Darren Aronofsky’s Noah pays its source material a rare compliment: It takes Genesis seriously as a landmark of world literature and ancient moral reflection, and a worthy source of artistic inspiration in our day.
It is not a “Bible movie” in the usual sense, with all the story beats predetermined by the text, and actors in ancient Near Eastern couture hitting their marks and saying all the expected things. It is something more vital, surprising and confounding: a work of art and imagination that makes this most familiar of tales strange and new: at times illuminating the text, at times stretching it to the breaking point, at times inviting cross-examination and critique.
For many pious moviegoers, I suspect some of the film’s more provocative flourishes will be a bridge too far. Less pious viewers, meanwhile, may be put off by the biblical subject matter. Have Aronofsky (raised with a Jewish education) and co-writer Ari Handel made a film that’s too religious for secular viewers and too secular for religious ones? Who is the audience?
Well, I am, to begin with. For a lifelong Bible geek and lover of movie-making and storytelling like me, Noah is a rare gift: a blend of epic spectacle, startling character drama and creative reworking of Scripture and other ancient Jewish and rabbinic writings. It’s a movie with much to look at, much to think about and much to feel; a movie to argue about, and argue with.
It’s certainly not the picture-book story that most of us grow up with, all cheerful ark-building, adorable animals and a gravely pious, white-bearded protagonist. Noah, played by a flinty, authoritative Russell Crowe, is the hero, but that doesn’t make him saintly. Or, if he is saintly, it’s worth recalling that some of the saints could be off-putting, harsh, even ruthless. We want our heroes to be paragons of virtue and enlightenment. Yet when you get down to it, the difference between Moses or David and corrupt Hophni and Phineas is one of degree, not kind. We are all made of the same fallen stuff.
For millennia, Judeo-Christian imagination has been haunted by the idea of the primordial world before the Flood: a world so close to paradise, with Eden itself around some forbidden corner, guarded by cherubim with a flaming sword. Men lived many hundreds of years, Genesis tells us, and chapter 6 suggests that giants walked the earth — offspring, on one interpretation, of human women and fallen angelic beings.
Some of these motifs inspired elements in J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales of the earlier ages of Middle-Earth, an imaginative portrait of the primeval world. Tolkien’s best-known works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, resound with echoes of this lost world. Aronofsky’s Noah includes imaginative flourishes akin to Tolkien: grim portents, grotesque Entish creatures called Watchers, battles in a Mordor-like blasted waste and a dark family struggle not unlike that of Denethor and his sons.
Yet the story’s biblical framework is taken seriously, even literally. There are glimpses of Eden, Adam and Eve in glory, the serpent, the forbidden fruit and the crime of Cain. Though paradise is lost, the Earth has not yet forgotten it, as Tolkien’s rocks and woods remembered the elves after they had gone. In a key sequence, an echo of Eden bursts forth in a rapturous effect recalling Genesis 2:9–10.
Among the highlights is a recounting of the week of creation, not in a prologue, but strategically positioned at a key moment when characters have reason to look back. This soaring sequence, in which the six days are artfully dovetailed with imagery of the origins of the cosmos and life on earth that would be at home in a nature documentary, is, for me, the film’s theological pinnacle.
We meet venerable Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), Noah’s great-grandfather, who seems to carry some vestige of Adam’s Edenic glory and preternatural power. In Genesis, a patriarch’s blessing was a potent thing; here, there is something almost wizardly about Methuselah, whom even the Watchers call “the old one.” There are hints, too, of what will be after the deluge, notably the Tower of Babel, in the proud boast of the film’s embodiment of human corruption, tyrannical Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone): “Men united are invincible!”
This poses a dilemma for the story of the flood and for Noah. God sent the flood to wipe out human wickedness. Yet after the flood human wickedness immediately reasserts itself. It’s as if the flood accomplished nothing — or, alternatively, as if allowing Noah’s family to continue and replenish the Earth defeated the purpose.
Noah feels deeply the Creator’s grief and wrath over sin and violence — far more deeply than he feels his mercy or love of mankind. The Creator speaks to Noah, not in a voice from heaven, but in visions and portents, and at times Noah’s understanding of the Creator’s will may be deeply, even shockingly, flawed.
Noah presents biblical characters facing challenges, dilemmas and uncertainties as knotty as those we face today. Compared to figures in most ancient dramas, they are both more recognizably human, yet also more persuasively other. I appreciate a costume drama being willing to let the characters’ milieu push back on audience expectations with cultural sensibilities different from ours.
If it seems hard to imagine Moses or David contemplating some of the choices Noah makes, recall Moses’ horrific response to the worship of the golden calf. Consider, also, that Moses and David, living later in salvation history, had more to go on: Noah’s God had not brought his people out of Egypt, revealed his name at the burning bush or spoken to Abraham on Mount Moriah, commanding him to spare the son Abraham was willing to slay in obedience to God.
Although Noah’s domestic conflict centers initially around middle-son Ham, it’s the women in Noah’s life — his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and daughter-in-law Ila (Emma Watson), the wife of son Shem (Douglas Booth) — who ultimately take center stage. Yet the story’s ethos is frankly patriarchal; Noah’s word is law for his family, and even venerable Methuselah upholds Noah’s sole right to choose the path for his family and for the whole human race. Still, both women are strong, vivid characters, and their strongest scenes brought tears to my eyes.
As the drama plays out, it looks as if the story might have muddled the count of characters at the center of the story, one way or another. In the end, though, the filmmakers can claim to have satisfied the text — just barely. Will that be enough to satisfy religious viewers? That may be the most debated question about the film.
What about pre-release concerns that Noah would be rife with themes of environmentalism and overpopulation? Thankfully, overpopulation concerns (which would undermine the biblical text’s critique of other ancient Near Eastern flood-type stories) are a non-issue, and the biblical theme of “Be fruitful and multiply” is affirmed. There’s a definite environmental slant, at times heavy-handed, that is still broadly consistent with the biblical principle that “In the beginning, God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2402).
I could easily write an essay just on Aronofky’s Watchers and the film’s reworking of Genesis 6 and the Books of Enoch and Jubilees. (I don’t want to write a review of this film — I want to write a commentary.) The film’s Watchers are creatures of heaven and earth, beings of light bound in rock, with six misshapen, rocky limbs corresponding to the six wings of the seraphim.
The Book of Enoch describes both good Watchers, or angels, and rebels, who offered human beings advanced technological and occult knowledge, perpetuating human decadence. These Watchers are seemingly of this ilk, and the knowledge they transmitted to Cain’s descendants leads to an antediluvian civilization spreading corruption across the face of the Earth.
The film’s division between the wicked civilization of Cain and the righteous line of Seth corresponds to the other interpretation of that strange verse in Genesis 6 about the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men”: On this reading, these are not angels and human women, but sons of Seth led astray by daughters of Cain. Noah borrows from both readings, so whichever you prefer, it’s got you covered.
Theological correctness is not an absolute necessity for movie angels (think of It’s a Wonderful Life), but some might wonder whether the film’s morally shaded depiction of the Watchers borders on sympathy for the devil. I prefer to think of it another way. The satanic presence in Noah is the serpent in the garden, who has no ties to the Watchers. They are best thought of, it seems to me, as a fictional class of semi-fallen angels, estranged from the Creator but not wholly corrupted.
The serpent is connected with one of the film’s odder bits: a snakeskin, shed in Eden by the serpent, preserved as a family heirloom by the righteous line of Seth and passed down to Noah by his father. Doesn’t the snakeskin represent evil? Not necessarily. The serpent was created good and then shed that goodness to become the tempter. The skin it wore when God created it is not a token of evil, but of original goodness — and thus a true relic of paradise and a token that evil is always a corruption of goodness, never a thing unto itself.
My main theological quarrel with Noah, and it’s an important one, is nothing the filmmakers put in, but something they left out: Genesis’ clear vision of mankind as the pinnacle of God’s creative work. In Genesis 1, it is only after God creates man in his image that we get the summary benediction, “God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
Noah’s retelling alters this, with a ringing summary benediction of the glory and balance of creation (“a jewel in the Creator’s hand”) coming before the creation of man. This gives man an ambiguous status in the narrative — particularly since Noah omits the words “in his image.”
Fortunately, Noah does ultimately affirm the imago Dei, as does his father Lamech at the outset. When the heroes talk about man being in God’s image, it’s always immediately tied to responsibility for creation. There’s an implicit naturalism side-by-side with the film’s religious elements. Only wicked Tubal-cain seems really persuaded of the “greatness” of man; only he uses (or misuses) the biblical language of “subduing” and “dominion” to justify his rapacious ways.
Yet Tubal-cain also echoes the serpent in the garden, comparing himself to God in having power over life and death. “A man isn’t ruled by the heavens,” he says, “a man is ruled by his will.” Noah, meanwhile, says, “Strength comes from the Creator.” There is a challenge to the secular mindset that, in context, is more resonant than standard Bible-movie pieties.
Aronofsky has been pondering the story of Noah for decades and working on this film for more than 15 years. Somehow he has brought the first major big-studio Bible film in decades to the screen. The work of an uncompromising filmmaker who makes dark, divisive, personal films without concession to audience expectations, it’s an outlier for the genre, to be sure. It’s not often that a movie with giant rock monsters has me pondering ancient and modern cosmologies, rabbinic literature and Tolkien — and also makes me cry.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films. He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter.
Caveat Spectator: Action violence and battle mayhem; disturbing images; a childbirth scene (nothing explicit); brief sensuality; theological ambiguities requiring critical thought. Might be fine for thoughtful, mature teens.