Monday, April 07, 2014

Noah (2014)

Noah is my first Darren Aronofsky film. It would’ve been The Wolverine if it had worked out for him to direct that, but it didn’t, which is too bad. As much as I enjoyed the first three quarters of James Mangold’s film, based on Noah, I really want to see what Aronofsky would’ve done with that. It’s not that I’ve intentionally been ignoring the guy, it’s just that none of his films have grabbed me enough on a conceptual level to get me to sit down with one. That changed with Noah.

I expect it’s a lot of people’s first Aronofsky film. It’s based on one of the oldest, most familiar stories in the world and whatever differences folks have about how true it is, everyone knows the basic plot. And based on the $100 million it’s made so far worldwide, they’re also curious to see how Aronofsky’s interpreted it.

That’s what got me into the theater. The story of Noah is a tough one to navigate, even for serious Christians. I had no problem accepting a literal interpretation as a kid, but the older I got, the more I struggled with it. Not just with questions about the logistics of fitting all of those animals into that boat, but also with the theological questions the story raises about the nature of God. I’ve had to wrestle with that stuff, so I was interested in seeing what conclusions Aronofsky came to about it as well.

Like with any movie remake or adaptation, I was far less interested in faithfulness to the source material than I was in the filmmaker’s interpretation of it, so I didn’t approach Noah either as an Aronofsky fan or as a Noah fan and I think that served me well. Most of the criticisms I heard were that either a) it’s not as good as Aronofsky's other work, or b) that it takes a lot of liberties with the story.

I can’t speak to a), but I don’t have any reason to doubt those people. It’s very possible that Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, and Black Swan are each superior to Noah. I just don’t think that’s necessarily relevant to judging it, because none of these movies are competing with each other. It’s perfectly fair to say that The Fountain did this or that better than Noah did as a way of discussing Noah’s specific flaws, but it’s not reasonable to suggest that Noah is worthless simply because it’s not as good as Aronofsky’s previous stuff.

As for b), I’m all for films taking liberties with source material as long as they do it in interesting ways. If I want a faithful account of the Biblical version of Noah’s story, I can turn to Genesis 6. What I was looking for in the film were which themes Aronofsky wanted to highlight and what he would say about them. The movie deeply rewards that approach.

One major theme is humanity’s relationship to our environment. There’s much discussion in the film about our role in creation, with Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family playing the part of vegetarian caretakers while the villainous Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) insists on his right to subdue the earth and rule over its creatures as harshly as he chooses. The juxtaposition between those views came really close to making me a vegetarian and certainly reinforced my desire to buy meat from humane producers.

It reminds me of something the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “Everything that God made is waiting with excitement for the time when he will show the world who his children are. The whole world wants very much for that to happen. Everything God made was allowed to become like something that cannot fulfill its purpose. That was not its choice, but God made it happen with this hope in view: That the creation would be made free from ruin—that everything God made would have the same freedom and glory that belong to God’s children. We know that everything God made has been waiting until now in pain like a woman ready to give birth to a child.” (Romans 8:19-22; Easy-to-Read Version)

What he’s saying is that humanity hasn’t just screwed itself up; it’s also screwed up the rest of the world. And when humanity starts acting like God’s children, the rest of creation will breath a huge sigh of relief, because we’ll start behaving towards creation in the way we were meant to. Tubal-cain had a very violent interpretation of what it means to subdue and rule over the earth. Paul and Aronofsky both argue that that’s the wrong way to look at it. Whether you believe in God or not (Paul clearly did; my understanding is that Aronofsky doesn’t), the point is that humans have responsibility for the earth; we’re not here to – as Tubal-cain claims – simply take what’s ours. That message is strong in Noah. As is the message that Tubal-cain isn’t alone in misunderstanding God.

To be fair, God is presented as almost completely unreadable in Noah. The film depicts a world in which the Creator unquestionably exists, but it’s impossible to perfectly understand his will. Noah receives visions, not direct communication, and it’s up to him to interpret them to the best of his ability. How he does that is spoiler territory, so I’ll put the next bit under a…

SPOILER WARNING. If you don’t want to know how the last half of the movie plays out, skip to the END OF SPOILERS note below.

The most fascinating thing about the movie is the way Noah interprets the task God’s given him. As Noah looks at Tubal-cain and the rest of humanity, even as he looks at himself and his own family, he realizes how far humans have fallen and he gives up. After a particularly harrowing visit to Tubal-cain’s village, Noah tells his wife (Jennifer Connelly) that they’re going to finish the task of building the ark, but they aren’t going to get on it when it’s done. Noah believes that God intends for him and his family to die along with everyone else.

Things don’t go according to his plan in a couple of important ways. As the rains come, Tubal-cain attacks and Noah is too distracted fighting the bad guys away from the ark to prevent his own family from getting on it. He then modifies his plan, expecting that his family will simply die of old age without reproducing, and that humanity will still be wiped out and possession of the world will return to the animals without our corrupting presence.

He’s so sure that this is God’s will that when his previously barren daughter-in-law Ila (Emma Watson) becomes miraculously pregnant, Noah is convinced that his duty is to kill the child if it’s a girl, because she’d be capable of mating with one of Noah’s other sons (i.e. her uncles) to continue the species. Leaving aside how gross that is, it’s a fascinating, potent warning about being certain when interpreting God’s will. Noah is alone in his conviction, but no less sure because of that. He’s willing to murder a baby and lose the love of his family because of his confidence that he’s doing what God wants.

As it turns out, Ila has twin daughters and in the film’s most powerful scene Noah can’t bring himself to kill them. Ila explicitly points out later that he chose mercy and suggests that perhaps that was God’s will all along. Noah does some heinous things in the movie and he’s right that at the end of the day he wasn’t any better than the people who died in the flood, and was actually worse than many of them. That he was acting for what he believed were holy reasons doesn’t change what he did. God’s sparing him was an act of mercy. And while unintentional, the mercy that Noah in turn showed his granddaughters was perhaps his greatest, most perfect representation of God’s nature.


This is profound stuff and the film presents it in a powerful way without handing over all the answers. It leaves a lot to think about, including the nature of a God who would wipe out innocent people in an enormous flood. The film doesn’t sidestep these issues; it raises them and then leaves viewers to wrestle with them on their own, which I think is a good thing. Days after I saw it, I’m still enjoying the process of thinking it through.

As much as I enjoyed Noah, my pleasure in it is based on my interest in this specific source material, so I don’t expect to rush out and immediately start devouring more Aronofsky films. But I’ve been casually curious about The Fountain for a while now because of Hugh Jackman, so I’ll likely bump that up higher in the queue as a result of seeing this. I’m curious though: if you’re an Aronofsky fan, which of his films do you recommend that I follow up Noah with? And of course, whether you’re an Aronofsky fan or not, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on Noah and the things Aronofsky’s saying in it.
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