Saturday, April 5, 2014

Noah - Movie Review

Should you see this film? Should you not see it? I think the only thing I can positively say is: Don’t see it with your grandmother.

Darren Aronofsky ruffled feathers by proclaiming his new movie Noah the “least Biblical Biblical film ever made.” This is true, if your definition of “Biblical” is “stars Charlton Heston and has an anti-Communist agenda,” as The Ten Commandments did (it’s notable they both have subplots which didn’t occur in the Bible). Noah breaks numerous Bible movie conventions, and though its iconoclastic bent can be over the top, it effectively utilizes this alienating tactic to shock the audience into seeing the story with new eyes.

First thing to go is the traditional flamboyant Middle-Eastern attire, replaced by dull tunics of animal skin right out of either the Paleolithic era or a modern dystopia. I incline towards the latter, because the film lacks a real dimension of age. The world doesn’t seem young (should it?)—but rather old and decrepit and empty. It’s a bad sign when the majority of the striking visual shots can be contained in a film’s trailer.

Another embellishment is the much-talked-of environmentalist theme. Yes, it’s too blatant, but it’s not an unbiblical teaching. Being the care-takers of the earth is certainly very relevant to Noah’s mission, and quite likely to have been passed down from his Eden-dwelling forebears. I did find the first introduction a little lame, as Noah (Russell Crowe) rebukes his son for picking a flower. (Idea: This could have been played as a comedic montage as Noah told his teenage sons not to pick flowers the other three hundred times they do it throughout puberty. Soundtrack: Put That Thing Back Where It Came From Or So Help Me.) So I think Noah could have made his point more effectively by giving his admonition against something more significant, or in a less preachy manner. (But the rain-drop bringing the flower back—that was Cool.)

On the other hand, if anyone is inclined to pat theological answers and strict parenting, it’s Aronofsky’s Noah. Speaking of the man himself, his character arc is about my favorite part of the movie (the rest of the film is, frankly, a little boring). Honestly, I don’t get why everyone’s so upset about this. He’s simply been re-cast from one sort of biblical character to another, from a priest to a king, and given Paul’s storyline. This makes sense in the context of the narrative, resulting in a mixture of Abraham, Jonah, Job, and, of course, Paul. Many stories make use of the Threefold Office, such as The Lord of the Rings (Aragorn as king, Frodo as priest, Gandalf as prophet), and Noah actually has an example of each member. Noah is the patriarch of his family, a king bent on doing justice, Anthony Hopkins’ amusing Methuselah is a holy fool, an ancient prophet, and Emma Watson’s empathetic Ila is priest, pleading humanity’s case.

I understand that Noah’s dark and conflicted existential crisis doesn’t fit in with the usual translation of the word “righteous,” but I found Mark Driscoll’s observation very apt: “Noah was not a good guy, but a graced guy.” One of the Bible’s most in-depth examinations of righteousness is Hebrews 11—the faith chapter. “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Job was called a righteous man not because he was perfect, but because he declared “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

So, how’s that for some pat theological answers? Noah’s rubbing off on me. Moving on.

The story divides into three (possibly four) acts. The first part gives Noah a tragic childhood and a Destiny. It's a melodramatic fantasy character’s back-story, but it nicely sets up Noah’s tendency to see himself as a fated dispenser of justice, descendant of Seth, on a mission from God. In fact, many Noah’s choices and realizations stem from this glorified view of himself.

For instance, he periodically has visions from God, which he (and his long-suffering wife) take in stride. “He’s going to destroy the world.” “Oh, okay, honey, let’s just uproot and go find Great Gramps Methuselah who’ll tell us how to save Earth.” This could have been given more context. It seems to take its own premise for granted, and misses out on the absurdity of the suggestion. (Then again, do we really want more Evan Almighty?) Noah’s identity as a man set apart from the world also justifies the relative isolation of his family (though it’s another choice I dislike—it narrows the scope to an almost claustrophobic seclusion.) So—world-building skills, poor, but the narrow vision reflects Noah’s own pharisaic mindset.

I've got to hand it to Anthony Hopkins—he makes a perfect prophet, muttering predictions amid a chatter of grandfatherly banter. I really love that it’s the most foolish character who wields the greatest spiritual power.

After a gift from Methuselah grants Noah’s family a refuge (in one of the film’s most beautiful visual sequences), the second act is off to a great start, and we start to get to know the other characters more fully. 

If there’s anything this film does, it really sticks to the patriarchal family model. Noah is unquestionably the leader, and when others disagree with his decisions, they are clearly remonstrating from a position of less authority. Ila, the film’s priest, is one of these, and typifies another common biblical character—the barren woman. The film perfectly captures her feelings of inadequacy and brokenness. Ham, the problem child, longs for a family, feeling this will grant him the ability to “become a man.”

These tensions come to the fore when the descendants of Cain arrive, with intention to take the ark by force. Ray Winstone as  Tubal-Cain, the primary villain, brings very little intellect to the part, growling his lines with animalistic ferocity. 

As the two groups interact, we see Ham becoming more rebellious, Ila feeling more useless, and Noah more pessimistic. One of those storylines is completed before the third act, in one of the movie’s transcendent, though brief, glimpses of grace (another of these is the perfect, slightly comic, conclusion to Methuselah's story). On the other hand, the other two descend deeper. “I thought you were good. I thought that’s why [God] chose you,” says Shem to his father. Thing is: Noah thought the same thing (and apparently most of evangelical America). As Noah begins to realize this is not the truth, he observes the rampant wickedness of the Cainite camp (which is truly horrific - not something I'd let my younger sister see), just before the rain starts to fall.

But I can go no further without mentioning the Nephilim, or: The Rock Giant Transformer Ents. Not one of the films better ideas, and probably the most troubling, theologically. How much pity for humanity is too much? The Giants say God kicked them out of heaven because they were feeling sorry for man, and really, it was just a little disagreement, why’s everybody so hard on a devil? Look, I can see why they’re there from a narrative standpoint—after all, Noah didn’t have a contractor company ready at hand, but for the first half of the film, they seem like the most sympathetic characters, and that’s not good. 

But. While I think they’re mostly dumb, and look ridiculous (therefore, it’s hard to take them seriously as a theological threat, anyway), the end of their story is interestingly ironic, given that earlier in the story they had proclaimed their faith in humanity (spoiler: humanity ain't worth it). All the same, I think my liking for the film was greatly influenced by the fact they don't figure into the last act.

The final third takes place in the ark, a dark, confined space reflecting the turmoil of Noah’s mind. Basically, this movie is what would happen if George R.R. Martin decided to write an Evelyn Waugh novel with a plot borrowed from Victor Hugo. It is a brutal story in a supernatural world where almost everyone dies, but there are subtle glimpses of grace in a story about Russell Crowe seeking justice. Like Javert, he’s also obsessed with water, and the sky, and sings a bit, though not very well. He sees the corruption of humanity (which is indeed great), and the skewed desires of his own family (which are indeed skewed), and goes to the logical conclusion that the earth would be better off without humanity.

There's a problem with all this, and in his heart, Noah knows it. 

Many are turned off by the fact that God doesn’t speak a word in the entire movie, but it works in the story Aronofsky is telling. God isn’t a character, he’s the backdrop—the foundation and moving force of the entire story. After all, this is the Old Testament, and it’s before God revealed the Law or even his name, much less dwelt in the flesh. The characters are always searching the vast, blank sky; all their actions stem from how they see the relationship between God and Man.

The final resolution brings both into play, and I found it profoundly satisfying. Noah, convinced he’s got God figured out, is obsessed with doing justice, yet misses God's love and mercy. (It’s notable that Noah’s Genesis story completely removes mention of Man as God’s greatest creation.) This single-minded, logical progression, from seeing evil and wishing to destroy it, is a good illustration of Chesterton's thesis that madmen have nothing left but their reason. It remains to the heart to temper our darker machinations (though desire must also be balanced by wisdom). 

In the end, Noah sees that he was wrong. He feels in his bones that there is a love that satisfies all justice, and that he must bow before it. Why must he show mercy? He doesn't know, and this overthrow of his worldview nearly breaks him (Javert, anyone?) There must be some way God can satisfy this dilemma, yet Noah cannot see it. This echoes Job's out-of-the-blue prophecy that he knows his redeemer lives. How could he know? But that’s a preview of coming attractions, isn’t it?

Noah has caught hold of something he doesn't understand. Through the whole film, he has been trying to reach out to God, but all the information is one-way. At last, when he has learned mercy, the sky is no longer blank, but full of light, and a flash of colors attesting to the covenant of God's grace.

Noah certainly has its flaws, among them a  confusing theology, a lagging narrative, occasionally melodramatic acting, poor costume design, and over-long blockbuster action sequences. But counterbalancing that: interesting characters, a unique take on a well-worn story, a due solemnity for a tragic subject, and a story full of theological questions and tenuous but respectful answers. It's a movie that will drive people to the original source material, if only to be challenged further.

And, yeah, I actually did go with my granny, who hasn’t visited a theater in fifteen years. As we left the theater, she said “That was terrible. Not accurate at all. I kept waiting for Noah's wife to turn to salt.” We talked about the Bible all the way home.

4/5 stars

Hannah Long


  1. I wondered how well of a job they would do. Reading your review, I am intrigued as to how I will see all these layers, and what I will take from the movie.

  2. I read a terrible review of this movie the other day. I love your review. Thanks for seeing through the gunk to the interesting stuff :-) (I know I have to see this..)


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