Broadly speaking, there are two groups of people likely to go and see the movie Noah.
In group 1, we have those for whom the story of Noah’s Ark is a parable at best and a flimsy fairy tale at worst. To you I say this: whether or not God is real, within the reality of the movie there is no doubt. If you can believe in lightsabers and the force for as long as it takes to accept a story in the Star Wars universe, you can accept, for two and a half hours, that a divine being who wants to drown His own primary creation is very real inside the world of this film.
In group 2, we have those for whom the tale of Noah is holy writ, and possibly even the literal history of mankind. To you I say this: EVERY movie about history takes liberties. All are staged interpretations, and none are 100% exactly as they actually happened. Before they were written down and codified, it isn’t hard to imagine that the various fireside oral tellings differed from one another. That does not invalidate the final moral.
Knowing that, then, how do we judge Darren Aronofsky’s Noah?
There’s no easy way to do it objectively, so anyone offering judgment might as well start with the personal and proceed from there.
Noah begins with all the bombast of the most important story ever, which to some, of course, it is. Loud drums, a grand cosmic canvas, the serpent of Eden shown in neon green, Cain’s murder of Abel in silhouette, and Genesis prior to Noah’s birth shown in broad, grandiose strokes. Director Darren Aronofsky will turn again and again to the creation myth in quick cuts, like the breakfasts in Requiem for a Dream, until he finally, late in the film, has Noah tell the entire tale, and all of creation is encapsulated in such rapid time lapse that anyone over the age of 12 is at risk for seizures merely beholding what is onscreen at that moment.
For at least the first half of the film, we get the Image Comics version of the Old Testament. Fallen angels known as the Watchers, referred to in Genesis as “the sons of God” in both Bible translations I looked at prior to writing this review, appear as giant rock monsters; shining angel spirits trapped within the sludge of the earth (trust me: Rob Liefeld, a fan of both the Bible and giant heroic rock monsters, will love this movie above all others in 2014). Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone cosplaying as Mickey Rourke), a minor figure in the Bible noted only for creating things from metal, is now an evil king who murdered Noah’s father and wishes to corrupt his son Ham. Knives penetrate bodies, armadillo-dog hybrids get struck down, and trees spring from miraculous waters.
Claims that this movie is environmentalist and therefore bad strike me as silly – how do you show that mankind has ruined creation without showing said creation as despoiled? Aronofsky’s view from space of the Earth as a fruit gaining mold might be a bit dramatic, but if anything, the story justifies the fact that whatever man can do can be reversed if God decides to hit the reset button and drown everyone. Besides, the knock on environmentalism from the right tends to be that it’s anti free-market, and there’s no indication that what Tubal-Cain is doing resembles that in any way – he enslaves the Watchers, rapes women and tears live animals apart while over-mining the earth for a magical exploding material that might as well be called Unobtainium, or Kerium.
God – or as he is solely referred to here, the Creator – never speaks to Noah directly. Instead he delivers dreams, visions, and via psychedelic tea prepared by Methusaleh (Anthony Hopkins) the instructions to build an Ark. For those who wonder why said Ark doesn’t immediately turn into a gigantic animal toilet or buffet, it’s simple – Noah’s wife burns weed that makes them hibernate. It may not be marijuana, but it is clearly the good shit.
You know the broad strokes from here on out. Where things take a notable departure is in Noah’s attitude, and immediate circumstances. The Bible is pretty clear that Noah’s sons all had wives, and that God and Noah were on the same page about being fruitful and multiplying from day one. Here, only Shem is of marrying age, and betrothed to Noah’s adopted daughter at that. Japheth is too young to think of such things even by Old Testament-era standards, and Ham is pissy that he has no woman. All of which intensifies when Noah has a vision of himself as a demon, and determines that even he and his family are so fallen that the human race must end with them, and therefore any potential grandchildren must die. It is entirely likely that a man in such circumstances could think in such a manner, especially after consenting to assist in what is basically genocide; yet to those who believe, I can see how it is tantamount to slander of a beloved prophet.
To me, however, and to Aronofsky, it is more than just the sum of its obvious parts in a universe of parameters; to see it as only the surface story is to deny it the power it has held as more than that for millennia. In the larger scheme of things, this take on Noah is one of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the burdens of doing right even when it means piling sins upon yourself. Like any soldier who must kill for the greater good, or any patriarch making sacrifices for the betterment of the family, violating conscience and eating away at soul for what must be done, Russell Crowe’s Noah loses some of himself while sacrificing for the greater plan. Whether it be with family or God in mind, the things he feels he must do in service of all creation require the ultimate act of being a man, while enduring a burden none should bear. The extent you relate to that will likely determine how strongly you react to Noah…and Aronofsky, whose movies nearly always feature a semi-delusional protagonist sacrificing all for a larger cause, clearly feels that from the Genesis tale.
Crowe isn’t a bad choice for the guy who can be a strong family man when he needs to, and scary psycho the next, but it is a shame that the one actor who would be even more perfect is currently, effectively blacklisted. I speak, of course, of Mel Gibson, who would likely have had less trouble getting the Pope to watch his film, and undoubtedly, sincerely believes everything herein. Winstone is fine as villain Tubal-Cain, but his character is a fundamental mistake. There isn’t any need, for instance, to have him survive the flood if you’re already going to play up interfamilial tensions – the narrative choice here is to have Ham ultimately choose his own exile rather to dramatically leave as a result of a nudity curse, and Logan Lerman’s Ham is not only perfectly capable of playing that, but he’s also given enough narrative material to justify it without the presence of an evil father figure to seduce him.
It has always struck me as ironic that most “faith-based” movies I’ve seen in my time, be they Christian, Mormon or Muslim, tend toward the saccharine and the sanitized, when all those faiths’ actual origin tales are anything but (seriously, scripture is brutal). To the extent that artistic dissent is allowed, it seems to only be done so when based on a creative talent who explicitly professed faith, hence why JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis get the fantasy pass that JK Rowling does not, and why Mel Gibson can get an R rating and still be okayed. Aronofsky is not especially religious, but he understands the power of foundational myths. It may be asking a lot of some, but if you can avoid clinging to the literal in his movie and see the deeper emotional truths beneath, it just may move you to feel the pain of doing right, and embracing it anyway, not always knowing how far is too far.