A group of my colleagues recently went to see Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Fueled by my jealousy over not being able to go with them, I decided I would go over the weekend, by myself, while treasured offspring was taking a nap (beloved spouse stayed home). If you have not seen the movie yet and are planning on it, you may want to stop reading here.
I will start by saying that I enjoyed the movie. And I don’t typically enjoy movies about the Bible. Growing up I considered Charlton Heston’s Ten Commandments to be a form of punishment, and I still have a tendency to lash out when someone even mentions Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (don’t get me started). So I wasn’t planning on being that impressed when I bought my ticket; I was planning on being at least slightly annoyed (what type of person goes to a movie expecting to not like it?).
But I wasn’t annoyed, not at all really. To the contrary, I think that this film accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish, which is to tell the story of Noah and the flood from a different angle. And it does so by drawing from the biblical flood narrative(s), from non-canonical texts and traditions, and from the fertile imagination of the filmmakers. In this regard, Noah was crafted in much the same way as the biblical flood, which is itself a creative work that combines Jewish traditions of creation, theological reflection, and Mesopotamian deluvial traditions such as those that we find in Gilgamesh and Atrahasis (n.b. – I am not claiming that the author[s] of Genesis knew these narratives…only that the traditions they represent would have been familiar ones).
I have neither the time nor the attention span to write a systematic review of the movie, but here are a few comments and observations (Spoilers start now. All quotes are as I remember them; not necessarily exact):
- The film does a good job of not making Noah out to be a saint. Those who have grown up hearing the account of the flood in Genesis may remember that Noah is called “a righteous man” (Gen 6:9). But there is also the more nuanced description of him as “blameless in his generation” (Gen 6:9), which may imply that he wouldn’t have been considered quite as good by later standards. In this film Noah is gritty and violent. He fights with (and kills) those who threaten his family, and he is at one point prepared to murder his grandchild (grandchildren, as it happens) . He remarks to his wife at one point, “We are no better than they are,” or some such. Aronofsky depicts Noah as a man of his times, but as one who is aware of his own tendencies toward wickedness. And this, among other things, distinguishes him from all the other characters.
- The film weaves together biblical and non-canonical narratives in a compelling way. One of the most striking features of Aronofsky’s Noah is the inclusion of the Watchers, angels who were present at the time of the earth’s creation but who soon after “fell” for the daughters of humankind. It’s a tradition that stems from an enigmatic reference to the “sons of God” in Gen 6:4 and is later developed in the Old Testament pseudepigrapha. The Watchers in Noah seem at first like characters out of Lord of the Rings; they are made of rock and have deep voices, six arms, and glowing eyes. The rock is explained as part of their punishment for interfering with humankind after the fall. Initially, one of them says, they were made of light, but after they transgressed “the Creator,” they became “encrusted in earth.” The really interesting thing about the Watchers in Noah is that they help Noah and his family build and defend the ark–a rather fun touch, in my view. There is also a scene at one point that shows Adam and Eve together in the Garden, before they eat the fruit. In this scene their bodies are glowing, which echoes a few traditions that say that before the fall they were clad in garments of light. After the fall they lose their garments of light, at which point they realize they’re naked. There’s also a really interesting explanation for how Noah had enough wood for the ark–he grew a forest that sprouted from a seed that came from the Garden of Eden (Methuselah gives it to him). I have no idea if this is rooted in some sort of rabbinic interpretation (leave a comment below if you know where it comes from!) or if it is merely creative license, but it’s brilliant. Effectively what Aronofsky has done is to allow the non-canonical narratives to do what they were intended to do, namely, to fill in the perceived gaps of the biblical text. And he does this quite well.
- The film has a preoccupation with vegetarianism. One of the things that distinguishes Noah and his family from the rest of humanity is that they don’t eat meat. Noah is horrified to witness a group of men hunting at the beginning, and one of the most intense scenes of the movie involves a large encampment of soldiers in a sort of feeding frenzy. Noah at one point comments that “they” feel as if eating the flesh of animals (also called “the innocent”) gives them some sort of power. I am sure that this is based in part on Gen 8:20-24, where Noah offers the first explicit sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible (similar activity may be implied earlier, in Gen 4:4, when Abel brings “the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions”), and God instructs him on how he is to eat meat. Before this, apparently, humankind didn’t eat meat. It’s one interpretation. And it’s an interpretation that Aronofsky runs with. The really interesting thing, in my view, is that this preoccupation with vegetarianism led to the omitting of the scene that inspired it in the first place. That’s right — in this film there is no sacrifice made after the flood waters subside! I was shocked to see that this important detail of the Genesis account is just not in Aronofsky’s film. To be sure, after more than two hours of establishing Noah as the champion of the innocent beasts of the earth, having him slit a few of their throats and then toss them on a fire would seem strange to many viewers.
- The voice of God is never heard. Throughout the film God is referred to as “the Creator.” Unless I missed it, this is the only way that the human characters (and the Watchers) refer to God in Noah. I quite like it, actually. No character in this film, good or bad, doubts that the Creator exists and is responsible for the world. One of the things that distinguishes Aronofsky’s Noah from Genesis is that God doesn’t really speak to Noah in the film, at least not like in Genesis. In Genesis, God tells Noah, “Make yourself an Ark.” In Noah, he has a series of bizarre and terrifying visions (“I saw water, death by water”) that he has to decode. At one point he seeks help from his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), but for the most part Noah is on his own in discerning what the Creator wants him to do. Even as they are boarding the ark Noah is not entirely sure that the Creator is interested in saving them from destruction. Noah becomes convinced that they, along with the rest of humankind, have been deemed too wicked too survive, and that they are on the ark only to shepherd the animals to the other side of the flood. Once this is accomplished, Noah believes that their task is to die, to return to dust so that creation may again exist in a perfect state, without the stain of humankind. It is only after his granddaughters are born (on the ark) that he comes to realize that the Creator’s intention is for him and his family to repopulate the world.
- The ark in this film is a really big floating box, not a boat. I hadn’t thought much about significance of the ark’s shape before watching this film. In coloring books and in Ken Ham’s creation museum (which I place on the same level in terms of intellectual sophistication) the ark is a giant boat with a rudder and a keel, a wheelhouse, and all the rest. But if you think about it, why would a vessel like this need a rudder and/or a keel? It’s not like they would need to steer the thing. I mean, who are they going to bump into? And it’s not like they’re really heading anywhere in particular. The function of the ark in Genesis isn’t to enable Noah and his family to cruise the seas; its function is to protect them from the primordial waters of chaos (which are not the same as the/an ocean). The ark in Genesis is a microcosm of the original creation, which God accomplishes by through separation (light from darkness, waters above from waters below, etc.). The flood, then, is God’s allowing the waters above and the waters below to mingle and swallow the dry land, undoing the original creative act, at least in part. The shape of the ark in this film reminds viewers (or at least me) that Noah and his family aren’t really heading anywhere because there isn’t anywhere to head. The “earth,” as the original Jewish audience would have understood it, doesn’t really exist during the flood; it has been subdued by the chaos.
So is the film an “accurate” portrayal of what happens in Genesis? Of course not. If you made a movie about what’s in Genesis, and you didn’t embellish any of the details, you would have a 5-10 minute movie at best. And if you are going to this movie expecting the Genesis account, you’re going to leave confused and frustrated.
But if you are in the market for a film that will make you think in new ways about a biblical story that has become so familiar that you find yourself skimming over some of the finer details, Noah might be a good choice. If you are like me, you will rush home after leaving the theatre and start reading Genesis!