As a Christian, and someone who takes what the Bible has to say about life and the universe and God pretty seriously, I have to admit that sometimes, the things in there (the bible, that is) get pretty weird, if not outright disturbing. I don’t just meant the visual strangeness of Revelation either – even some parts of the bible presenting themselves as historical accounts, not visions and poetic imagery but as “hey, this thing actually happened” are just plain freaky (I’m looking at you, Judges). And that’s just thinking about the stuff that people do, what about some of what God does? Abraham is asked, as a test, to sacrifice his son. God tells the Israelites to kill whole cities worth of people, or wipes them out himself. And in Genesis six, he kills practically basically everyone and everything in the world with a flood. This is a story often immortalised in kids books with a cute little boat bobbing on some soft blue waves, giraffes, elephants and a bearded Noah sticking their grinning heads out of the windows (I guess all the dead people are meant to be under those waves). There are things to be said about these stories (some of them helpful and others pretty stupid), but often what really happens is we try to hide from the reality of them, downplay and hide from how uncomfortable these what on earth is going on here parts of the bible can be.
Darren Aronofsky’s Noah takes us to a strange world, treeless, ashen, populated by strange but familiar animals, dotted with marks of a pre-industrial industrial revolution and filled with men who still remember the existence of their creator, even as they destroy his creation and defy his name. In this ruined world lives Noah, descendant of Seth, and his family, the only people left eking out an existence in the way the Creator (the film’s chosen designation for God) commanded. Noah has a vision: an ocean drowning in the bodies of the dead, and realises that the Creator is revealing his plans to flood the earth and destroy humanity for all the evils they have perpetrated. Thus begins Noah’s journey to not just fulfill the Creator’s command to build an ark, thus preserving creation, but to understand why anyone should be saved from the flood at all.
There’s a lot going on in Noah, and and one of the beautiful things about storytelling, in whatever medium, is that stories don’t have to be about one thing, even as they focus on whatever burdens are at their core. The process of creating the world and the people who inhabit it will, when done well, draw out different reactions and raise a whole number of different ideas to discuss. Noah is no different, and there’s plenty I’d like to say. We could reflect on, for example, the apparent silence of the Creator, why this may be and whether or not it’s a bad thing. We could talk about Tubal-Cain, his interpretation of what it means to be made in the Creator’s image, and his shockingly sympathetic monologue, asking that the Creator speak to him amidst the freshly pouring rains of judgement. We could talk about how beautiful visually much of the movie was, or where I think it falls short (because I certainly don’t think it’s perfect). We could, but will not… (1)
Chances are, if you’re watching a big-budget style blockbuster these days you’re going to see a lot of things blow up. Almost always this destruction is mindless destruction (think the ridiculously indulgent conclusion to last year’s Superman). Stuff blows up, is smashed and it’s big and entertaining. But that’s all it is. The destruction that takes place in Noah is entirely mindful, it is neither random nor entertaining, and this is why it’s so fully horrific to be forced to contemplate. (2)
Inside the safety of the ark we with Noah and his family must listen to the horrifying screams of people frantically clinging the disappearing peaks of mountains before all is swallowed by the flood. It’s awful, in exactly the way it should be (I actually found myself looking away), as is Noah’s resolution that all of humanity, even his family and unborn grandchildren, are too riddled with sin to continue after the flood, and that they must be killed at birth. His wife begs him to reconsider, but “It is just” he says. She is horrified, “How can this be just!” They’re just babies, his grandchildren. Noah is silent and set in his course, and until the point of action he remains, heartbreakingly, disturbingly, determined to do what he believes to be the Creator’s just will. (3)
And this, in this one scene, crashed on me like a towering wave. (4)
Isn’t this what the Creator has just done? This thing that Noah is set on doing, wasn’t it just done a thousand times over and a thousand times again through the crushing waves of the flood? To the people screaming for help outside the ark, to people like the girl rescued by Ham and then left to be trampled? Do all these people truly deserve to die, when does judgement end and what will replace it? (5)
At the heart of these questions that the movie provokes are the ideas that I think Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel, in making this film, are wrestling with (and that’s even more apparent if you read the fascinating interviews with him I’ve posted below): the wickedness of humanity and the nature of judgment and mercy. The place where these ideas intersect in Noah is in the man Noah. Noah struggles to survive in a messy world while still living as the Creator commanded. Noah perceives the beauty and need to care for that world. Noah arrives at a shocking realisation, that even the seemingly good people like him might not be so good. Noah comes to believe that the destruction of such people, even the ones who seem innocent, might just be just. But then, Noah looks on his grandchildren and, as he says, has only love in his heart. And Mercy is. Wickedness, judgement and mercy. These are fundamentally the concerns of Noah because they are also fundamentally the concerns of his Creator – who even in judgement prepares a vehicle of mercy. And for what reason other than love?
So yes, Noah is weird and different and it doesn’t attempt a literal narration of it’s source material. In part this is because Aronofsky and Handel read the first chapters of Genesis before Abraham as non-historical, mythological texts which still tell the truth but do not necessarily recount literal events. (6) If you’re familiar with the Genesis story, this may even offend you. But, dare I suggest, that could be a good thing. If all we got was an “historical” (7) retelling of Genesis six with minor flourishes those of us who are Christians could sagely nod our heads and say “yes, a biblically faithful movie” and completely miss out on how emotionally shocking, devastatingly weird and seemingly awful some of the things that happen in the Bible are. There is a place for that kind of careful exegesis, of course, but I’d argue that the cinema is not it. Noah is not a sermon, and it is not ‘safe’. It’s not a docu-drama, its not an audio Bible with pictures thrown in, because frankly that isn’t the point of it any more than the point of, say, Gladiator is to tell you what life in the Roman circus was like. The point of Noah is that Aronofsky, as a boy, read and was haunted by the story of Noah and the flood, by the idea that people may just be wicked and that God may just judge them, and that unmitigated, merciless judgement is too much to behold or bear (which is, of course, the purpose of Noah’s near infanticide). Noah is not just a fascinating example of storytelling that tries to be both true and beautiful and unique, it’s also nothing more and nothing less than a man wresting with a haunting vision: a deep dark ocean, flooded with corpses, the judging wrath of the god who put them there, and the idea that perhaps judgement, to be truly just, must aways come hand in hand with something even more shocking: mercy.
The Waffly Bits (Footnotes)
(1) Ok, so I can’t resist this note: Tubal-Cain gets onto the ark as a stow-away, and at first I thought this was just some attempt to give some more plot while they’re in the ark, and from that point of view it doesn’t really work or make sense. Except I was missing something – Tubal-Cain comes on the ark wearing the snake-skin from the garden in Eden, and while there he encourages Ham to take a less than savoury path while offering him something to eat, something he knows he shouldn’t. So there are tempters even in the new garden of creation.
(2) So yes, there’s some action scenes here too and is arguable as to whether these really needed to be here, and if Noah fighting as he does undercuts his message – though the fighting actually provides a path for the Watchers to redemption, and for some reason I found myself really emotionally moved by that scene.
(3) Russell Crowe is brilliant here, as in the rest of the film. He’s human and vulnerable and horrible immovable all at once.
(4) I’m trying to avoid water metaphors here, please forgive me just this one.
(5) Unfortunately, this is also the part of the movie that dragged the most, Noah’s resolution felt too sudden for me and rather than being tense, this plot thread felt dragged out and I would have preferred to see more of life in the ark and Noah’s struggle to decide what to do rather than just see everyone be upset and angry for about twenty minutes.
(6) Again, check out those interviews below. Whatever you think about this understanding, even a lot of the seemingly eccentric flourishes in Noah are still based either on ideas in the text of Genesis or on later Jewish interpretations of that story. There’s certainly method to their madness – even those sparkly stones.
(7) Sorry to harp on this, but it would have been “Historical”, not historical. Movies aren’t ever perfect depictions of history (if anything can ever be). If the idea of a more “fantasy” take on Noah is still weirding you out, I’d ask you to pause for a minute to consider what little details about the world of Noah we get from the bible its self. Talking snakes, mysterious “heroes of old”, the Nephilim; people living to be 962 years old, angels with fiery swords; animals, seemingly of their own accord, crowding into a large wooden boat, a flood covering the whole world. It’s NUTS! It’s strange and mysterious (and yes, Noah in the actual bible is a vegetarian, at least until after the flood).
As promised, some fascinating interviews with Aronofsky can be found:
If you think he ecological and second chance themes are blatantly imported into the story, have a listen to this talk by Tim Keller on the Genesis account.
And finally, confused about that snake skin? So was I, but be confused no more!