Noah: far from a natural disaster
Darren Aronofsky’s Noah lets us know within the first thirty seconds that it isn’t a literal translation of the Biblical account. In the course of a text opening that quickly recounts the story of Eden, the fall of Adam and Eve, and Cain’s murder of Abel, we learn that Cain and his descendants were helped by a band of fallen angels called the Watchers, who taught them technology and helped them to build vast industrial cities, laying waste to the earth. At this point viewers who care about the traditional Flood story may be tempted to conclude that the film is an environmentalist propaganda piece which brushes over the moral and spiritual evils which brought on the deluge, but they would be wrong. It is soon made clear that the descendants of Cain are guilty of more than just overzealous mining: they have covered the whole world with wickedness and violence.
Noah, played by a quiet, reflective Russell Crowe, wanders the world accompanied only by his wife and three sons, scraping what sustenance he can from the barren earth. His father is long dead, murdered by the film’s antagonist, Tubal-Cain, who leads the barbaric descendants of Cain. His grandfather, the legendary Methuselah, lives as a hermit on a faraway mountain. He and his family are continually harried by Tubal-Cain's people, who seek to extinguish the line of Seth and, when Noah begins to build the ark, seek to kill him and take it for themselves. Noah’s only line of defense is the Watchers, who agree to help him build the ark and defend his family from the sons of Cain.
The Watchers are Noah’s fantastical take on the Biblical Nephilim, but these fallen angels are spiritually less akin to devils and closer to Tolkien’s Valar, who are capable of sin but also of repentance. The Watchers came from heaven to earth out of love of mankind, to help and teach it, only realizing their error when mankind used what they learned to spread evil across the world. God – usually referred to in this movie as the Creator – punished their disobedience, binding them to the earth with bodies of earth, so that they appear as giant rock creatures. Unfortunately, unlike the Valar, the Watchers have little personality and are indistinguishable from one another, bearing more resemblance to golems from a game of Dungeons and Dragons than anything else. It seems that their only real plot purpose is to give Noah a fair chance of survival when Tubal-Cain attacks, and since that battle is the least interesting conflict in the film, the Watchers only serve to bring the movie down for me.
The film’s most significant departure from Scripture also turns out to be its greatest strength. While God’s activity is clearly present throughout, Noah receives the Creator’s messages in the form of visions rather than words, leaving Noah’s task somewhat ambiguous even with the help of the mystic Methuselah. While he clearly understands that a flood will wipe out mankind and that he must build an ark for all the animals of the earth, Noah is confused as to why God has chosen him. Burdened with the knowledge that God has judged the rest of mankind to be wholly evil and worthy of destruction, and questioning his own goodness, Noah begins to doubt that even he and his family are meant to be part of the new beginning after the flood. Why should humanity be given a second chance when it seems certain that they will only destroy the world a second time? Noah never doubts God’s justice, but he strains himself to the breaking point trying to carry it out before he finally begins to understand God’s far more mysterious mercy. Since the balance between God’s justice and mercy is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian Flood story, Noah not only stays true to the spirit of the text, but drives the theme even deeper dramatically by making the mystery play itself out in the character of Noah himself. It also invites a modern audience not to stand outside the story and judge it based on preconceived notions of justice, but to make the journey along with a protagonist who himself struggles to understand these things.
I agree in part with Steven Greydanus, who writes that “the film’s most serious theological drawback is its lack of a clear vision in Genesis of man as the pinnacle of God’s creative work.” I too noticed that the only character who mentions that man is made in the image of God is the evil Tubal-Cain, who uses this as an excuse to take what he wants and usurp the place of God, who he believes has abandoned man to his own devices. But it is true enough that the devil quotes Scripture to his own purposes, and this serves an important dramatic function in a major sub-plot, in which Noah’s middle son, Ham, finds himself increasingly attracted to the distorted masculinity, sense of certainty and vision of human greatness offered by Tubal-Cain, despite the ugliness and evil he also sees. Ham, who desperately wants to be a man, whether that comes from finding a wife or killing other men, is frustrated by his father’s seeming powerlessness and lack of easy answers, while Noah’s inability to give his son what he needs is in many ways what makes him doubt whether he and his family deserve God’s mercy.
While Crowe’s portrayal of Noah drives the movie, the other actors range from competent to good in their roles, notably Jennifer Connelly as Noah’s steadfast wife Naameh, whose performance renders Noah’s family life believable and compelling. The score is the same serviceable but instantly forgettable stuff we’ve come to expect from epic Hollywood movies over the past decade and a half. The cinematography and effects work well but don’t draw attention to themselves, with the exception of a few lovely time-lapse sequences showing the creation of the Earth and the animals coming to the ark, some of my favorite moments in the film. All in all, Noah, while not a must-see, is a well-made, entertaining and thematically sound adaptation of a Bible story. On second thought, given the state of contemporary religious art, well-made, entertaining and thematically sound is probably more than enough to make it a must-see for CatholicCulture.org readers.
Those interested in a more detailed scriptural and theological examination of Noah should read Stephen Greydanus’s insightful article at the National Catholic Register. I also highly recommend his interview with the film’s writer-director Darren Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel, in which the filmmakers’ love and respect for the Bible story shines through.
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Posted by: John J Plick -
Apr. 03, 2014 10:09 AM ET USA
In Noah as presented in this piece, this movie, we see no less than a Christ-figure, an enlightened, fallen imperial Man, who, having recognized the depth of his depravity and the threat that it presents to the “lower creatures,” the plants and the animals, his subjects, in a supremely kingly manner is ready to accept death and by extension the deaths of his family, in a finality that would extinguish the problem completely, selflessly returning the entrusted Creation back to its Creator.
Posted by: John J Plick -
Apr. 03, 2014 10:05 AM ET USA
The subtleties of “Noah” are quite significant&“objections”need to be carefully examined.There is a charge that the production is not anthropocentric but rather ecocentric which seems at its face difficult to refute,but it is not.We in the modern New Testament Age, living in the midst of the Incarnation,that is an exalted humanity, feel that it is “our right” to exploit nature… The early patriarchs saw nature as a “trust,” to protect&to nurture.To “die” to fulfill that trust is not unreasonable.
Posted by: John J Plick -
Mar. 30, 2014 3:31 PM ET USA
The movie was exceptionally powerful, albeit possessing the weaknesses stated above. It is hopeful not only in the abiding sense that it demonstrates God's abiding mercy even in the face of rampant sin, but also in the fact that it has in this reader's view the capacity to bring those who tend to relate more to "nature" and those who relate more to "the Bible" closer together.