Movie Review/Reflection--Noah

The weather here is horrible--high 30s, rain, turning to snow (!) this evening.  A perfect day to go see Noah, the latest epic from Darren Aronofsky, Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly et al.  

Before I get to my thoughts on the movie, two disclaimers.  First, to talk about the stuff I want to talk about, I have to include spoilers.  That may seem like a ridiculous concept for a movie like Noah--doesn't Genesis "spoil" the story already?  But the movie includes elements that go beyond the Biblical text.  According to interviews with Aronofsky, he drew on Jewish midrash and other non-canonical sources (such as the Book of Enoch) in writing the screenplay.  I am not familar enough with the Jewish source material to be entirely sure which stuff is from Jewish sources and what is Aronofsky's own creation, but in any event this new material is some of the most interesting parts of the film.  To talk about it, I have to spoil it, so fair warning to readers.

Second, I am an unreconstructed Darren Aronofsky fanboy.  He's made six films, and I have enjoyed all of them (well, perhaps "enjoyed" is not the right word for Requiem for a Dream, but you get the idea).  Most people seemed to have liked Requiem, The Wrestler, and Black Swan, but I think Pi and especially The Fountain are deeply underrated movies, and The Fountain one of my top ten favorite movies.  So, I am predisposed to like this movie, and I did.  I cannot say I am completely objective.

Actually, Noah is a lot like The Fountain--it is visually very engaging, and contains a ton of interesting and thought-provoking ideas, even it at times it doesn't completely work as a movie.  If I can put on my amateur movie critic hat, I noticed three problems with Noah.  One was that the pacing of the film was weird--everything leading up to the flood felt rushed (as if it had been through an aggressive edit), while the stuff after the flood felt drawn out.  Second, the action scenes involving Russell Crowe fighting people didn't work--it's impossible to look at Crowe with ancient weapons and not think of Maximus from Gladiator, and that comparison is immersion-breaking.  Third, as discussed more below, the ending is problematic and doesn't fully "land" on the message it is trying to send.

Despite these problems, however, I found Noah to be a compelling theological reflection on the Biblical story.
From what I understand of the complaints that have been made by the conservative Christian community, the biggest one has been about the added material.  There is a ton of added material, but this film is deeply grounded in the early chapters of Genesis.  The creation story in Genesis 1 is recounted word for word in several places, as well as the story of Cain and Abel.  The movie also refuses to pull punches about the brutality of the story as presented in Genesis.  The scene where Noah and his family sit inside the ark and try to eat while listening to the screams of the dying outside brings home that the story of Noah is on its face a story of genocide at the hands of God (referred to as "the Creator" in the film).  As in the Scriptures, the people that die outside of the ark are portrayed as mostly wicked, but they still die, and the film forces you to deal with that reality.  Further complicating the analysis is the girl that Noah's son Ham tries to bring back to the ark, who Noah intentionally abandons to her fate.  Ham makes the case that she, at least, is innocent, and it seems like he has a point.  It is hard to believe that everyone outside the ark deserved their fate, and the film doesn't try to suggest otherwise.

The other complaint that I have heard from the evangelical community is that it turns to the story of Noah into a parable about environmentalism.  The environmental message of the film is not a subtext--it is front and center and cannot be avoided.  While the children of Cain (i.e. everyone except Noah and his family) are not very nice in a variety of ways, the fact they have despoiled the Earth is at the top of the list of their wicked actions.  But it is not a secular, Captain Planet-style of environmentalism that is being advocated--the conservation message is presented explicitly in theological terms.  Noah understands the conservation of the Earth as a command from God, in some respects the command from God.  The film directly critiques the idea that mankind has been given dominion over the Earth to do what they want, to the point having the primary bad guy, Tubal-Cain, make that precise argument in a speech to Ham.  So, for those evangelicals and others who take a Dominionist position on environmental issues, it is not shocking that they would be unhappy with the film--it is pointed directly at them.  This is creation spirituality in blockbuster movie form.

It is also a rather deep reflection on the idea of being called by God.  The movie does not try to soft-sell the notion that God is speaking to Noah, and takes it, pardon the expression, as an article of faith [with the possible exception of a scene in the beginning where Methuselah gives Noah some "medicine" which triggers a vision from God.  Frankly, I think that scene is a bit of a cop-out that really only serves to muddy the waters].  However, while it takes the idea of call seriously, it also tries to show that the call may not come through as clearly or specifically as one would like.  Noah knows he is called by God and should build an ark, but he does not fully understand what else God is telling him to do.

The key conflict in the second half of the movie revolves around Noah's belief that God's plan is for all humanity to be wiped away, including Noah and his family.  When Noah's adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) becomes pregnant, Noah's understanding of his call leads him to the conclusion that he needs to ensure the elimination of humanity by killing the babies that might restart the human race.  Here, the movie does an excellent job of showing Noah in the grip of a frightening religious delusion without taking shots at the idea of religion or call--the movie is pretty clear that Noah has gone off the proverbial reservation.  Obsession is a thread that runs through Aronofsky's films, and Noah goes right along with Nina Sayers from Black Swan, Tom Creo in The Fountain, everyone in Requiem for a Dream, and Max in Pi.

Noah's obsession comes, in large part, from his recognition of the darkness that lives inside of all of us.  In a pivotal scene, Noah sneaks into the camp of the sons of Cain (ostensibly to look for wives for his sons) and observes how they have descended into horrible debauchery.  In particular, a man sells his daughter for some meat, and as the man is devouring the meat, Noah sees the man's face morph into his own.  From this, Noah concludes that he and his family are just as deserving of the judgment of God as the sons of Cain.  As Noah starts to go deeper into his obsession, the movie seems to be heading toward some clarification of God's nature involving love and mercy, expressed primarily through the vehicle of Noah's wife (Jennifer Connolly).  She argues that the good is intermixed with the bad in humanity, and this makes (at least the family) worth saving.  I wish the movie did more with this idea.

I wish the movie did more with a number of its ideas, and it is here where the problematic ending comes into play.  In the climatic scene, Noah is poised to kill the newborn babies, and then suddenly stays his hand.  When Ila asks Noah about it in the denouement, Noah says he saw the love Ila had for the babies and that made him stop short.  But the movie doesn't really do anything with this idea.  When Noah says that he is a failure in the eyes of God for not carrying through with His commands, Ila offers the banal observation that maybe God wanted Noah to show mercy, and so Noah didn't fail after all.  Noah, for some reason, accepts this explanation, and the movie ends.  So, the movie asks questions about the nature of God and His commands, but it doesn't really provide any kind of answer, or even much of a suggestion of an answer.  It is somewhat unsatisfying.

One side thought. The story of Noah and the babies is clearly reminiscent of the story of Abraham and the aborted sacrifice of Isaac, to the point of having Noah poised with the knife directly above the head of the baby before staying his hand.  Given the Jewish roots of the film, I cannot imagine that this is an accident.  The Abraham and Isaac story is another troublesome Genesis tale, but it is traditionally understood (at least in Christian circles) as a story of God testing Abraham's faithfulness, and a foreshadowing of God's willingness to offer His Son on the cross.  You don't get the sense from the film that we are supposed to see this as a test of Noah's faith, but the parallels are so close that it is at least worth raising.

So, Noah.  A good film with a number of thought-provoking ideas, particularly for people of faith, even if it doesn't fully explore them as much as one might like.

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