Noah by Darren Aronofsky (Review)

Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical adaptation serves as a bracing restorative for a story that has lost much of its bite over the centuries.
Noah - Darren Aronofsky

I’ve already written about my initial ambivalence and growing curiosity concerning Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of the story of Noah, so I won’t repeat that here. Having finally seen Noah for myself, I’m honestly a bit confused as to why so many Christians apparently have their knickers in a twist over the movie. My guess is that, while Noah is deeply reverent and quite awe-inspiring at times, it is definitely not a Sunday School-friendly version of the oh-so-familiar Bible story.

When Aronofsky set out to make Noah, he promised that it would be the “least Biblical” Bible movie ever made. Some took that as obvious evidence that Aronofsky was going out of his way to be disrespectful, critical of Christianity, blasphemous, etc. Yes, Noah deviates from the actual letter of the Biblical text, and dramatically so — but as troubling as that might be, I think that frees it to be a little closer to the spirit of the text. Noah is not without its flaws, particularly in the final act, and some of the aesthetic choices will raise an eyebrow and elicit a smirk or two, but it ultimately serves as a bracing restorative for a story that has lost much of its bite over the centuries.

In the world of Noah, mankind is evil. So evil, in fact, that the whole Earth is suffering as a result of their wickedness. Noah, who lives on the outskirts of civilization with his family, attempts to care for the Earth and undo some of the harm done by his fellow humans, but it’s not enough. Through a series of disturbing visions, “the Creator” tells Noah that the whole Earth will be purged with a flood, thereby allowing creation to heal and return to its Edenic glory — and Noah has been chosen to help bring this about by (spoilers!) building a giant ark to carry a remnant of the world’s wildlife.

This immediately brings up one of the movie’s strongest aspects, and one way in which it’s most faithful to the Biblical text: Noah does not shy away from depicting the wickedness of man. According to Genesis, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him to His heart.” Aronofsky makes us see and feel that regret.

In one particularly harsh scene, Noah walks anonymously through the sprawling camp that has sprung up around the ark’s building site. He hopes to acquire wives for two of his sons, but instead, is confronted by people trading their screaming daughters for scraps of meat. He sees a violent, selfish mob overcome by terror and brutality.

But how to deal with such wickedness? Here we see another one of the movie’s strong points, i.e., its depiction of God’s justice. We believe that God is just, but in doing so, we often “humanize” God. We think God will be just in the ways that we would be just (which is not entirely without merit). And yet, the movie makes it clear that a supreme Creator’s sense of justice may be very different than our understanding, and even offensive to our understanding — which is a troubling thought.

In one of the movie’s most chilling and riveting scenes, Noah and his family huddle inside the ark while the screams of the drowning people outside reverberate through the hull. No doubt there are babies and young children amidst the dying; there are good people being crushed by the waves. Was it just for them to be condemned and destroyed? And what must it be like for a righteous man who has devoted his life to the Creator’s will to be confronted by a Divine work of such enormity and terror? What doubts would arise?

It might be hard for non-Christians to wrap their minds around this stuff, but I think it’s doubly hard for many Christians. We’ve grown up with stories like Noah, often with the aid of flannelgraph. We’ve read them time and again, and heard them in sermon after sermon. We even plaster artwork inspired by them on the walls of our church nurseries, as if it’s a comforting story for the kiddies.

For all of its flaws and deviations from the Biblical text, Noah is still valuable for Christians because it offers a very different, and quite visceral perspective on a familiar tale. Even if we don’t agree with them entirely, such perspectives can still open our eyes to new facets we’ve never considered and resharpen tales that have grown dull from familiarity. And if we vastly disagree with such perspectives, working through the ways in which we disagree can help us better understand what, exactly, we do believe. In either case, they can be valuable and stimulating, as evidenced by the fact that my wife and I discussed the movie with friends immediately after leaving the theatre, and then came home and stayed up until 11:30pm discussing the movie’s themes — and picked up right where we left off the following morning.

As for those deviations… The Bible calls Noah a righteous and blameless man who walked with God but Noah is often vague about what, exactly, that means. In the movie, Noah can be harsh and violent, willing to kill men over the death of an animal. In the movie’s climax, he steels himself to commit an unconscionable act. (Though, to be fair, it’s refreshing to be presented with a Noah who isn’t some sage in a robe with a long, white beard à la the flannelgraph presentations of yore.)

It’s also worth noting the Biblical flood narrative ends with a powerful scene in which God makes a covenant with Noah and his family, and with the rest of creation — a promise to be merciful and long-suffering, even in the face of humanity’s great wickedness. This is present in a somewhat condensed version in the movie, but God is largely absent and the focus is squarely on Noah and his role as a patriarch offering his blessing to the next generation. This may sound like nitpicking, and yet, it’s an important aspect to the larger Biblical narrative; without this God-centered ending, the story of Noah risks falling into simple humanistic moralizing.

But when Christians discuss the movie’s flaws, them seem to focus on stuff that strike me as largely non-issues. For example, some people took issue with Noah because the word “God” is never uttered in the film. Rather, He’s only called “the Creator.” Nevermind the fact that God doesn’t reveal His name in the Bible until much later, but in this day and age when so many Christians are skeptical of evolution, one would think they’d be glad to see a big budget Hollywood movie state that some kind of supreme being is the creator, rather than unguided natural processes.

Others really couldn’t get past the “rock monsters” in the movie. Now, to be fair, I wasn’t a big fan of this particular aesthetic choice, either — they were far too reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings’ ents. (I kept expecting a Treebeard cameo.) But the snark from the “rock creature” critics was pretty insufferable. The rock monsters are the movie’s way of referencing the Nephilim, one of the Bible’s more cryptic references, and they also prove quite handy when it comes to ark-building. They’re certainly an ambitious addition by the filmmakers.

This particular quibble touches on a larger issue, though: we simply don’t know much at all about Noah’s world. The Bible offers very few details concerning the antediluvian world, and the Noah narrative itself is pretty sparse. As such, there’s a lot of room for the imagination to run around and play, which is precisely what Aronofsky et al. do. Not all of their choices work, but they’re frequently interesting and conducive to more discussion — a sign of good art.

Some have also critiqued Noah for being pro-environmental and anti-human. Regarding the film’s misanthropy, again, the film doesn’t shy away from a very Biblical portrait of humanity’s wickedness. If the film is anti-human, than perhaps we need to consider that the Biblical account is, too. As for the film’s environmentalism, critics seem to forget that God’s first command in the Bible was — contra Anne Coulter — for humanity to help the Earth grow and flourish, to make it even more beautiful than when God was finished with it. (Or, as the King James Version puts it, humanity was commanded to “replenish the earth.”) Noah runs with that and makes it clear that humanity didn’t do a very good job fulfilling that sacred task, that God’s precious creation has suffered as a result, and that something needs to be done. Maybe that’s “pro-environmental,” but it’s sad that such a term is being used as an epithet here.

For me, the movie’s biggest flaw wasn’t theological, but rather, narrative, i.e., it tried to add more drama and suspense to the story when none was needed, specifically in the final act. I won’t divulge any spoilers, but suffice to say, there are a few dramatic twists in the final act that seem largely silly and unnecessary considering the movie’s already dealing with a worldwide flood, the wickedness of mankind, and questions of righteousness and Divine justice.

Some other random thoughts:

  • My favorite character in the movie was Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Not only does he bring some nice levity and tenderness to the story, but he’s also the vessel for one of the movie’s greatest miracles and Divine acts of mercy.
  • The film sometimes features an odd mix of humanism and theism, particularly in the end when the movie’s message seems to be (in part) that humanity has been given a second chance because there’s good in us, too. However, a completely humanistic outlook, as espoused by the antagonist Tubal-cain, is portrayed as nothing but destructive and rebellious, so I’m not too bothered by this.
  • Noah is hardly Gnostic. If you want a dose of cinematic Gnosticism, stick with The Matrix.
  • I have a feeling that Noah, along with The Tree of Life, will be one of the favorite movies for theistic evolutionists. As they huddle together on the ark, Noah re-tells the story of creation to his family, and Aronofsky presents a rapid slideshow of the universe’s, and Earth’s development, which clearly shows planetary and biological evolution at work — evolution that is clearly initiated and overseen by the Creator.
  • As part of that retelling, Noah discusses man’s inhumanity to man, which is visualized in another rapid slideshow, this time of silhouettes attacking each other. If you watch carefully, many of the silhouettes are more modern than antediluvian warriors (i.e., I thought I saw a couple of machine guns in there). It’s an interesting aesthetic choice, as it essentially undercuts Noah’s beliefs that the flood represents a new beginning devoid of man’s sinfulness and that his family will be the last people to walk the earth.
  • When will Hollywood epics based on stories from the Middle-East feature more characters who don’t speak in (fake) English accents and/or have darker skin? (Of course, it could very well be that prior to the Tower of Babel, everyone sounded like they were from the UK. As I said before, the Bible doesn’t really say much about antediluvian culture.)
  • I really wish a different typeface had been used for the movie’s opening crawl and closing credits. It was better than Papyrus, but only marginally so.

Finally, if you want to read even more (and better) analysis and criticism of the film, then you can hardly go wrong with the brilliant and thoughtful work by Steven D. Greydanus and Peter Chattaway. There’s also Jeffrey Overstreet’s two-part Noah commentary/discussion.