The Repristinator: A Review of Noah

The world’s oldest genre of fiction is the deluge apocalypse, a narrative in which a great flood is sent by a deity, or deities, to destroy civilization in an act of divine retribution. Throughout history there are reportedly more than 2,000 varieties of the genre, from the ancient Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh to the modern American farce of Evan Almighty, each loosely based on true account, the historical story of Noah recorded in the book of Genesis.

noahThe latest addition to the genre is Darren Aronofsky’s art house blockbuster Noah. Although the Noahic tale plays an important role in Islam and Judaism, you’d think, from the reaction to this film, that we Christians hold the copyright on the story. Not surprisingly, many Christians have been harshly critical because the film is insufficiently faithful to the biblical source. And also not surprisingly, many others have over-praised the film, I think, more as a counter-reaction to the responses of their fellow Christians than to anything they found on the screen.

The controversy has so overshadowed the film that it makes it difficult to judge the film on its own merits. Since expressing either appreciation or condemnation for the film immediately aligns a reviewer with one camp or the other, I was fully prepared to have to defend a side. But after seeing the movie for myself I see there is a third alternative position where one can stand—the mediocre middle. The movie simply isn’t worthy of the heated debate that has grown up around it.

Mediocre Midrash

Aronofsky’s Noah is an indirect retelling and reimagining of the original Bible story. The director has taken artistic license with the narrative, yet included many of the same characters and most of the same events from Genesis. In his review for TGC, Greg Thornbury notes that Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel consider their version a midrash aggada, a form of rabbinic literature that provides expansive commentary and discourse analysis on why certain things happened in Scripture. In the right hands, this approach can add depth to a Bible story and help us see the events with fresh eyes (one of the best examples is David Maine’s novel about Noah, The Preservationist). But in Aronofsky’s version, what he adds often detracts rather than complements the story.

While most of the film could be viewed as filling in the narrative gaps found in Genesis, Aronofsky also includes a significant thematic change. Rather than Noah being, as in the biblical story, a redeemer of creation and mankind, in this film his role is to serve a repristinator. Noah, played in the film by Russell Crowe, believes God has called him to restore creation to its original state, which is to be populated only by the innocent.

This renewal of purity, he believes, requires that mankind must not continue after his immediate family has died. Noah is so convinced that all humanity must perish that when his previously barren daughter-in-law miraculously becomes pregnant, he threatens to kill the child if it turns out to be a girl. He is unwilling to allow a potential life-bringer to carry on the line of humanity.

Some critics view this storyline as evidence of Aronofsky’s pro-environment/anti-human bias. But Aronofsky’s point is that Noah believes God’s will is to permanently separate the innocent from the guilty. Having looked at both the despoliation of the earth and the evil in his own heart, Noah recognizes that mankind deserves God’s justice. Noah’s struggle throughout the film is to obey all that God asks of him. Portraying this inner struggle makes Aronofsky an ideal director for this project.

Constrained Vision

Unfortunately, his directing style is otherwise unsuited for a two-and-a-half-hour epic like Noah. In his best works, the constraints of a small budget forced Aronofsky to play to his strengths. His first two films, Pi and Requiem for a Dream, were short features (averaging 100 minutes) that relied on tight close-ups and extremely short shots. Requiem for a Dream—the most anti-drug film ever produced—had more than 2,000 cuts, which produced an unsettling feeling akin to that experienced by its main characters, a trio of junkies.

In his latter works—The Wrestler and Black Swan—the pace of the films slowed down, but the focus remained constrained. In both films, the main characters are performers who live for the small scale constraints of the wrestling ring and the theater stage. This narrowness allows the viewer to join in with the constrained vision of his characters. It also allowed Aronofsky to craft distinctive visual elements that help illuminate the character’s stories.

This distinctive visual style is largely missing for much of Noah. The imagery is more akin to style of low-budget Bible movies than to the grandeur we’re used to seeing in even third-rate swords-and-sandals movies. While there are brief glimpses of what could have been (e.g., a young Methuselah with a flaming sword, Noah’s vision of submerged corpses, the scale of the ark), throughout most of the movie the imagery is muted and dull.

About Those Rock Monsters

This problem is especially evident for the most unfortunate directorial choice of the film: the portrayal of the Watchers, a group of fallen angels who mixed with mud and lava to become helpers of mankind. Using CGI-animated rock monsters to serve as a deus ex machina (they help Noah build the ark and fight off an army) was a cheap stunt beneath the dignity of a director like Aronofsky. And it doesn’t help that in the age of Michael Bay’s Transformers, the special effects look like something you’d find in a 1980s Jim Henson movie (e.g., Labyrinth).

The Watchers are symptomatic of Aronofsky’s inability to pull off epic grandeur—a significant problem for film about a global flood that kills off almost all humanity and wipes out nearly all of creation. Rather than feeling grand and global, the film feels small and provincial. Much of the first half of the film could have been taken from any generic post-apocalypse movie: a small noble group of survivors (in this case, the “sons of Lamech”) attempts to save the world while opposed by a clan of mean and dirty savages (in this movie, the “sons of Cain”).

A key difference is that in most post-apocalyptic movies (Mad Max, The Book of Eli, The Road, and so on), the survivors are moving from one location to another, giving their stories a sense of forward momentum. But in Noah, the mission is static (build an ark) and dependent on the actions of an off-screen third-party (God) for the climactic event to occur. This limitation leaves the first half of the film feeling surprisingly lifeless. Aronofsky throws in several plot points to make up for the narrative inaction, but nothing really connects. The true drama doesn’t really begin until the rain starts and the survivors are trapped inside the ark with their true threat—an obsessively driven Noah.

(Spoiler alert: They are also trapped on the arch with Noah’s arch-nemesis, Tubal-Cain, who has managed to stow away on the boat. Rather than adding to the tension, this silly, throwaway plot point undercuts the main story.)

Noah is an art movie masquerading as a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, an incongruous hybrid that is unlikely to satisfy most movie goers. Yet despite all its flaws, Noah is a worthy addition to the deluge apocalypse genre. It’s not a great film—it’s barely a good one—and it certainly isn’t the biblical masterpiece many of us were hoping for. But if you have nothing better to do, there are worse ways to spend a rainy afternoon than watching this tale of one man’s attempt to obey his Creator.

  • Bershawn300

    Awesome article! Poignant; well-crafted.

  • Corey

    And yet… it’s got a 75% rating on rottentomatoes. That’s an awfully good rating for a movie that’s “barely a good one.”

    • Joe Carter

      Keep in mind that rating merely reflects the percentage of critics that wrote a positive, rather than negative, review. Notice also that on the audience gave it 48%.

      Aronofsky is a good director, but he’s often overhyped by film critics. Black Swan got 87% and the The Wrestler got 98%(!). Those films weren’t bad, but they were nowhere near as many of the critics made them out to be.

      • Adam Narloch

        “The audience” in this case was comprised of 8 people and those who gave it a thumbs down did so because they didn’t like the source material, not because of the films quality.

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  • Simon Camilleri

    Great thoughts!
    I don’t think after hearing Aronofsky say that his film is “the least biblical biblical film ever made”, we should have really expected anything better.

    • Antwuan Malone

      I agree.

  • John H.

    I saw the film on Friday. I was ready to cut it some slack knowing about the Watchers and the stowaway going in. But it was dismal. A dreary childish parody. So many opportunities for depth were missed – the righteousness of Noah, the family backgrounds of daughters-in-law for the sons, the relationship between Noah and God! In the end this movie was bad in the same way and for the same reasons a hundred other movies have been bad. Fine review Mr. Carter.

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  • Jessica

    Great thoughts, and great review from a cinematic perspective!

  • nathan

    erm…only gripe is where you said Noah is “as in the biblical story, a redeemer of creation and mankind” – wouldn’t that be God doing the redeeming – as always?

  • Eric

    I see the movie as one of the best portrayals of God’s redemptive power through the flood that I have ever seen or heard. This movie points directly to Christ by showing that is was not because of Noah’s goodness in himself as the reason God chose him but it is because of God’s great grace and mercy toward Noah as the reason he was chosen and redeemed.

    The way that the director portrayed the total depravity of creation was GENIUS and puts you on the side of God and Noah throughout the whole movie. You have a sense of why God had to and was justified to destroy creation.

    Lastly, I truly appreciate the artistic interpretations taken by Aronofsky. I don’t think they were any more extreme than turning the story of Noah into a flannel graph children’s story.
    Actually what we have learned from the children’s story is “Noah was good and everyone else was bad so God saved Noah. So, Children, if you are good God will save you too”. This is not the Gospel and if this were the case there would be no need for Christ and the story of Noah that we have been telling our kids for decades is the most heretical story ever told.

    • Adam Narloch

      Great response Eric. You are right on.

    • Adam Narloch

      Best thoughts in this post Eric. Well said.

    • Joe Carter

      God chose him but it is because of God’s great grace and mercy toward Noah as the reason he was chosen and redeemed.

      I’m not sure that’s true. Remember the conversation Noah has at the end of the film with his daughter-in-law?

      ***Stop reading to avoid spoilers***

      She tells Noah why he was chosen by the Creator: Because God believed Noah would make the right choice about whether humanity was worth saving.

    • Alexander

      Eric, I’m sorry, but I must disagree. Brian Mattson gives an excellent step by step review of the Gnostic teachings found in this film. I did not recognize these themes upon viewing the film, but after reading Mattson’s article it makes a lot of sense. When viewing it through the Gnostic lens, I hardly see any redeeming qualities in the film.

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  • KC

    Well, I guess I’m the only one here who will say that this movie was abysmally bad.
    The additives and changes to the biblical story were not only needless, but were utterly DUMB!
    But the truly objectionable part was the portrayal of God. It was actually a little worse — I can hardly believe I’m saying this — than that ridiculous TV version starring Jon Voight some years back. In both cases, God is portrayed as capricious and silly. But at least in the TV mini-series, he actually dialogued with Noah.
    The God in this movie shows that he gives bad commands to tempt both people and angels. Then they show that they pass his test when they disobey and choose love and mercy over what (they believe) he has told them to do. This is the obvious moral of the film, expressed by Emma Watson’s character (which gets my vote as the most interesting character and the best acted in this debacle).
    And here’s the practical and troubling part. It’s exactly the same message that Bible believers are hearing about the homosexuality issue right now.
    Are we not being told this?: You evangelicals read the ancient biblical texts and only THINK you understand what God would have you do and say about gay people (“same-sex marriage,” etc.). The truth is he is putting the choice in your hands. He will actually be most pleased if you back away from his commands and choose “love” and “mercy” instead.

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  • Mike S

    The ark of GIlgamesh with it’s cube shaped design that only a Borg would love would roll over the ocean like a volleyball. The ark of Noah… well… kind like something that would float. The script of the movie, bad. The opportunity to glorify God to others talking to them, good.

  • Mike S

    Used to be a TV show called Dragnet where ‘the stories are true but the names have been changed to protect the innocent’ In this movie the names have been kept the same and the stories changed. Unpack the movie and you have something deeply anti Biblical and Pagan. Noah rescues the creation and sets animals and plants above God, who can’t seem to speak in intelligible sentences in the movie. Even the Rock monster angels aren’t happy with God, but despite their cosmic rebellion get taken back to heaven.

  • Matthew Abate

    When I saw posters and billboards for Noah, I knew that I wanted to see it; however, I considered the source. This might sound obvious at first, but I think there needs to be a reality check for us as believers. Now, I am not saying that movie artists are incapable of creating faithful renditions of biblical accounts like Noah. That being said, an adaptation is an adaptation. We should not think otherwise, but rather lower our expectations just a tiny bit.

    **Getting off the soapbox now**

    For the most part, I appreciated your review Mr. Carter. We’re in a similar camp. I don’t believe the movie warrants all the fuss that it has engendered. Personally, I give it no better than a C. Among the movie’s fatal flaws are the Watchers and the Tubal-Cain subplot, which you critiqued quite admirably. I think The Watchers fail from a conceptional standpoint, too.

    My bigger problem with Noah had to with its jarring, thematic and narrative shift once inside the Ark. The first half plays like an average, action doomsday piece whereas the second half is this pretentious and melodramatic, psychological allegory about one man’s descent into insanity for hearing voices in his head. If there was any hope at developing the characters further, Darren Aronofsky’s script and direction corrupts them into types or representations of Noah’s psychological makeup.

    Both halves of the Noah movie somehow come together like Frankenstein stumbling its away around the Antediluvian period. The second half of the movie seems closer in spirit to Aronofsky’s previous work, and bears witness to the good and bad: overwrought, intense, psychological, and obscure. This begs the question of what type of movie was he really wanting to make: a doomsday action piece or a dense and esoteric allegory about Noah and the Flood.

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