For months I’ve been telling my friends that, if any filmmaker has earned some leeway, Darren Aronofsky has. Even trying to make Noah is kind of crazy. “Christian audiences” — really code for evangelicals — will not look kindly on any license taken with the material, and secular audiences seem likely to dismiss it as just another religious movie. I, for one, am not surprised to see that Aronofsky has delivered a great, imaginative film with far more to offer the secular skeptics than the religious purists.
The biggest change from the narrative most of us grew up with is the material imported from ancient rabbinical homiletics and the apocryphal Book of Enoch, which in a certain way parallels the Greek myth of Prometheus. After the Fall, two hundred angels called “watchers” came to Earth to teach and help humans — notably the descendants of Cain — and were, for their troubles, imprisoned in bodies of stone. It seems strange, but if you’re already willing to go along with a giant floating zoo, what’s a few rock giants?
The humans ran amok with their knowledge, and by the time of Noah they have ruined Creation with their rampant overuse of its resources. Noah (Russell Crowe), one of the few descendants of Seth, and his family instead live off the land, taking only what they need. He receives a vision that the Creator will destroy the world with a flood that will cleanse away the wicked. He packs up his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and children and goes to consult with his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who helps him decide to build an ark to preserve the innocent animals.
We skip forward a number of years. Noah has nearly completed the ark, with the help of the remaining Watchers (Frank Langella, Nick Nolte, Mark Margolis, Kevin Durand). His son, Shem (Douglas Booth) has grown to manhood, and is in love with his adopted sister, Ila (Emma Watson). Ham (Logan Lerman) is envious of his older brother; he points out that since Ila is barren and there are no girls for he and their younger brother Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), there can be no children in the coming world. But Noah is more concerned with the coming legion of men, led by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), who want to take the ark for themselves to ride out the storm.
The environmental message is clear: without careful stewardship, technology will strip the world of its resources, and this will lead to destruction for all of humanity. In a particularly inspired twist of the knife, Aronofsky puts the common evangelical comeback — that humanity was given “dominion over” Creation, thus justifying its exploitation — into the mouth of Tubal-Cain, making it clear how highly he regards that argument.
Early on, the film seems headed towards a disappointingly essentialist view of evil, with the descendants of Cain being wicked and those of Seth being righteous. But Aronofsky steers away from that, offering a more nuanced, if somewhat unsettling view. Along the way, he manages to work in an object lesson against zealotry: it is dangerous to believe you know for certain what your god wants, and even if you get some things right you can get other parts very, very wrong.
But the single greatest offering to secular audiences is a sequence just after the flood starts. Noah and his family gather around a fire, and he tells them the biblical story of Creation and the Fall. But Aronofsky illustrates the story with a fantastic visual recap of the scientific version, from the birth of the universe to the solar system, to the evolution of life on Earth. Cain’s murder of Abel are the model for the militaristic will to power and domination that lead to destruction.
While retelling the story of Noah, Aronofsky makes it clear that the entire Genesis narrative — including Noah itself — is metaphorical rather than literal. It is a campfire story, related by a storyteller to an audience gathered in the darkness, illuminated by a flickering light, with a lesson greater than the mere fact of whether any of this actually happened. It would be a shame to turn away from this lesson just because some of the people who tell a version of this particular story happen to believe it’s literally true.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.