Let's begin with an image from Noah that I can't get out of my head.
Our titular hero—played with an imposing earthiness by Russell Crowe—is having a dream in which he is at the bottom of the ocean, surrounded by floating corpses. He screams and tries to swim to the surface, but to no avail. The hands of the doomed pull him down. When Noah wakes, gasping (his silhouette framed beautifully against a pre-diluvian dawn) he tells his wife, simply, "He's going to destroy the world."
It's a chilling reminder of the stakes in this narrative. This is a story any child who's been to church can recite by heart, but we tend to wrap it up in pictures of a cutesy arky-arky with smiling giraffes, calm seas and a chipper Noah manning the ship. There are no flannel graphs of the dead, floating just beneath the surface, no indication that Noah might have felt anything but undiluted bliss at the prospect of facing the rest of his life with his family and new animal friends. It is the story many of us were raised on and, for the most part, have come to accept.
It's a fairly simple tale. God created man. Man did evil. God killed everyone except Noah's family. All it's missing is a Sandi Patty song at the end.
But Noah is made by Darren Aronofsky, and Aronofsky does not deal in simple. Requiem for a Dream followed a group of young adults into a hell wrought of their own addiction. Black Swan explored the growing madness of a ballerina driven by perfection. The Fountain is nearly impossible to describe, but is ultimately a love story spanning eons and various realities.
In each of these, Aronofsky is less interested in a cohesive story than he is the purity of his vision. "Ten men in a room trying to come up with their favorite ice cream are going to agree on vanilla," he told The New Yorker in a recent profile. "I’m the Rocky Road guy."
And, readers, Noah is a Rocky Road movie. It is a messy, thoughtful, beautiful, baffling, uneven, profound, provocative film. To say it strays from the Bible is only partly true. Where the Genesis account is explicit, Noah generally sticks to it—with a few key exceptions. Where the Bible is silent, Aronofsky (and co-writer Ari Handel) read between the lines, and some of that reading is extremely—shall we say—creative.
Parts of it will almost certainly infuriate those of us who grew up envisioning Noah as a paragon of virtue. Parts of it will make us rethink notions we've had about the Noah story. As a film, it gets wobbly here and there, but is never dull. As a retelling of a Bible story, well, that's hard to quantify.
Let's clear two early misconceptions out of the way—a few rumors that appear to have come from sources who either have not seen the movie or deeply misunderstood it.
First of all, some are saying that God is never mentioned. That's a bit manipulative, because the characters call Him "The Creator" instead of "God." He is either discussed or directly spoken to in nearly every scene.
Second, some have claimed that Noah pushes an environmental agenda. Yes, the idea that humanity has not taken care of the Earth well is addressed. You would have to be willfully ignorant to read the Genesis account and not see creation care as a theme. Noah does not ignore that truth, but it does not shriek it. Aronofsky has far weightier things on his mind than going green.
For starters, there is the world he's created. Just a few generations from Adam himself, Noah takes place in an era where the lines between Heaven and Earth are not as stark as they are now. The Divine's intersections with the physical are far more frequent and fantastical. This is a sort of pre-post-apocalyptic vision, in which evil has beset the world with terror and God's judgement weighs heavily. The "fallen angels" or "Nephalim" Genesis 6 mentions are here brought to decidedly Tolkien-esque life in the guise of giant, Nick Nolte-voiced rock creatures. Noah's grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, clearly enjoying himself) is a prophet-like miracle worker.
At first blush, it all stretches the bounds of credulity but, then again, even a casual reading of Genesis suggests that this was a very different time, in which God's work frequently manifested as what we refer to now as magical realism. In the Old Testament, you have talking animals, flaming chariots, angelic hosts and fearsome monsters. The Bible depicts our young Earth as a wild one, fraught with the miraculous, the macabre and the bizarre. Such a world is here depicted as a cross between Middle Earth and the hellscape of Mad Max.
Then there is Noah and his family themselves. Noah is righteous, and his righteousness lends him an edge (both figuratively and, as we see in several battle scenes, literally.) He is a man tortured by principle and his own sense of justice.
The one constant theme in all Aronofsky's films is obsession, and how it can muddy the waters of success and failure. Noah is driven by obedience, and it would be spoiling one of the movie's most controversial and interesting developments to give away where that leads him, but it is a fascinating picture of the fine line between fervent and fanatic.
Noah is flanked by his sons Shem (Douglas Booth, who is given little to do) and Ham, who is tortured over the fate of those not on the ark. Noah also adopts a daughter, Ila—played with soulful fury by Emma Watson—who ends up as the object of Shem's affection and the crux of the movie's chief moral dilemma.
But best of all is Jennifer Connelly as Naameh, Noah's long-suffering wife, and the woman who must ground him when his soul gets as stormy as God's judgement. This film has a lot of terrific special effects, but it doesn't have anything to match the earnest desperation in Connelly's eyes.
There are a few notable points where the movie strays from the biblical account in significant ways. The film version of Noah is definitely more of a "walk by faith, not by sight" kind of guy, whereas the Bible suggests he had explicit instructions from God. Also, this movie does away with two of Noah's three daughters-in-law Genesis says were on the ark. These issues and a few others differ from the traditional understanding of the story, and they are points that Christians need to engage in reasoned, meaningful ways.
But do they condemn the movie?
Pablo Picasso famously said that "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth—at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” In Noah, Aronofsky is very knowingly playing loose with the truth, filling in the blanks with sweeps of wild imagination. That is almost a given. The Noah story just doesn't have enough material to fill a movie without taking some creative liberties.
The question then is whether those creative liberties help us realize the truth.
In the Noah movie, God is portrayed as sovereign and righteous—an all-powerful being whose sense of justice could not abide to let humanity continue in its way, but whose love could not abandon them. It's a decidedly Old Testamental take on God, but it's certainly biblical. In fact, the God in Noah may be more scriptural than the one preached from many a pulpit on Sunday morning.
Aside from Noah and his family, humanity is wrenchingly depicted as sick and depraved. One scene in which Noah visits a town condemned to judgement will churn your stomach with its cruelty. The film leaves no doubt that God is justified in condemning the world.
And as for Noah himself, he is no one-dimensional saint, but a complex, conflicted person whose actions are not so out of line with the troubling profiles we read of other patriarchs throughout the Old Testament. Is it offensive? Perhaps. Does that make it wrong? No. Is it a characterization at odds with Genesis? Not necessarily. Is it a portrait of faith from which you and I can learn from? Absolutely.
As a piece of art, this is not a perfect film. It's occasionally clunky and tonally discordant, and the narrative flow isn't always as smooth as one would expect from such a sure-handed director. Here and there, you get the sense that Aronofsky is getting a little carried away with how much he's enjoying subverting expectations, and that comes at the detriment of the story itself.
But it succeeds more than it stumbles. It has moments of profound beauty and resonance. There are no guarantees that you'll like it or even understand all of it, but there is a general sense that something important is being communicated, and although the developments are sometimes confusing and infuriating, the love and justice of God are ultimately communicated with a power that transcends the unsettling elements and sticks with you long after the story is over.
It's a little like its source material in that sense.
Final Note: Noah earns its PG-13 rating with a lot of violence, an implied occasion of "being fruitful and multiplying" and, of course, the drowning of countless souls. Please use your discretion.
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