NOAH: A Catastrophe of Biblical Proportions … But Still Pretty Good

I have not had the opportunity to read many reviews of the film Noah, but I do realize that there is considerable controversy — especially among religious folk — regarding the film’s retelling of the biblical story.  As I am not much of a movie critic and have not been able to compare my opinions with those of others, I do not know how this review will be received, but wanted to share my own sincere feelings on what I saw. So, this is not so much of a full review of the movie as it is a few thoughts about what I felt worked and what did not — for me.  WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.  

I say in the title of this post “a catastrophe of biblical proportions” because I think what the movie does with the character of the biblical patriarch Noah is seriously a tragic disaster. Although I do not agree with the move, I can see why it would be banned in a number of highly religious countries.  Likewise, what God intends to do with Noah, his family, and the ark — the covenant he makes with them — according to the canonical account, is washed away in this movie before the flood ever hits.  In Aronofsky’s cinematic rendering of the tale, Noah is portrayed as being somewhat uncertain regarding God’s intentions with the flood and Noah’s role in it all — and ends up arriving at a tragically erroneous conclusion that makes him look like a murderous psychopath for a large portion of the film.

Having said this, and knowing that Aronofsky is, as stated in the disclaimers attached to the film, taking some considerable artistic license with the biblical story, the movie Noah is both powerful and beautiful.  It is an epic Hollywood blockbuster that entertains from beginning to end. The cinematography is breathtaking.  I’m not sure where they filmed this, but the scenery is both breathtaking and also very appropriate to the story.  The story that is told in the film, although not faithful to the message of the biblical tale in my opinion, is a poignant and important message regarding human nature and the importance of choosing mercy when dealing with our fellow human beings.  Now having said that, I believe this film will resonate more with a politically and socially liberal audience than it will with the more conservative viewers who would likely be most interested in a biblically-themed show.  I have not yet seen the movie Son of God, but I imagine that many of those who saw that movie would be interested in seeing a film about Noah — if they were not already turned off by all the chatter and controversy that has surrounded it — but would likely be disappointed by what they saw.

The only other movie I have seen by Aronofsky is The Fountain, but he is known for his unique perspective.  To be sincere, I loved The Fountain — probably more than most people — because of its treatment of mystical religious concepts and the beautiful way in which the film integrates multiple story lines into one intriguing parable.  But despite the fascinating look at some principles of Jewish (and other) mysticism, I would never say that the film is “orthodox” in its religious views or that it represents how most people view their own religious traditions (I would have to see some reviews to see how it was received by Jews, Christians, and other religious viewers).  In his movie Noah, I think Aronofsky has again integrates some beautiful concepts — but they depart from the traditional story that is presented in the Bible and, alternatively, tell the story that Aronofsky thinks they should tell.  The story that he wants to tell, in my opinion at least, is based on his worldview — what he sees as wrong with the world and how he thinks these problems can be remedied. I will provide a few brief examples:

  • In Aronofsky’s Noah, the main problem with humanity is urbanization and industrialization.  For this theme, he goes beyond the basic sense of the biblical account to extra-canonical stories such as that of the Watchers in 1 Enoch — angels (based on the Sons of God story in Genesis 6) that come down from heaven intent on helping mankind by sharing with them knowledge such as metalworking and other technologies.  Although Aronofsky’s take is not completely faithful to these apocryphal stories, they are at least a well-known aspect of ancient Jewish tradition.  In the Noah movie, the Watchers are essentially good, well-intentioned beings, but humans corrupt the knowledge they shared by using it for violence and to destroy God’s creation through the building of cities, deforestation, and the like.

As opposed to the rest of the human race, the line of Seth (in the film, those not descended from Cain) carry on the intentions of the Creator by being, essentially, gardeners. They take care of the plants, do not kill animals, and live alone in tents instead of in the cities.  Now I’m not criticizing this view — I think it is quite an authentic portrayal of Adam’s faithful descendants.  That the line of Seth, like their parents Adam and Eve, would have been gardeners taking care of the creation, is very appropriate.  However, I think Aronofsky takes the idea of environmentalism in this film far beyond what was intended in the biblical account (of course) and makes it one of the central themes of the movie.  Although the theme of violence mentioned in the Bible (Gen. 6:11–13) is a major issue portrayed in the movie, the problem of humanity being a danger to the environment seems to be a much bigger problem.  It reaches the point to where Noah envisions the ideal world after the flood as a place where humans do not exist.  He believes that he has built the ark in order to save only the animals, which are the only living beings on earth who are truly innocent, and he works to ensure that the human race will end completely with his little family who he hopes will die out soon after the flood.

I understand the concern with global warming/climate change and the view by many that humans are the cause of it. With this philosophy in mind, it is easy to see why Aronofsky would have chosen the story of Noah to send a message of warning to our current generation regarding imminent destruction of the world.  But although the story of Noah is perhaps an obvious vehicle to employ for the preaching of this “inconvenient truth,” this is not what the biblical story is concerned with. The corruption of the earth which God intends to correct, in the biblical account, is caused by violence — and there is perhaps the implication as well that the pairing of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” described in Genesis 6 is another factor that leads to this corruption. Although I can, as previously stated, certainly imagine the line of Seth being concerned with taking care of their earthly stewardship and seeing themselves as “gardeners” of a sort, there is not much in the actual biblical text that would infer that failure to take good care of the environment was a reason for God sending the flood.

  • This leads me to a second major point of disappointment for many religious viewers of the film — the way in which Noah is portrayed as a man who is highly disillusioned with mankind and who misunderstands God’s purposes to the point of imagining that God wants to wipe out all human beings, including him and his family.  In my opinion, this is a significant departure from the biblical account as it is told in Genesis and from how most understand it.  In the movie, when Noah receives the message from God that a flood will destroy humanity (the message comes in a symbolic dream, not the voice of God as per the Bible), he seems to believe, at first, that he and his family are being spared and saved to be a part of the great new beginning of the world.  However, as Noah continues to witness the corrupt nature of mankind and dwells on the imperfections of his own self and family, Noah becomes convinced that his only mission is to save the animals and that his family would be the last of the human race and that it would end when they died.  Although God never tells him this explicitly (in the movie, God never speaks to Noah as he does in the Bible), Noah becomes fanatical about his understanding of what God wants for them. It reaches the horrific point in which Noah refuses to let his younger sons have wives (a point of disagreement with the biblical text) and vows to slay the baby of Shem’s pregnant wife if it turns out to be a girl (because that would allow the possibility of reproduction). Noah’s family become terrified of him as he romps around the ark, knife in hand like a murderous psychopath, waiting to kill his own grandchild.

This portrayal of Noah is disappointing for a number of reasons.  Not only does it do a disservice to the character of a major biblical prophet (as many Jews, Christians, and Muslims have reportedly complained), but it completely obscures the role of Noah as a willing covenant partner with God, consciously taking on the role of a second Adam in the re-Creation of the world.  Don’t get me wrong — it is totally understandable to imagine that Noah would be disappointed with mankind and believe that all of them, even himself, deserved to be wiped out because of the corruption that they had brought upon God’s creation.  However, in the biblical account, Noah is made aware, before the flood comes, that God will save him and all his house; as God tells him: “Come thou and all thy house into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation” (Gen. 7:1).  In the previous chapter, God informs Noah that he is establishing a covenant with him that the text implies salvation by means of the ark.  There is no question, for the biblical account, regarding Noah’s worthiness to be saved, nor that of his family with him.  There is no confusion on Noah’s part — as far as we are told in the text — regarding God’s good intentions for his family.  Indeed, we are told in Genesis 6:8–9 that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” and that he “was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.” This description is much like that of Enoch, who also “walked with God” and who was taken up alive by God into heaven (Gen. 5:24).  So the flawed and uncertain Noah of Aronofsky’s film, although sympathetic and believable, is just too distant from the biblical Noah for me.

  • Building off of this point, another major deviation this film takes is the lack of clear communication between God and Noah.  God never speaks to Noah directly in the film, as He does in the Bible.  Instead, God presents ideas to Noah through a series of dreams/visions that could be termed apocalyptic.  They are symbolic previews of what God plans to do to the world.  Noah is left to interpret the meaning of these dreams for himself, except for the help of his wise, old sage of a grandfather, Methuselah, played by a delightful Anthony Hopkins.  Noah comes to understand that God will destroy life from off the face of the earth and that Noah and his family will have a role in establishing the new world that will emerge afterwards, but because the dreams are not accompanied by verbal instructions from the Creator, Noah ultimately has to come to his own conclusions regarding exactly what God’s purposes are.  As discussed previously, Noah decides that all humans are a scourge to the earth and all deserve to be eliminated.  He moves forward with his conception of God’s will to the point, as I explained, of nearly murdering his grandchildren (it turns out that Shem’s wife gives birth to twin girls, who we assume are meant to be the future spouses of Ham and Japheth).  This drastic course of action is pursued because Noah believes that he is doing God’s will.  In the end we learn that this was apparently not God’s will, but God never makes this known to Noah.  At one point, in his confusion and frustration, Noah cries out to God: “Why do you not answer me?” There is only silence from the heavens.  Although this portrayal may be more true to the experience of most humans — who seek God and feel that they are not receiving answers to prayers, especially not in an audible voice — this directly contradicts the biblical story.

In the end, Noah is forced to make the decision on his own — to directly disobey what he feels is the will of God for the sake of mercy and the love of his own family.  He decides to risk God’s wrath by not killing the two newly-born babies.  He then wallows in regret and depression for some time after the flood, thinking that he had disobeyed and disappointed God.  In light of what happens in the biblical text, this depiction is simply ridiculous.  Perhaps this version makes Noah more human, more of an every man who just wants to do what is right, but finds the options somewhat ambiguous and confusing.  But conception virtually takes God out of the equation. Although we do see, in the end, that Noah choosing mercy and love was ultimately the right decision and what God really desired of him, Noah is clueless throughout much of the movie, which was frustrating for me to watch.  Noah comes out a good guy in the end, but he is certainly not portrayed as the prophet who “walked with God,” chosen to be a second Adam because of his righteousness that we see in the Bible. For goodness sake, many of the stories of Jesus in the Gospels are modeled after the story of Noah.  Good thing it was the Noah of Genesis and not Aronofsky.

Just to mention a few other small items:

  • The movie destroys, in my opinion, the story of the Watchers — they are not demons or even especially rebellious — and they become giant rock creatures who are apparently completely celibate (all of which go against most Jewish traditions)
  • Seeing Adam and Eve as luminous creatures in the Garden of Eden was delightful — it plays into many interesting extra-biblical traditions
  • The presence in the story of zohar/tsohar as a type of incandescent rock that is used by Noah to illuminate the ark is awesome. Again, this goes along well with Jewish traditions regarding the ark. It is also of interest to Latter-day Saints familiar with the story of the brother of Jared and the luminescent stones that he places in his barges so that they can have light as they cross the sea. However, the idea in the film that Noah uses the stones to create fire seems to me to be a misunderstanding of the nature of zohar.

There is much more that I could say about the movie Noah, but time does not permit it. In the end, my complaints are mostly based on the fact that this movie version of Noah was not as close to the biblical story as I would liked it to have been. And it also presented social/political ideas that I don’t fully agree with (I could have brought up a number of further points of contention).  But I knew that this would be the case when I went to see it, so I really should have no reason to gripe about it.   Furthermore, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing it.  It was a very well-made motion picture.  It was fun, exciting and, at times, breath-taking. It did share some powerful and important messages, not the least of which being the importance of love, loyalty to family, and mercy.  And I do think that the message of taking care of the earth and not exercising “unrighteous” dominion over the plant and animal kingdoms is an important one, even if I do not agree with all the tenets of modern environmentalism.  So, overall, if you can ignore the damage done to the traditional biblical depiction of Noah in this film, I think there is much in it to be enjoyed and appreciated.

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4 Comments

  1. Vader
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    When a review of a film version of the Noah story has to give a spoiler alert, it suggests right off that there have been some liberties taken with the story. Y’know?

  2. Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    I appreciated your review. Very balanced. Although I thought the movie started out positive — talking about the line of Seth and “man’s dominion” — I did not like the portrayal of Noah — confused over not hearing God and once he decided to kill his grandchild if it was a girl, I gave up on the movie. I actually left the theater. If Aronofsky had chosen a fictional character for his world view message, instead of Noah, I think it would have been better received. I too liked The Fountain.

    Just last week I purchased your book on Noah and Enoch (In God’s Image and Likeness). I have not read it yet, but am looking forward to it. Especially after this film. I feel that a movie like this promotes more ficiton disquised as truth which can leave the next generation believing what they saw.

  3. Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Good review with regard to the huge differences with the biblical narrative and the apocrypha, etc. However, just from a story-telling perspective, I found the movie terribly terribly wanting. I would give it a C-. Yes, The Fountain was wonderful; I weep when I watch that compelling drama, with beautiful mysticism. Noah? Aronofsky stole the title and applied it some sci-fi story, which was not at all compelling. The inconsistencies are legion. For example, the dramatic purpose of main character shifts completely, because, what? he realized that men are “fallen” and therefor must be destroyed? Oh, how insightful. The movie was boring; the CGI was low-rent. The character development — of all the characters — was piss-poor. The movie was crap. I felt completely ripped-off, like someone picked my pocket at the carnival. And that’s just assuming you allow for the movie to play as a sci-fi, and forget about the slander to Noah’s character. A curse on Aronosky, and a plague on his house, for stealing the good name of a beloved biblical character.

  4. Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps instead of “Noah”, they should have called it: “George, Noah’s second cousin twice removed, and the other Ark”? My point being if it were just an adventure movie not based on the Bible, people would flock to it, enjoy it, and not be disillusioned over it not faithfully following the book.
    I hope the movie at least puts in a disclaimer that the story is loosely based on the Bible, so that those who do not read scripture do not think the Bible has rock giants in it!

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