Noah; or, How Not To Watch A Film

This is much, much longer than I wanted it to be. But I feel that it is important.

 

Ah, smell that? It's the sweet smell of backlash.

I've heard it for months already, honestly, which is interesting, considering the topic of today's discussion is a rather new addition to the cinematic repertoire of our world's theaters. By "rather new," I mean it opened to the masses this weekend.

I've debated how I want this to be, whether it should be a film review or a critique of Christian culture; praising or bitter or benign. Perhaps it will develop as I write.

Spoiler: I am a Christian, and I loved Darren Aronofsky's Noah.

To Get "Filmy" Things Out Of The Way

I'm an unashamed Aronofsky fan, so let's settle that right up front. It's only fair to establish author bias out of the gate, just so that those of you wishing to form opinions before finishing the whole thing (which would be a pretty fitting fate for this post considering some of the ranting I've already heard about the film). I've seen every one of his "mainstream" releases, from the trippy sci-fi fantasy The Fountain to his spectacular paranoid mind-bender Pi to his introspective and violent interpretation of "Swan Lake" in Black Swan to his two-hour long anti-drug campaign seen in Requiem for a Dream. His handling of tension is almost unparalleled, for it frequently comes from within one's own being, an approach certainly not forsaken in his most recent Noah.

As a film, Noah is pretty good, if a bit plebian by Aronofsky's standards. He's clearly intentionally appealing to a far wider audience than he has in the past, with this being by far the most tame of his typical gritty, dark, and sometimes scattered narratives. Rest assured though, Aronofsky fans, for still present are his nightmarish dream sequences, trademark close-up, choppy jump-cuts, and intricate character development. While the tension is at times a bit heavy-handed and spooned to the audience, it mounts deliciously and deliberately as the stakes are consistently raised.

I suppose you'd not like to hear me talk about how his clearly defined acts would delight Screenwriting 101 or how the pacing was rather spot on, for let's face it: you're not here for "filmy" bits. I simply needed to get this part out of the way, because frankly as a film, Noah is nothing to balk at.

But let's be real; you're not here to see how it stacks up as a piece of filmmaking. You want to hear about hos this opened opposite God's Not Dead... something I would argue (as would this film) is in no way coincidental.

Juicy (God) Bits of Reviewy Stuff

Herein lies darkness, and it's absolutely crucial.

In Noah, God is painfully, audibly silent, but His voice, presence, and centrality is pervasive. The Creator (as the film constantly refers to Him) is inextricable from this film and He's never even once portrayed in the "morality" of the story as the bad guy. But be you warned: this is not (nor is God, for that matter) the flannel-graph, Sunday School God most media, unfortunately including Christian media, likes to show. This God is infinite and just, He is central, He is current, He is present, and He is pissed enough to want to erase His creation and start again. I cannot emphasize enough just how real God is in every cineplex showing this film.

As you may have already guessed, there is a good bit of deviation from the source text (assuming you're not talking about Mesopotanian traditions or the Book of Enoch or the Epic of Gilgamesh or any of the almost 500 worldwide traditions of the angry Creator wishing to wipe clean the devastation plaguing humankind with a flood), though that's to be expected in a feature-length treatment of a relatively small and sparsely descriptive handful of verses you can read twice while waiting for coffee to brew. I'll lay out some of the major differences the extra-critical will be sure to point out (ordered only by the sequence of their coming into my head):

  • It does not take place over a hundred and twentyish years
  • Noah isn't 500 when he fathers Shem
  • There is the addition of extra-Biblical descriptions of fallen angels that smack of something of Nephilim lore who help Noah build and defend the Ark from an attacking army
  • Japheth and Ham do not enter the Ark with their wives
  • Shem's wife is barren
  • Tubal-Cain (Genesis 4:22) is presented as physical antagonist to the story
  • Noah becomes filled with rage and breathes murderous threats against his family
  • Noah is a vegetarian
  • We don't see Noah building an altar and sacrificing burnt offerings upon breaking ground
  • Ham sets off on his own, filled with teenage angst and bitterness towards his father after the waters recede

That's enough, I think. You get the picture: there are quite stark differences, mostly for the purpose of creating a taught and compelling narrative. I'll touch on some of these more surprising points (the ones causing some to shake in their seats after reading) later.

What I think is the most stark thing portrayed in this film is not the glaring differences from the Judaic text most refer to when they call it an abomination, it's the unflinching humanity of every person involved.

Picture with me the following scenario. Let's say you've gotten to the point where you're completely sure that God has told you to build an Ark to save only your family to be the remnant of humanity. The flood comes, people see you weren't so crazy after all, and the pounding begins: women with their newborns screaming to be saved, desperate men climbing the sides of the boat while being battered by unprecedented waves, the wailing of survivors clinging to a piece of something floaty just long enough to succumb to ironic dehydration, the sickening bumps against the bodies of every person ever to have lived now drowned and bloated and dead. All because you didn't let them into the boat. What sort of weight is that that you'd feel? Rest assured, Crowe's Noah, the most historic protector of life of all kinds, deals with this all film long, and it is heart-wrenching.

Agenda

Let's talk "why"s for a second. Why change things that will inevitably stir controversy? Why create what Aronofsky said will be the "least-biblical movie ever made?" Why make something that articles like this and this will call "brilliantly sinister anti-Christian filmmaking" and will call Noah's version of "god" some pagan earth god cleverly disguised by Biblical mythos?

Because, whether Aronofsky knew it or not, my King is not mocked, and He can turn even the most blasphemous of statements into affirmations of His grandeur. If he really was trying to make the "least-biblical movie ever made," he honestly did a terrible job of it, because the the Creator it portrays is Truth, and Truth herein lies.

It is so easy to anger people who are really, really great at missing the point, even if the point isn't intended. Perhaps the filmmakers find this funny (in the same way we find it funny when people post Onion articles, irate by the contents of it), perhaps the inflammatory pre-release statements were simply genius marketing; whatever the case, no matter how meta the moral is, no matter how pagan the haters will say this god is, I'll repeat myself: Truth herein lies.

Arguments and Answers

I've heard several repeated arguments against this film, three of which I'll answer here briefly.

God's just mad because people are pillaging the earth and eating meat; there is no mention of idolatry or sexual immorality or godlessness.

This is a film. A literary genre, of sorts. A constrained period of time in which to make as impactful a point as possible. Yes, Noah continues the charge to Adam of tending the garden and implores his sons to "take only what you need" (is this really so bad a thing?). The bad guys violently butcher animals and bite the heads off of still-breathing endangered lizards, they burn the countryside behind them, and they raid the earth for a fictional rare metal to use for their own devices.

But I believe that those who've made this argument have missed two crucial things: #1: the power of metaphor (it's easy to use the microcosm of "take what you need" vs "take all you want" to make a larger point), and #2: possibly the most frightening sequence ever put to film, where goats are tossed and halved by human hands, where women are drug screaming through slatted gates by ravenous men, where children are trampled under the feet of mobs. The glaringly Nietzschian Tubal-Cain ("We'll take what we want because we're the pinnacle of existence, and by taking what we want, we prove our power") has been mistaken by my believing friends on Facebook as persuasive, when really they've missed the film's heavy-handed criticism of his "I am god" rhetoric. In Noah, the wickedness of mankind is mankind's substitution of itself for God, not merely the anti-granola nonsense would-be critics want it to be.

God is deliberately vague and distant.

Noah's communications from God in this film are limited to dreams. The "build an Ark out of gopher wood" bit is never spoken, God never calls down from a whirlwind, He never answers "yes" when Noah asks, "am I doing this right?"

Yes, I realize the Bible records words from God in this story. I know that; I've read them. But do you know what Aronofsky's method allows for? The answer is threefold: Faith, Doubt, and Providence. I honestly don't even understand Christians making this argument, because what the change provides is a thoroughly flawed and human character making decisions based on faith and sticking to them, even when doubt sits quite literally on his shoulders, and it allows for God to be the ultimate controller of the characters' destinies, no matter how wrong they get it sometimes. Noah gets what he thinks is the big picture, but misses the mark, allowing for the third-act twist to provide the final zoom out to what is really going on.

Let me remind you that this is a film, not a history lesson. This is a character study, not a theological debate; and in the end, it is God's plan that prospers, it is God's plan that is ultimately good, and it is God who is praised, not the humanistic, Nietzschian, nihilistic alternatives provided.

Noah is a psychopath who wants to kill newborn babies.

In this film, Noah plots to kill an infant. I'll allow for that. But this relates to the previous point, and I'll explain it.

Noah sees what God sees as far as the wickedness of man (eating their blasted hamburgers and Taco Bell!) and decides that God's plan is to continue the parts of creation that were not tainted by sin, while destroying the parts that were. He decides that this is true because of what was delivered to him to save: all of his male children, his wife (unable to have children, I guess because she was too old), and Shem's barren wife. Noah infers the following: "Okay, God, you've given me this to work with. What this tells me is that Your plan is that we are the end of humanity. I'll serve You to the end in that." Doing the best with what he has, he is.

So he gets a little mad when Hermoine is supernaturally cured of her barrenness and conceives. He says, "You've gone out of the will of God! But so help me if I do that too; I've promised Him I'll continue His mission." So he says, "Sorry, Hermoine. If your child's a girl, I'm killing her." It is tense. It is dark. And it's DEFINITELY the only Biblical example of a man willing to murder a child to fulfill God's plan.

But calling Noah a psychopath does him a serious discredit, and painting him as a religious whacko is unfair. Noah is a deeply convicted man, devoted to his Creator no matter what end it takes him to, no matter how dark (and if you think that God cannot be dark, I encourage you to read roughly 93% of the Old Testament and get back to me).

But the plan changes when it's not a daughter, it's TWIN daughters. And Noah has two unmarried sons with him. His wife points out: "Look! The Creator has given us exactly what we need!"

Indeed.

Conclusion

I've written too much already. Sorry.

St. Augustine wrote that all who claim to follow the Christ (the Truth) are to love truth, no matter where it lies. In Aronofsky's Noah, Truth abounds, whether he intended it or not. He painted a picture of a flawed human struggling through belief, doubt, rejection, burden, and faith, and made it so that the Creator was the one in ultimate control, despite how broken the vessels floating on the earth-covering waves may be.

This film should be a triumph for anybody not so self-righteous to admit that they've struggled with wondering about God's plan, handling uncertainty, or understanding what God is like.

Noah and company make terrible decisions. The filmmakers make imperfect choices. The story is not without its blemishes.

But you know what? So are you.

Yet, despite the things that have happened and the decisions you've made and the doubt you've harbored in the darkest corners of your gut, the Creator is the one in ultimate control, and His plan was, from the beginning, one of redemption. Perhaps you, like Aronofsky's Noah, missed it; that doesn't matter. Because you, like Aronofsky's Noah, are not beyond His grace.

 

Hamilton Barber

The subject of this page is an introverted writer/musician/lunatic from Chattanooga, TN who dabbles in lexical dexterity, unorthodox thoughts on prosperity, and being overwhelmingly undeserving of the privilege of waking up every day. He hopes that everybody who reads these words takes them to heart and leaps higher than he ever could. He reads, thinks, and speaks too much; he listens, works, and loves too little; and he says “I” entirely too often. The words on these pages are not his: they are the words that were given to him.