tally of around $10 million. The quirky director’s latest, distributed domestically by Fox Searchlight Pictures, has amassed more than $14 million in its limited run.

The new “Cesar Chavez” biopic could bring in around $5 million from 660 locations. Michael Pena plays the civil rights activist and labor organizer in the film directed by Diego Luna and produced by Pantelion Films, a joint venture between Lionsgate and the giant Mexican media company Grupo Televisa.

“Bad Words,” an R-rated comedy written and directed by “Arrested Development” star Jason Bateman, is expanding to around 600 theaters and could gross $5 million or less.

Photo: Edinburgh International Film Festival via Flickr

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