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.
The 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.
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.
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.