Mar 31 2014 10:00am

One Day a Real Rain Will Come and Wash All This Scum Off The Streets: Darren Aronofsky’s Noah

Russell Crowe as Noah

Wait a minute, shouldn’t Aronofsky have made... Numbers? Little Pi joke, there, guys.

So we seem to be in another one of these interesting cultural moments when filmmakers adapt stories from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament into screen works. (I’m using “Hebrew Bible” and “New Testament” to try to avoid any of the political implications of any of the other words for those books.) Last year saw the mini-series The Bible, produced by Mark Burnett and his wife, Touched by an Angel actress Roma Downey, who were both very vocal about their desire to make the show as an act of faith. They’ve since used the success of the show as a springboard for Son of God, which is currently playing. Another religious film, God is Not Dead, features Kevin Sorbo as an atheist professor who apparently has nothing better to do than taunt his students’ religious beliefs. And later this year, Ridley Scott will bring us Exodus, with Christian Bale as a violently angry Moses. My hope is that Wes Anderson’s next project is an adaptation of Deuteronomy. Maybe the Coen brothers can tackle Leviticus? But until then, we have Aronofsky’ s Noah.

I attended The Passion of the Christ, and remember that the tone was set when the theaters agreed not to show the usual pre-show stuff—no First Look, no previews, no “let all go to the lobby,” not even any music. Noah gets no such solemnity, having to fight for people attention only after Hercules, Optimus Prime, and Spider-Man have already swooped by. There was a song by a pastor included in the crappy pop music before the movie started, though—was this a concession to the studio’s initial stab at marketing this as a traditional religious film? Because it assuredly is not, in ways which both help and harm it.

As Noah begins, we’re introduced to a gentle, plant-loving man. Some of the power of the film resides in Noah’s arc: this loving father becomes a violently angry slave to the whims of a silent Creator. Russell Crowe does a great job in the role, showing us Noah’s torment an resolve, without ever flipping into bathos. He is truly sorry that humanity has to die, but he’s still going to watch them all drown, and it’s properly terrifying.

There are a few arguments threaded throughout the film—can man’s will overcome that of his Creator? Should it? What is the Creator’s will, anyway, and can we always trust it? Which is more admirable—men trying to take the control of the earth to build a civilization, or men allowing themselves to die to preserve the “innocence” of life without them? Because Aronofsky makes it quite clear that animals are innocent here. Never mind the fact that the snake is also blamed for starting the mess in Eden, or that animals kill eat each other, or that Cain only murdered Abel after the Creator rejected his offering of vegetables in favor of Abel’s smoked meat. Noah and his vegetarian family are clearly the good guys here. The other humans (the sons and daughters of the other Lamech, who was the son of Cain, where Noah was the son of the Lamech who was the son of Seth—no, they did not put much thought into names back then apparently) are violent. They’ve built cities and mining camps that have already, 6-ish generations after Eden, fallen into ruin. Seemingly giant hordes of them pillage each others’ settlements, murdering women and children, kidnapping the women, trading them for animal meat…how have they even lasted this long? If they’re all so horrible, where did Noah’s wife come from? They’re painted as being so evil that you pretty much root for the Deluge.

Early on, Noah receives a vision of the Flood, so he and his wife, Naameh, and sons Shem, Ham, and baby Japheth troop off to find his grandfather Methusaleh, picking up Ila, young female rampage victim on the way. (She grows up to be Emma Watson, and is awesome.) Methusaleh is a quirky, weird magician, mostly amused by life, and also apparently a magician? He seems to know exactly what’s happening the entire time, and neither fears the flood, nor counsels his grandson. The best thing about Methusaleh, though, is that he lives on a giant mountain, surrounded by plains of what looks like obsidian, and no one fucks with him because he’s guarded by enormous rock monsters.

You read that correctly.

The rock monsters, called Watchers, are essentially a cross between the Rock Biter and an Ent. They’re angels who came to Earth to try to help humanity. The Creator, pissed off that they tried to interfere instead of just Watching, encased them in stone. They hate men for causing this predicament, and also for killing a bunch of them a few generations ago, but they leave Methusaleh alone. Now, this is not exactly canonical. In Genesis 6, we’re told “The Nephilim were on the Earth in those days—and also afterward-when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes of old, warriors of renown.” If these are Nephilim, they certainly don’t seem interested in creating heroes with human women. They do decide to trust Noah, and help him build the ark. The humans are not OK with this, and much of the film’s time is spent on fighting between the factions. And here was where the real weakness came in. Aronofsky wants to take a story from the Hebrew Bible and make a giant, epic, engrossing story out of it, but instead of giving us an alien, mythological antediluvian world, he dwells on the clash between the humans, and whether or not they’re worth saving. I’m assuming that everyone in the audience was a human, so we’re already sympathetic. I wanted more weirdness, more crazy Aronofsky imagery, animals I’d never seen before, flora and fauna that didn’t survive the Flood—in short, more shit like the rock monsters.

We don’t really get enough of the animals to feel anything for them, and we also don’t get Noah’s postdiluvian sacrifice, where he kills and burns some of the animals he just saved from the Flood. They also shift the story of Ham seeing his father’s nakedness a bit (continuing Ham’s character development in a way that makes him the true protagonist of the story) and root Noah’s drunkenness in his PTSD after his time on the ark.

You may have noticed that I keep using the word “Creator.” Aronofsky’s main purpose with Noah seems to be taking a Biblical story and recasting it as a meditation on ecological responsibility. He does this by editing the text a bit, and by stressing the havoc wreaked by unchecked humans, but it’s also done, subtly, by the way he edits language itself. At no point does anyone in the film refer to Yahweh, El, Elohim, or God—they only use the phrase Creator. This divorces the origin of life from the historical God of Adam, Eve, Seth, Cain, and Abel, and instead allows the audience to think about the nature of existence apart from a religious or scientific understanding. This obviously goes against the intermittent attempts by Paramount to market this film to religious audiences, or use Christian rock. (The only songs are actually by Patti Smith.) Since this language is fraught, and one can read the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Quran as a history of God as a thing that exists, a character, or the changing way Humans understand their own origin and evolution, this language provides him an elegant solution to duck out of that conversation, and focus on the conversation he wants to have.

The film is at its strongest when it strays the furthest from canon: Ham’s trip to the human settlement and Noah’s quiet talks with Ila do much to give the film an emotional heart. And best of all, Aronofsky includes two scenes that show us more of the world, and give us a taste of the weirdness. First, a small spring forms a river across the earth to guide the animals to the ark, which gives a sense of the Creator guiding the beloved animals to safety. This creates a wonderful contrast with the first moments inside the ark, when the family sits in darkness listening to the screams of the doomed outside. Later, after the family has begged Noah to show some mercy, he tells them the story of Creation. Aronosky melds the first three chapters of Genesis with the wonder for the universe exploding out from the darkness before the Big Bang. Here he honors the traditional Biblical language, while also respecting scientific explanations, and uses the two to underpin his basic ecological message: one of the real points of the film is to force people to think about stewardship, and what is means to be part of this world. If a person believes that man was created in the image of the creator, should that mean that they care for Creation as though it was their own? Or does it mean that they can have dominion over it, and subjugate all the rest of life to their will?

Leah Schnelbach would have drowned waiting for the unicorns to get their asses to the ark. Follow her on Twitter!

Robert Scott Sullivan
1. Robert Scott Sullivan
Please correct the typos ("goo people," etc.) in this article.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
3. Lisamarie
I'll admit, I probably will not go see this, but this IS piquing my interest a bit.

And, part of it could be that, well, you see how picky I get when Peter Jackson changes little details in Lord of the Rings. So, given that I am Christian, it's always a bit hard for me to watch 're-interpretations' of Scripture for movies (although I totally respect people's right to do that and to watch it, it's just not my thing). Even Passion of the Christ, which was a labor of love, has a few things that make my eye twitch a little (Mary Magdalene being conflated with the stoned adultress).

That said, while I can say all that stuff above and come off all high and mighty...well...I love Andrew Lloyd Weber's Jesus Christ Superstar. LOVE IT. I listen to it every Easter. I've seen it performed live multiple times with some of the Broadway cast. I spent countless hours of my childhood belting the lyrics to all the songs, usually pretending to be Pilate (I thought he got all the best lines). Never mind the blatant heresy that is 'Gethsemane' (I still love that song) has ORCHESTRA AND ELECTRIC GUITARS! It's may just be because it's a part of my childhood that I give it such an obvious free pass (and in fact, it was through discussing it with my dad and asking about the contradictions in it that we had a lot of frutiful conversations about our religion and the way it was different than what was portrayed) - I have a feeling that I'd raise an eyebrow and turn my nose up at it were I introduced to it now (and that actually makes me even more glad I was introduced to it as a child, before I was as critical as I am now).

So, obviously, I have no ground to stand on here, heh.

Anyway, sounds like the film does have some interesting themes and points of discussion and is more than your typical Hollywood action-y film...but, I still doubt I'll go out of my way to see it.
Robert Scott Sullivan
4. a1ay
The best thing about Methusaleh, though, is that he lives on a giant
mountain, surrounded by plains of what looks like obsidian, and no one fucks with him because he’s guarded by enormous rock monsters.

Great Scott. And there was me thinking this would just be another biblical epic. Giant rock monsters? Count me in! (and my plus one, obviously)

The Coen Brothers' "Leviticus" would be terrific. John Turturro as the obsessive-compulsive rabbi. John Goodman as the GIANT! who insists on eating shellfish and wearing mixed fabrics. George Clooney as Moses, wearing the beard from the concert scene in "O Brother Where Art Thou". Danny Trejo as Aaron. (Because why not.)
Kit Case
5. wiredog
The film is at its strongest when it strays the furthest from canon

Chris Nelly
6. Aeryl
You left out the upcoming Heaven is Real in your collection of religious movies.

I won't be seeing this.
Alan Dionne
7. amdionne
I didn't read the article, because I haven't seen the movie yet, but you get props for quoting "Taxi Driver" in the headline. "I don't believe one should devote one's life to morbid self-attention; I believe one should become a person like other people."
Robert Scott Sullivan
8. Jesslyn H
Frankly, I went to see this movie because it looked like a good 'action'-type movie. I have stayed away from all religion-based films in the past--prefering to keep my unsullied memories of Samson & Delilah and Moses.

I came out laughing hysterically with my husband about the Ents and the guns while again disappointed in the fact that apparently people of color exist neither in the far reaches of the past nor post-apocolypse as far as Hollywood is concerned.
Robert Scott Sullivan
9. Marla J.
I love a1ay's comment, but Danny Trejo as Aaron? Wouldn't he be too busy threatening everyone to help Moses out and be High Priest? Or would he just smack everybody with his staff (I think all the priests had staffs in those days)?
Alan Brown
10. AlanBrown
I was not planning on seeing this movie, as so often religious movies let the weight of orthodoxy suck all the life from the story. But this one sounds intriguing. It sounds like the story is approached as fable, and an instructive allegory, which is what I believe the original tale was intended to be. While I am a person of faith, I believe many of the tales of the Hebrew Bible are fable, designed for moral instruction rather than as statements of history. That is a lot easier than wrapping your head around the idea of a benevolent creator who kills off most of the human race in a great flood, or gives Job to Satan to use as a personal chew toy, etc.
Robert Scott Sullivan
11. Gorgeous Gary
@1 and 2: I missed the typo (maybe it's been fixed) but I'm amused at that particular one. There is a folk music retreat I attend that's hosted at a Methodist camp. The camp's nature center has a big banner that at first glance appears to read "THE LORO GOO MADE THEM ALL". Then you realize two of the "O"s are really oddly-shaped "D"s....
Keith DeCandido
12. krad
Quoth Leah: "Some of the power of the film resides in Noah’s arc."

Just couldn't resist that, couldja? ;)

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Robert Scott Sullivan
13. Squamous Gambrell
@11. Gorgeous Gary

"THE LORO GOO MADE THEM ALL". That accounts for the goo people - such as myself!!!
Robert Scott Sullivan
14. a1ay
Danny Trejo as Aaron? Wouldn't he be too busy threatening everyone to help Moses out and be High Priest? Or would he just smack everybody with his staff (I think all the priests had staffs in those days)?

You're positing a mutually exclusive distinction here between "being High Priest" and "going round threatening everyone" which I don't think is justified by the original text.

Plus, you are overlooking the fact that, according to impeccable biblical (or indeed Torah) sources, Aaron's superpower is that he has a staff which turns into a snake. Mr Trejo is one of the few actors currently working who could manage not to be overshadowed by having to act opposite a six-foot-long venomous CGI snake which used to be a walking stick.
The only other one, in fact, is Ron Perlman, and he's going to be busy playing Jonah, building on his terrific track record of being swallowed unharmed by giant sea creatures (Pacific Rim) and having supernatural entities trying to kill him (Hellboy). Guillermo del Toro to direct, obviously. You are going to love what he does with the whale.
Robert Scott Sullivan
15. seajai
I am Christian and have seen the movie. It is very well done and the scenery is beautiful. Russell Crowe and Emma Watson are outstanding in their roles. The only issue that kept bothering me throughout the movie was Ham's role. After I rethought it out and if you put it in the context that it is just a movie, and it get's people reading the Bible, then I'm OK with that. Overall very well done.
Robert Scott Sullivan
16. Tim W
Well I'll be skipping this, giant rock monsters? Why would there possibly be giant rock monsters? I don't think there has been a decent movie based on biblical sources since the sixties. Unless Quentin Tarantino is doing something with King David, that would be awesome enough for me to go see.

Why can't they just come up with something new? Give me an Elric movie or del Toro's Lovecraft movie or something and stop doing terrible adaptive remakes.
Robert Scott Sullivan
17. Clint E.
I don't know about it. I'm washing my hands.
Robert Scott Sullivan
18. Porphyrogenitus
My brother is a Lutheran (LCMS) pastor who saw the movie so that he'd be prepared for when his congregation had questions. He found it to be incredibly good, made more so by his low expectations based on previews and early reviews. Here are a few (paraphrased) comments he had:

1 - The "rock monsters" are heavily inspired by the non-canonical book of Enoch. The Nephilim question in general typically has two treatments, and Noah references both. It refers to the Watchers as Nephilim, which is an inaccurate reference to the idea of Nephilim as offspring between Demons (fallen angels) and human women, and it shows that one of the inciting incidents for the Flood was the fall of the Sethites (the Sons of God) by taking wives from among the Cainites (the Daughters of Man), which the offspring of said unions would be the other main explanation for the Nephilim.

2 - The Cainites' crimes against the environment were only one small part of a much broader depravity, including the eating of meat when it had not yet been allowed by God (and probably more importantly the eating of raw and bloody meat, which God would specifically forbid in the Noahic covenant).

3 - Noah's visions and the purgation of most of mankind (and Noah's near-killing of his own family) wasn't about any kind of radical environmental "people are a virus" idea, but rather a simple acknowledgement that even the most "innocent" of humans are sinful and deserve only destruction. His decision not to kill them in the end, and thus to preserve some small protion of humanity, reflects Divine Mercy in the person of God's Prophet (since the revelations in the film are visions and feelings rather than explicit conversations and statements, Noah has to figure them out in the film in a way that the text does not require).

4 - Methuselah is not a shaman (trafficking with "natural" spirits) or magician (using unnatural powers and dealing with Demons) or whatever. He is simply exercising his authority as the patriarch of the Sethites by conferring his blessing upon his progeny, which given the right relationship that he had with God meant that God would empower that blessing.

5 - The Jews did (and still do) try to avoid saying the name of God, instead using various titles. Given how early any antedeluvian setting would be, the main title available would be Creator, which would be the best way to avoid saying whatever the functional equivalent of the english "God" might be in their proto-language.

Now for some of my own comments to the article itself:
If a person believes that man was created in the image of the creator, should that mean that they care for Creation as though it was their own? Or does it mean that they can have dominion over it, and subjugate allthe rest of life to their will?
This is an excellent point and one of the main reasons why faithful Christians are often at the forefront of conservation efforts (note: conservation properly understood is not environmentalism with its over-valuation of nature).
or that Cain only murdered Abel after the Creator rejected his offering of vegetables in favor of Abel’s smoked meat.
Just a point of clarification here: Abel's sacrifice was acceptable because it was an honest one of the first fruits of his labor, the best lamb in his flock. Cain's sacrifice was not (being merely a portion of his yield, not the first, best portion), and thus was unacceptable to God. I don't recall that the Bible mentions Abel actually eating meat, just offering a burnt sacrifice to God, which is a very different thing.

In closing, I was very pessimistic about the film, but after my brother's review I'm actually quite interested. Not enough to see it in theaters, but I'll grab it from NetFlix once it becomes available.
Robert Scott Sullivan
19. Jonathan Andrew Sheen
This review makes a lot of hay out of discussing Noah and his opponents as "Humans."

But, and this is very nearly the center of Aronofsky's point, that's not really correct. Aronofsky's position is that these pre-deluge beings are not, in fact, "humans" as you and I understand the term. Remember: Noah's something like 600 years old. Methusula is over 900! These long-lived beings are clearly not "humans" by any useful definition.

Aronofsky's Noah is the story of the extinction -- the extermination -- of those who came before "us," and the birth of humanity as we know it.

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