Amid a flood of sci-fi effects and creative "elaborations," Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" manages to ask some deeper questions.
You know what movie I used to love to watch as a kid? Robinson Crusoe On Mars. In case you never caught that one on a lazy Saturday afternoon, it was an excellent 1964 science fiction film that borrowed elements and plot points from Daniel Defoe’s classic 18th century novel, Robinson Crusoe. It had a shipwrecked traveler, vicious pirates, an escaped prisoner who is given the name of Friday, and a cool monkey in a space suit.
Okay, so maybe the space monkey wasn’t actually in Defoe’s book, but rather something the filmmakers added to go along with the flying saucers and Martian landscapes. Still, it was a space monkey, and who doesn’t enjoy that? Of course, with such bizarre additions to the story, nobody’s ever going to mistake Robinson Crusoe On Mars for the real thing, but it’s well made and an entertaining story in its own right. Now, why do I bring up a fifty year old sci-fi flick about a guy and his space monkey? Because, honestly, it’s the first thing that came to mind about two minutes into Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. That’s about the time the twelve foot tall multi-armed rock monsters show up.
What’s that, you say you don’t remember any twelve foot tall multi-armed rock monsters being in the story of Noah? Well, don’t worry, you didn’t fall asleep in faith formation class the day they covered that section of Genesis. There is, of course, no such thing in the Bible. But, hey, Darren Aronofsky, the Academy Award-nominated director of such films as Black Swan and The Wrestler, gave us plenty of advance warning that he wouldn’t be sticking solely to Biblical sources for his adaptation of the Noah story. Along with the canonical texts, he and his co-writer, Ari Handel, also sought inspiration from rabbinic literature (not a big surprise considering both guys are Jewish) and similar apocalyptic flood stories from various other belief systems. And then they just made a bunch of stuff up.
If you spend any time browsing Christian entertainment websites, then you probably already know Aronofsky’s stated approach to the material sent a small number of biblical literalists, who seemingly forgot they had movies like The Ten Commandments and The Passion Of The Christ in their DVD libraries, into something of a tizzy. Months before the movie was even completed, the inevitable calls for boycotts began to be heard. The more interesting reactions, however, came from some of my peers in the faith-based movie reviewer community. Folks who had come darn close to slitting their wrists over Peter Jackson’s slapdash handling of J. R. R. Tolkien’s material were suddenly appearing online urging their readers to relax and reserve judgement until Noah was actually released. After all, a few changes to Holy Scripture here and there didn’t necessarily mean the film was going to end up being another Last Temptation of Christ, did it? I imagine they were probably just trying to distinguish themselves from the boycott crowd, but it still felt as if once objective critics were becoming de facto promoters for a film they hadn’t even seen yet, breathlessly reporting every minute detail about the production on an almost hourly basis. Basically, each side got a little carried away.
Well, the movie is here now, so we can all see for ourselves whether the film warranted all that pre-release hullabaloo. As to the first group’s concern about additions to the story, yes, Noah is pretty much their nightmare come true. In fact, if you prefer your Bible-based movies to stick reasonably close to the Good Book, it would probably be best if you quit reading this review right now, because your heart won’t be able to take what I’m about to describe.
Noah begins with an explanation of how the descendants of Cain, aided by fallen angels known as The Watchers (that would be those twelve foot tall multi-armed rock monsters I mentioned), went out into the world to build industrial cities, eat up most of the animals, mine all the glowing explosive rocks (don’t ask me), and chop down every tree they could find. The descendants of Seth, on the other hand, became Loraxes (no, they don’t actually use that term in the movie) and tried to speak for the trees the best they could. When we first meet the young Noah, he is about to receive the mantle of protector, which comes in the form of the snakeskin shed by Satan in the Garden of Eden, from his father Lamech. Before the ceremony can be completed, however, it is interrupted by the warlord Tubal-cain who is in pursuit of a wounded dog/armadillo something-or-other he hopes to have for dinner. Lamech keeps Tubal-cain from capturing the Seussian-looking creature, but is slain for his efforts, allowing Tubal-cain to abscond with the snakeskin instead.
Years later, while living far away from the rest of mankind with his wife and three sons, Noah receives a vision that The Creator is going to destroy the world. Unsure of what to do, Noah packs up the family and sets out across the wasteland to seek wisdom from his grandfather, Methuselah, who has been living as a hermit in a far away mountain cave. Along the way, Noah’s clan rescues an injured young girl named Ila, but are then captured themselves by The Watchers, who have grown weary and mistrustful of humans. Luckily, a Watcher by the name of Og senses that Noah is telling the truth about his mission from The Creator and helps the family to escape.
Upon finally arriving at Methuselah’s cave, Noah is slipped some psychedelic tea by the elderly patriarch and experiences another vision in which he learns he must build an ark to save enough animals to repopulate the Earth after the upcoming deluge. To aid Noah in this monumental undertaking, Methuselah bequeathes to Noah a magic seed which can instantaneously grow a new forest so there will be enough lumber to build the vessel (I promise you I’m not making any of this up). Noah also receives some unexpected help from The Watchers who show up and offer to pitch in on the construction. It turns out all those arms are pretty handy for carpentry. Unfortunately, an aged Tubal-cain also arrives on the scene with a hungry army and a bunch of those glowing explosive rocks, demanding that Noah turn the ark over to him. Noah refuses, of course, and so, while the rain begins to fall, he and his battalion of twelve foot tall multi-armed rock monsters must prepare themselves for war.
So yeah, Noah isn’t exactly one for the literalists out there. And I didn’t even get into the sub-plot involving Noah’s growing conviction that God really wants ALL humans to be wiped from the face of the Earth, including Noah’s own family. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the film. And honestly, if you approach it in the same way as something like Robinson Crusoe On Mars, not as a literal interpretation of the source material, but as a science fiction/fantasy movie that borrows elements and plot points from the original narrative, it’s all pretty entertaining. The movie runs for almost two and a half hours, and not once did I check my watch. That’s a high compliment in these days of over-bloated blockbusters, and it makes me a bit wistful that we never got to see that Aronofsky directed Wolverine movie.
And to give the movie’s overzealous cheerleaders their due, even as it plays fast and loose with the biblical story, Noah does still manage to touch on many of the spiritual issues inherent in the narrative. Aronofsky is the same guy who gave us films like The Fountain and Requiem For A Dream, after all, so it’s not like he’s shy about exploring topics related to the soul. The movie asks questions about what it means to be righteous and good, is there a dichotomy between justice and mercy, and is there really anything in humanity worth saving? Now, does Noah address all these questions satisfactorily? Wel
l, I imagine that’s going to be an interesting debate over the next couple of weeks, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few articles popping up here at Aleteia from various folks giving their take on just that very thing.
Personally, I think it falls a tad short and never quite gets to all the answers its seeking, not the right ones anyway. Despite its subject matter, it never quite reaches the level of spiritual exploration found in Aronofsky’s earlier works. I don’t know, maybe it’s the twelve foot tall multi-armed rock monsters which keep things from getting too serious. In the end, Noah is a fun sci-fi/action movie with a little more depth than the usual fare these days. It’s Aronofsky-lite, less filling than his other stuff, but still pretty tasteful.