Should I see Noah, the “least Biblical film ever made”?
April 4, 2014
NOAH – 2014. (Review by Isaac)
There’s been a lot of talk about this film. It has big names like Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, it was written and directed by the talented Darren Aronofsky (who has some unique beliefs and some claim he’s an atheist), and it’s “based on a popular Bible story”. Aronofsky himself claimed that Noah is “probably the least Biblical film ever made.” The reactions have been loud, lengthy, divergent, and abundant.
At the end of the day, I keep hearing this question: “Should I see Noah?”
My answer is: “If you are in a position where the film will come up in conversation and you have an opportunity to intelligently speak about it, then yes. Absolutely.”
Before I get started, let me give you a few of my presuppositions.
1. I am not an isolationist. Cultures can have good or evil elements, but the culture itself is not evil. Like a city, or a state, culture simply exists. I think Christians should participate in our culture and be “all things to all men.”
2. I love stories because they are a powerful method of communication. Anytime we engage with a story, we should consider the worldview that the author is presenting.
3. I think Christians should redemptively engage with our culture and “make the most of every opportunity” to witness.
Whether it’s The Chronicles of Narnia or Hunger Games, Christians are part of a movie-going culture that talks about films and is willing to think about the deeper meanings behind them. You won’t see me quoting philosophy books after seeing Spider-man, but his films have led to some great conversations about the nature of responsibility, obligation, sacrifice, and choices. So in the spirit of engaging and promoting dialog, “what do we do with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah”?
First, I want to acknowledge things I really liked about Noah:
1. Sin is a serious matter.
Writer/Director Darren Aronofsky depicts Genesis 6:11 pretty literally, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” The film opens with a brief, Lord of the Rings-esk explanation of the Creation and Fall. God created everything to be perfect, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, now humanity is cursed. Aronofsky’s treatment is artistic and powerful. The descendants of Cain are violent, greedy, and disgusting. Rape and cannibalism are implied. One man steals a child to trade it for food, and we see a horde of starving people begin tearing apart a pig and eating it raw. You can understand why God decided a flood was necessary.
The film is clear that the cause of humanity’s violence and wickedness is sin. The dialog hints at total depravity: every aspect of us, even our noblest intentions, are tainted by sin. This sin destroyed society and the world, and now God is judging humanity. In the final act, Noah struggles dramatically with his own depravity and questions how a society after the flood could ever be good because it is still tainted by human sin.
2. God really killed a lot of people in the flood.
“Noah’s Ark” is often told as a children’s story and we easily forget how brutal it is. Minus a handful of people, the entire population of the earth was wiped out. As the rain begins to pour down, Noah and some rock monsters (angels who God cursed to live in rock bodies) violently defend the ark and stop anyone from climbing aboard. When the flood waters rise, Noah’s family hears the screams of drowning people outside the ark, but Noah refuses to help them. “God has judged them”, he says. “The Creator” has destroyed his creation with water and is going to start over. Justice and mercy are pivotal themes throughout the film.
3. Noah took stewardship of the Earth seriously.
Aronofsky takes a page of out Tolkien and, like Saruman building an army worthy of Mordor, Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) and his people devastate nature. Caring only for weapons and cities, their terrain is burned and lifeless. Filmed in Iceland, the tone is survivalist and practically post-apocalyptic as Noah and his family scavenge a barren landscape to survive. Tubal-Cain justifies this consumerism, “God told us to have dominion over the earth.” Noah’s family is vegan and views eating animals as disobeying The Creator (this is Biblical, but God also lifts this command after the flood in Genesis 9, which is not depicted in the movie.)
Aronofsky said that he wanted to explore the tension between God’s command to “care for the earth” and “have dominion over all the earth.” While some denounce Noah as environmentalist propaganda, what is wrong with saying that we need to care for nature? We may reach different conclusions, but there is nothing wrong with promoting stewardship in general.
4. We are created in God’s image, and man’s greatest sin is pride in our own image.
Wanting to get the ark for himself, Tubal-Cain says he will survive the flood and “remake humanity in his image.” Like this wicked king, humanity rebels in our hearts against God and takes pride in our own image. The film has a brief, prophetic montage of the result of this sin: war and violence carrying on throughout human history.
5. The cast, visuals, and rock-monsters.
A lot of people (particularly Christians) are saying that Noah is a terrible movie across the board, and that’s unfair. Except for the third act (which I will get to later), I really enjoyed the movie. Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson all gave notably good performances. The flashbacks and creation story are powerful both visually and dramatically. I was very disappointed in the idea of making “The Nephilim” from Genesis 6 into rock-monsters, but they were actually my favorite part of the film.
Legitimate issues I took with Noah that are worth ending my 2 year “break” from movie reviews:
1. God gives Noah a vague vision of the flood and Noah is left to interpret/misinterpret it as he pleases, which leads to Noah making some really bad decisions in the name of carrying out “God’s will.”
In the film, Noah has a vision of people drowning, animals swimming, and a giant boat. He concludes that God is going to punish the sinful and save the innocent. Noah starts out believing that God is going to save him and his family. In the third act, Noah remembers that he has sin too and concludes that his family should all die out in order to rid the earth of sin. Noah’s logic looks something like this:
1. Humanity destroyed the world and filled it with sin and violence.
2. God is going to punish sin by flooding everything and make a fresh start.
3. But wait a minute; me and my family have sin, too!
4. Therefore, God wants us to die so he can make his “fresh start” without sinful human beings.
Let’s explore this on two levels:
Dramatically, this is a brilliant move.
Once the flood waters lift the Ark off the ground, there’s not a lot of excitement to be had by Noah just chilling with his family and a bunch of sleeping animals.
Darren Aronofsky wanted to highlight the “story-arc” of God’s justice and mercy, so he decided to have Noah embody the same character arc (interview here.) Noah is a man of conviction, he cannot let the human race continue. When Shem’s wife Ila (Emma Watson) gets miraculously pregnant, Noah threatens to murder the child in order to prevent humanity from continuing. Seriously, I am not making this up. In the end, Noah “disobeys” the Creator by not killing babies and learns to have mercy. (I’ll unpack this more later.)
This part of the plot is incredibly dramatic and acted out with screams and tears. If drama was the goal, then it was achieved tenfold.
Rhetorically, this is an interesting and strategic move.
Noah becomes a man whose fragile and tenuous interpretation of “the Creator’s will” leads him to make murderous choices. You want to scream at him, “it’s not God’s will for you to kill babies, you idiot! You’re misinterpreting! You’re taking your own ideas and calling it God’s will!” – and perhaps, this is exactly what Darren Aronofsky wants us to think.
I often hear the objection to Christianity made by atheists, “how do you know what God’s will is?” This is a valid question. Throughout history there are people who have done both wonderful and terrible things in the name of “God’s will.” What if we’re just deceiving ourselvse? How do we know we aren’t just a madman with a knife about to kill babies? This question is embodied in Noah, who has two bizarre visions and must interpret God’s will from that alone.
The major problem with this idea is: God does not leave us alone and without instruction.
In Genesis, God gives Noah explicit instructions on what to do and why he is doing it.
Immediately after God tells Noah about the flood, he says “But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” God promises to save Noah and his family from the very beginning. No question of wives, genocide, or baby killing. No crazed lunatic with a knife. Most importantly: no ambiguity. We see both God’s judgment and mercy from the beginning.
Second, God has not left Christians without instruction or direction. We have the Bible, which is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2nd Timothy 3:16-17). We also have the Holy Spirit, which convicts and guides us, leading his followers “into all truth”. Jesus says the Holy Spirit is an “Advocate who will never leave you” (John 14:16-18).
Yes, sometimes discerning God’s will is a difficult thing to do. Sometimes we feel like Noah, screaming up into the sky for answers. But God has not abandoned us, nor has he left us without guide or instruction.
2. “Noah” is more Gnostic and Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) than it is Biblical.
This movie is about Noah and Creation, but not the Biblical version. When Aronofsky says “Noah is probably the least Biblical movie ever made” he’s not talking artistic changes he made, he’s saying that he used texts and traditions outside the Bible. For an excellent article on this, see this post by Dr. Brian Mattson, and his response video at the bottom.
Again, this doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t see the movie, or shouldn’t enjoy certain aspects of it (I listed things about it that I really enjoyed.) But this knowledge should completely change our expectations and the way we view the film. It definitely means that we should stop calling it a “Bible movie.” It is not another “Hollywood adaptation of a Bible movie” that gets a few details wrong. Darren Aronofsky from the beginning set out to tell a very different story than what we read in Genesis 6-9.
Let’s examine what this film is saying about humanity and God.
Gnosticism believes that all spirit is good and all flesh is evil. We see these Gnostic ideas repeatedly in the film. Before sinning, Adam and Eve were ethereal, bodiless beings. “The Watchers” (rock monsters) were angels trapped in physical bodies, and upon sacrificing themselves they returned to their spiritual form. Noah also explains his veganism, “strength doesn’t come from eating meat, it comes from The Creator.” The snakeskin of the Serpent/Devil also shows up repeatedly and is a Gnostic symbol of wisdom. By embracing the snakeskin, Noah is embracing a “wisdom” that comes from a source other than The Creator. (If you’re not convinced and think this sounds too much like a crazy ‘conspiracy theory’, read Mattson’s article.)
It gets more disturbing. In the Gnostic view, “The Creator” is not all good, all knowing, or all powerful. He is imperfect and immature, and the flood is a “violent phase” in the character development of this god becoming a higher deity. This trajectory is clearly seen in Aronofsky’s film, as The Creator starts out with a very active and purposeful role in bringing judgment. But as the film continues, god becomes passive and unreachable. Both Noah and Tubal-Cain cry out to god for direction, but The Creator is silent. The Creator never intervenes in Noah’s crazed baby-killing because “the choice is up to Noah.” (‘Kill your family, don’t kill them, whatever, it’s up to you Noah.’) The rainbow that appears in the end of the film is not a sign of a new Covenant, but blesses the idea that “love conquers all” as Noah accepts his grandbabies instead of killing them.
As a Christian who assumed this was based on the Biblical story, I understood Noah’s homicidal actions as misinterpreting God’s will. To someone simply watching the movie: God is completely passive unless it’s time to kill people. Furthermore, human love teaches God something about mercy and grace.
“The Creator” we witness in Darren Aronofsky’s film isn’t an interpretation of the Christian God; it is a flawed, distant, Gnostic deity.
Does that mean there’s no redeeming factors in the film at all? Of course not. I listed a number of thinks I really liked and appreciated about the film. But we must identify what we’re watching, the worldview of the writer/director, and how it relates to our Christian worldview.
3. How inconsistent the third act is with the rest of the film.
I loved the film up until Noah is convicted that humanity must die out and threatens to murder babies. Its a brilliant move for the sake of drama, but it starts feeling like a soap opera meets religious commentary. The absurdity ruined the entire film for me. There were so many ways that problem could have been resolved. Emma Watson’s character could have said “The Creator healed my womb and I conceived, therefore it must be The Creator’s will that I bear children.” Noah says “oh gee, why didn’t I think of that?” Crisis averted everyone, let’s make babies.
Conclusion and Rating:
Aesthetically, Noah boasts a talented cast and amazing visuals. Steeped in mystic lore, it plays out more like Conan the Barbarian than The Ten Commandments. But please, whatever you do, stop calling it a “Bible movie”. Many religions have their own version of the Creation and Flood stories, and aside from some parts I noted, this film has little to do with the Bible’s account. It is Gnostic and mystic, not Biblical. Even though it had powerful performances and strong visuals, the absurdity of the final act ruined the film for me.
Aesthetics = 4/5
Story and theology = 1/5
Final verdict: 2.5 out of 5 Zipped Lips.