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.
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?