I passed beneath the marquee last night steeled for disappointment, yearning for epic poignancy. I’d read Brian Godawa’s warning. I knew of auteurist director Darren Aronofsky’s atheism. After seeing The Fountain — a piercingly beautiful film — I’d spent two whole weeks wrestling with its themes before concluding that it deliberately defies everything I hold true about reality. So it was with no small tension of spirit that I assumed my seat before the screen.
What I witnessed over the course of the ensuing 138 minutes was the greatest work of Christian speculative cinema I’ve ever seen.
Now before you throw up your hands and storm off, let me explicate that statement. Noah is “Christian” not because it was intended as such by its creators, but because it adapts a biblical story while exploring, in consistently spiritual terms, the nature of God and the nature of man and the gulf which lies between them. It’s “speculative,” on the other hand, because it’s not a faithful adaptation of the biblical source material. It’s a story with its own agenda, its own vision, its own notes of emphasis. This isn’t shocking. What’s shocking is just how effectively those notes form a counterpoint with the Genesis 6-9 narrative to which we’ve all complacently acclimated over the course of our lives. It’s jarring. It demands a double-take. If what you’re looking for in Noah is an excuse to vicariously triumph over the wicked as they receive their just desserts, then don’t even bother finishing this review. Aronofsky’s not interested in enabling viewers to smugly identify with the titular protagonist while disdaining those degenerate Others left outside to die.
Instead, he invites judgement close, inside the walls, where it can be felt. Where it can be feared. And no, you won’t like it. That’s the whole point.
Okay, then. Vague ominousness aside, what does it take to appreciate this film? Two things. First, you must prepare yourself for a God who doesn’t bother to communicate with any degree of specificity. All the film’s issues originate with this deviation from scripture, and, paradoxically, so do all its strengths. Secondly, get ready for Noah as Jonah. No “herald of righteousness” here; this Noah fights to keep people off the ark, not to bring ‘em aboard. And that’s it. Upon these two alterations rests all the controversy and all the outrage. If you’re willing to swallow ‘em both, then I’m confident you’ll understand and appreciate what Aronofsky’s achieved with this film.
Noah (Russell Crowe) begins the movie living with his family in serene, one-with-nature isolation. They are the last of Seth’s godly descendants, harried and persecuted by the armies of the Cainites which, lead by the barbaric and charismatic Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), have ravaged the earth into a desolate wasteland. One night, Noah receives a vision of an impending deluge from the Creator (who’s referred to as such throughout the duration of the film and whose existence is presupposed by every single character, to my great delight). A further vision prompts Noah to begin construction on an ark to preserve the innocent. He visits his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who counsels him to believe that the Creator is speaking to him in a way that he can understand. This is a necessary step on Noah’s part, as God utters no audible words during the course of the entire narrative. Noah must trust to his own interpretation of hallucinatory imagery and emotional impressions.
Two of Noah’s sons are without wives. The wife of the third (Emma Watson) is barren. This, as you would expect, is of deep concern to a family that expects to repopulate the world. At the urging of his wife (Jennifer Connelly), Noah journeys to the nearest town in an effort to procure wives for his sons. There he beholds a tableau of human wickedness which I’d place beside Sarah Connor’s vision of nuclear apocalypse in Terminator 2 in terms of sheer, raw horror. In the midst of the violence and debauchery, Noah sees himself slinking through the shadows — his face a mask of hatred and lust. Shaken to the core, he returns to the ark without wives for his sons, convinced that humanity isn’t meant to survive the coming purge. Only the animals are innocent: they behave in the way God intended them to, whereas man has rebelled, perverting his own purpose.
Now about the by-now-infamous “Rock People” — recipients of disproportionate derision from some Christian critics — I have this to say. Either you want to see a bunch of boulder-encrusted ents uncorking an epic beatdown on an army storming the ark as the fountains of the deep erupt and the windows of heaven open, or you don’t. It’s really as simple as that. Also, the redemption of the Nephilim is one of the most poignant subplots in the entire film.
Moving right along.
Noah’s wife, distraught at his insistence that it’s the Creator’s will for them to oversee the end of mankind, begs Methuselah for help. Unbeknownst to Noah, his grandfather visits Shem’s barren wife and blesses her womb. (Aside: Methuselah is basically Gandalf. Again, this is something you’re either okay with or you’re not. As for me, my single greatest regret is that we only get a single shot of him wielding a flaming sword.) This act of compassion sets up the central conflict of Act Three, one that twisted my stomach into knots and had me pleading with Aronofsky to please, please not make God out to be as judgmental as he could’ve been. You see, Noah, bereft of further instruction, has gotten it into his head that all have sinned and fallen short of the Creator’s mercy.
Huh. How weird is that?
So the apocalypse arrives, overwhelming in its indifferent brutality, exhibited with all of Aronofsky’s characteristic passion and flair. “You cursed man to work the earth by the sweat of his brow,” screams Tubal-cain at the roiling heavens, “and that’s what I’ve done! I’ve given life and taken it away! I’m just like you!” His words pierce to the heart of human rebellion: I can do this on my own, I can be like God. His army beats in waves upon the ark even as the earth is engulfed by the waters of purification. Their screams as they perish will chill your soul.
But the terror of judgement isn’t over. Aronofsky refuses to shut it out beyond the gopher-wood doors. The threat of God’s wrath has entered the ark itself, for Noah is nothing if not logically consistent. He will kill Shem’s child if it turns out to be a girl. In his mind, he’s accomplishing the Creator’s task. The Creator, of course, has said nothing about this either one way or the other. Noah’s merely extrapolating God’s judgement to its logical conclusion.
Can you imagine a Christian filmmaker daring to do this? To take God’s wrath this seriously? In Noah, God’s justice is assumed. His punishment is implacable. His mercy is a desperate plea in the human soul, a faint glimmer of hope to which you cling with a fervor you didn’t know that you possessed. By removing the assurance of Noah’s salvation, Aronofsky brings home the terror of God’s judgement in a way he could not have done otherwise. If he’d taken the time to develop characters we knew would be left behind, we’d have withheld our emotional investment. Instead, he threatens those in whom our hopes reside. Yes, that’s a newborn over whom Noah’s raising his knife. But how is this precious infant any different than the millions of infants who’ve died in the deluge outside? What makes her special? What sets her apart?
Nothing, it turns out. No flesh deserves to live. Only unearned love will avert the judgement. Noah wasn’t saved because he deserved it, but because God is rich in mercy. And as a community of believers all too familiar with the story’s outcome, this is a truth we no longer know how to feel. The strength of Aronofsky’s adaptation, unfaithful though it may be, is that it forces us to feel this truth. Aronofsky’s Noah stares unflinchingly at the unspeakable wrath of God against sin. When we at last behold God’s mercy, we gasp with relief instead of grinning in vindication. Salvation has become valuable in our eyes.
And now, a caveat. The film deliberately leaves the Creator’s original intentions ambiguous until after Noah has acted. This approach bears several interpretations. The simplest of these is, unfortunately, the least scriptural: that God had delegated to Noah the responsibility of determining whether humanity should get a second chance. At the end of the film, a character theorizes that the Creator left this decision in Noah’s hands because he knew Noah’s heart, and thus foresaw that Noah would make the right choice. Again, this is a logical conclusion in light of the fact that, in Aronofsky’s adaptation, God doesn’t speak with specificity. Indeed, Noah’s struggle to understand the will of the Creator actually functions as a fairly relevant commentary on the tendency of many modern Christians to grasp at spiritual straws when attempting to interpret what they believe to be directives from the Holy Spirit. Visions and circumstances can be easily misread, as Noah himself demonstrates with aplomb.
Aronofsky’s Noah isn’t a faithful retelling of an historical event. Instead, it’s something far more ambitious and terrifying: an epic fantasy which dares to examine the impartiality of divine justice without taking salvation for granted. It’s not fun to watch. It diminishes one truth to expand upon another. It takes all manner of creative liberties. It defies your expectations and casts your soul into a flood of turmoil.
And it’s a beautiful, powerful thing. I’d see it again in a heartbeat.