It is important to note that no one in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah believes the titular Noah is delusional when he announces that the Creator has told him in a series of dreams that a flood is coming to wipe out either pretty much all of humanity or all of humanity FULL STOP. (Noah’s a bit fuzzy on the details since the Creator wasn’t exactly forthcoming on that bit.) Nor do they break out the pitchforks when he decides that he should build a massive ark, and that on this ark he should house a male and female specimen of every innocent beast on Earth so that they can be preserved after the cleanse to end all cleanses.
When Noah tells his wife Naameh and his children, they’re all on board for a field trip to Methuselah’s mountain. And when Noah tells his great-grandfather Methuselah, the ancient man bemusedly agrees that this sounds like their Creator alright – distant, a bit fuzzy on the particulars, rather irritated at the state of humanity post-apple-tasting. Tubal-cain, the king of the destructive, industrial, environment-abusing heirs of the murderous Cain, who shouts things like “My mine’s run dry! Damned if I don’t take what I want!” (Noah is an ancestor of Seth – the third, not-murdered brother – and is accordingly a gentle vegetarian who scolds his son for picking a flower because his family only takes what they need from the land, not what they want), is a bit incredulous about this Great Flood business for a moment, but upon seeing Noah’s army of fallen-angel-construction-workers, the envious king quickly buys in; if anything, he’s just peeved because he wasn’t cc’d on the Creator’s message re: humanity’s imminent demise.
A lesser version of this story would hang its hat on the conflict derived from kindly, bearded, old Noah acting on what he believes to be God’s will and everyone else being all like “God said WHAT?” before they get their just desserts. (Oh hey, look that movie already exists.)
Aronofsky, a director obsessed with obsession, isn’t interested in the incredulous reactions of non-believers. It’s the verging-on-insane credulity of Noah that fascinates the director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler and Black Swan, all films about belief that verges on illness, inordinate dedication, addiction, and delusion. Through that lens, it’s not difficult see why Aronofsky sees the building of the big boat and the collection of the world’s animals two-by-two as visually resplendent way-stations (mere logistics!) on the path to the story he actually wants to tell.
An agnostic who grew up in a Conservative Jewish household and who has wanted to make a film about Noah for most of his career, Aronofsky truly sinks his teeth into this story of Noah, this rather short passage in Genesis that became his own pet obsession, at the point in the story where Noah is no longer doing what his Creator told him explicitly to do (save the animals, save the world) and begins doing what he believes must have been implied on the periphery of the horrifying images he sees in his prophetic dreams. In essence, Aronofsky turns what most see as a Bible School-friendly parable about pairs of lions and elephants and their kindly old shepherd into a visceral horror film where all the principles are confined to a boat with a zealot acting on the vagaries of his Creator’s will. The film begs the question “What do you do once you’ve bought into the notion that it is His will that your species shall be wiped from the face of the Earth? Wouldn’t that drive you to do some… drastic things?” That is Aronofsky’s story, as he sees it. It is the best story I’ve seen told in a theater thus far this year.
Is this story faithful to the one in the Bible? No idea. Let me check…
(Not joking. Full disclosure: I am not religious, and not much of a Bible reader [okay, not a Bible reader at all], which I guess makes it easier for me to push my upcoming argument that Aronofsky’s alterations to the source material succeed because they allow him to enact his personal artistic vision. After all, in my view, he isn’t vandalizing a holy text, he is interpreting the world’s most famous text, as I feel every artist should have the right to do. Feel free to disagree, whether that disagreement stems from religious beliefs or opinions on the artistic execution.)
Wow, that story was short and… not extraordinarily descriptive. Aside from the boat measurements. I know exactly how big that boat was in cubits. I don’t know how Noah felt about the demise of his species, but the boat size I am very aware of. I don’t mean to be flippant. The notion of a creator regretting his creation and electing to press reset, only to back out at the sight of a man he believes he can entrust with the future… it’s powerful stuff, and the text itself is not given its due by what its been boiled down to symbolically: “Aww look at those two elephants on that boat! Rainbows!”
The skeleton is there for what Aronofsky does – God is fed up with humanity, Noah is God’s favored man, Noah is told to build an arc for his family and the world’s animals; wow, even the part where Noah gets drunk and Noah and Ham don’t get along is in there, and I figured that was all Aronofsky pulling strings – though the director adds a lot of muscle tissue and flesh.
The fallen angels building the ark (more on them later), the sage advice of Methuselah Dumbledore, the attempts of a group of humans to seize the ark before the flood: none of that is in there, but none of it directly contradicts the source material either. It’s filling in some blank space in the story (why does Noah get so sozzled?), giving it emotional depth and internal logic and a touch of spectacle, grafting a more traditional three-act structure with conflict and mentors and B-plots onto what is about five paragraphs of text.
Truthfully, only two things directly contradict the version as told in Genesis:
- Everyone is aged down dramatically. No one explicitly says Noah isn’t 600 years old in Noah, but the fact that his sons are so young leads us to believe that the filmmakers decided to de-age the ancestors of Seth to… not-as-Biblical proportions.
- Noah’s sons do not have wives. This is the one place where Aronofsky absolutely looked at the text and said, “Yeah that’s nice, but wouldn’t it be cooler if…”
In this case, Aronofsky’s suggestion is that it is way too easy for the human race and for Noah – the gatekeeper of the Creator’s mass extinction event – if all three of his sons have fertile wives waiting in the wings. It is much more dramatically interesting if Noah convinces himself that the Creator intends to wipe out all humanity, including his family. Limiting the available females to just one (Ila, played by Emma Watson) and making her infertile until the most convenient moment possible may read as sacrilegious tampering, but it pushes every character to make interesting decisions that break apart the “one happy family” narrative.
Who wants to watch a two hour film (or, if you maintain that Noah is too long, a film of any length) where the only character struggling with a conflict is the Creator – the unknowable, unfathomable Creator? Who wants to watch a film about a family, free of interpersonal conflicts, patiently waiting out a storm? You may want to see a film where the only issue is “What do we feed the okapis? And what is that platypus thing?” but I saw We Bought a Zoo and don’t need to see its nautical remake. Arnofsky’s decision to focus on Noah’s belief that the Creator intends for all of humanity to perish – whether that is in fact His will or not– and the fallout from this belief drives almost all the human drama in the film.
- The Creator (as God is always called in this film) vs. Noah: The entire back half of Noah concerns Noah’s belief that the Creator will provide Noah anything he needs if he needs it. Not wants it, but neeeeeds it. When Ham pleads for a girl of his own, Noah counters: “Hasn’t He sent everything we’ve needed?” Noah needed wood for his ark, and the magic seed from the Garden of Eden grows him a lush, verdant forest in a matter of minutes. (One of many visually resplendent scenes in a visually resplendent film, filled as it is with dark silhouettes against vibrant sunsets and stunning time lapse montages that jitter and skitter to hallucinogenic effect.) Ila, Noah’s adopted daughter, cannot become pregnant due to a childhood injury, so it falls to Ham (who is desperate) and Japheth (who is, like, seven, and is only in this film because Noah had a third son in Genesis) to find wives.
The Creator is not forthcoming with those wives, even sending Noah a third vision that seems to say, in no uncertain terms, “NOPE!” (That vision, with its lamb torn limb from limb, is striking and haunting.) And so Noah becomes homicidally adamant that his failure to get clarity on the “Should we be able to procreate after the flood?” question means that it must be His intent that Noah’s family is to survive the flood so they can ensure the survival of the innocent beasts, but after that… no more children!
When he finds out that Methuselah and Naameh have colluded on a secret plan to help Ila get pregnant, Russell Crowe flies into full-on Mel Gibson-in-tirade mode (I honestly had to remind myself a time or two that I wasn’t watching Gibson), perfectly walking the line between heroic man of faith (only he can see the truth) and madman (everyone is repulsed by him). Ascending the ship in a thrilling, frenetic tracking shot and looking to the heavens, Noah asks for a sign that might steady the hand that would strike down his grandchildren, and in response he gets a stop to the rain, a sign that he interprets as a kill order and his family interprets as a ceasefire. The moment he sets it in his mind that Ila must remain barren – “I will not fail you, it will be done” he says to the sky – Noah becomes a man so repulsed by the greed of Tubul-cain – in fact so repulsed by his Creator’s repulsion – that he makes a selfless decision to sacrifice his own family on the orders of a higher power; however in enacting this vision, he becomes almost inhuman, perhaps as inhuman as his enemy. He is framed through curtains and veils, glanced on higher ramparts from below. He is transformed through framing into a totem of a malevolent demigod. Potentially much more malevolent than the actual Creator who set him on his rampage intends him to be; Noah never directly betrays the Creator’s orders, but a lack of direction goes a long way towards allowing Noah to make some objectionable decisions in His name, making the closed quarters of the ark very claustrophobic. These actions put him in direct conflict with…
- Naameh vs Noah: It sure seems like Noah is going to waste a whole lot of a good thing – namely Jennifer Connelly, playing the ever-dutiful wife. Sure she pleads with Methuselah to help Ila against Noah’s orders, but it is not until Naameh is backed into a corner, puts her foot down and threatens to disown her husband for his decision to kill Ila’s children when they are born that it seems justifiable that an actress of Connelly’s caliber was cast in such an underwritten role. Every actor in this film, aside from the actors who play Shem and Japheth, gets a juicy monologue, but no one tears into the emotion in theirs quite like Connolly, who begs him to see that his assumptions about the Creator’s will cannot be right, and that, even if they were, he should not follow them. He believes what he is doing to be painful but just – by this point Noah has already outlined to her what the flaws the Creator must see in them are (Shem: blinded by desire; Ham: covetous; Japheth: loves to please; Noah and Naameh: would kill for their children) – but Nameeh cannot believe the man she loves (or loved) could be so blinded by faith that he is both unwilling to see that all the flaws he describes are tied to a desire to love and connect with others, and that he is so willing to put what might be the Creator’s will so far above the well-being of the people he loves. She counters furiously that, if Noah follows through, he will be “hated by the ones you love. That is just!” Her fury makes their touching reconciliation all the more powerful.
- Ila and Shem vs. Noah: Douglas Booth as Shem largely gets nothing to do in Noah – he is asked to be in love with Ila, and, when the tables turn, angry at his father for wanting to take his granddaughters’ lives. He hatches a plan off-screen to sail off on his own raft to protect his new family, and is understandably unhappy when his father burns the raft at the last possible minute. Aside from this, Shem is shockingly almost as absent a presence as his youngest brother. This actually proves to be a film that is much more concerned with its female characters than one might initially assume, and Emma Watson is wonderfully strong-yet-fragile as Ila. She doesn’t get too many scenes in which she is allowed to shine since much of the young actor material is given to her Perks of Being a Wallflower costar Logan Lerman, but whether she is playing the daughter afraid of disappointing her father or the mother who refuses to look away as a dagger is held to her child’s throat, Watson is one of the main reasons that I’m confident in pronouncing a film with so many special effects an “actor’s film.”
- Ham and Tubul-cain vs. Noah: If there’s one place where Aronofsky’s vision falters, it’s here, with Ham, the consummate middle child. Ham is swayed by Tubul-Cain, allowing the villainous king passage on the boat and nursing him to health so he can kill Noah, and it is difficult to tell whether this is all spoiled petulance (Dad wouldn’t let me date that girl!) or whether it is supposed to represent something bigger. Maybe it’s the skeevy way Lerman chooses to play Ham, but when Ham elects to leave his family and wander the Earth like (ironically) Caine, it seems like Aronofsky is trying to write a check on the profundity of Ham’s journey that the sweaty-palmed-teenager performance can’t cash. The selfish king with whom he aligns is so obviously despicable that it becomes hard to see Ham’s actions as anything but revenge, and pretty much impossible to see them as a wrestling match with higher philosophical matters. Don’t get me wrong, Ray Winstone is absolutely delicious as this film’s villain, wringing pathos and menace out of his own shouting match with the sky (“Speak to MEEEEE!”) and delivering some great lines with just the right amount of humanity, sneering that humans don’t serve beasts as Noah does, beasts serve humans, and intoning that “A man isn’t ruled by the heavens. A man is ruled by his will. Are you a man? If you’re a man, you can kill.”
It’s still hard to see how Ham falls for that shtick outside of some obvious teenage rebellion. The one criticism I’ve seen of the film – a film I loved and am admittedly pretty defensive of – that I would probably second is the assertion made on Slate’s Culture Gabfest that the film would have been more interesting if the humans the Creator was wiping out were less inherently despicable; if their industriousness was damaging to the environment but also a wonder to behold, forcing Noah to truly wrestle with wiping out an advancing but not evil civilization. As it is, Tubal-Cain and his band of rapists and thugs make it very easy to root for the water, which makes the first two acts an admittedly uncomplicated affair. It is only once Noah finds a place where he should draw the line and doesn’t that the film begins tackling bigger ideas.
One criticism I can’t say I’m fond of is the snickering reaction to the, as they have teasingly become known, “rock monsters.” Place me firmly in the camp (is anyone else in the camp with me? Hello?) that would have loved to see more of these sad but noble creatures. I was sad to see them exit the story so early, though I thought their return to heaven after imploring the Creator to forgive them was striking. A lot of people see Aronofsky including Transformers-ish creatures in his Bible epic as a concession to a higher budget and desire to being in a larger audience – in essence the fallen angels as a version of “selling out” – but from the character design, which evokes in its haunting asymmetry the Laputan robots from Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, to the sequence in which we see the angels descend, against the Creator’s will, in order to help the sons of Adam only to be coated tortuously in the mud of the Earth, I admit to having felt an immediate appreciation for the filmmakers’ construction of these creatures, CGI be damned.
Appreciation: this is a fair way to sum up how I feel about Aronofsky’s interpretation of the story of Noah. I appreciate his visual sense (his Creation montage is a likely candidate for “Best Scene of 2014” come December), his approach to bringing a questioning eye to religious belief while not condemning the religious, and his direction of actors as they tear into meaty soliloquies and tense stand-offs. Noah is a riveting film, powerful, thoughtful, and extraordinarily well-acted. Aronofsky gives his characters so much to chew on and so much to say. The spectacle is awe-inspiring to be sure, but this film is as it’s best confined to close quarters, with characters sparring with words and stories, using the shared history of ten generations of humanity to justify decisions in lieu of direct orders from the Creator. Because it is in those battles where characters hash out an ageless war. When is acting on God’s will faith? And when is it something much more sinister? At times Noah sounds like the Biblical hero we are familiar with and at other times he sounds like an especially fervent serial killer who claims he’s received his order from a talking dog or Catcher in the Rye. And Aronofsky offers us no out. It is unclear from the film whether the Creator, as a character (and make no mistake, he is an acting character though he remains physically unseen), intended for Noah to slay his grandchildren and eliminate humans or whether he is happy Noah backed off at the last minute. Ila’s words as she implores Noah to stop drinking and return to his family (she suggests that the Creator stopped communicating because he wanted Noah to choose for himself the fate of humanity) and the iconic rainbow we see pulsing outwards at the end seem to imply the Creator is pleased with how things turned out, but one moment in the Creation montage strikes me as less optimistic.
We get to the moment where Cain strikes down Abel with a rock (a recurring motif that shows up no less than five times in the film, including at its climax) and, instead of sticking with the image of the Cain and stricken Abel, we see, in silhouette, soldiers from wars throughout history bringing that rock down and falling to the ground. This fourth-wall breaking moment (in that World War I does not exist in the timeline of this story, but is an acknowledgement of our knowledge of world history) wins the award for most obvious yet still effective symbolic gesture since the fetus shot in Gravity. Aronofsky reminds us that it is important to keep in mind that men did not cease killing each other with the purge of the “bad men” we see here. It is all taking place on a continuum of violence, and this story exists at a midway point in that timeline, not at the end of it. Unlike other bleak apocalypse films of recent vintage, this film takes place in the distant past, but Aronofsky’s seemingly dissonant inclusion of images from later wars brings the parable of Noah just the right amount of relevance for our age.