Aronofsky’s Noah (Spoiler Alert: There’s a Flood)
There has been a lot of controversy around Aronofsky’s Noah adaptation. As a wise man once said, however, there is no such thing as bad publicity. While that isn’t always accurate, in showbusiness it is true far more often than not. Conservative commentators from Focus on the Family all the way to Glenn Beck have lambasted it as just another attempt to make the Bible irrelevant; while a lot of the extreme left has criticized it for being just another squish of a film to attempt to make the religious types happy. After having actually, you know, seen the film, I feel I have a little bit better ground to issue some thoughts on the matter. Working in media myself (including a couple film sets), I am going to be reviewing this film from three different perspectives: the technical side, the entertainment value, and the literary value (or lack thereof). While I pretty much watch films the same way, it bears a little more weight when it comes to a “Bible film”.
(If you want to avoid spoilers, jump to the last paragraph)
First off, Noah is a visually stunning film. The aesthetic is a unique blend of the current spate of post-apocalyptic/dystopian films (Think Divergent meets Book of Eli) and “ancient period” pieces (like “10,000 BC”). The continuity is pretty good on the whole — there weren’t any glaring issues I saw. The cinematography, while breathtaking most of the time, did have a couple moments of ludicrosity — The flybehind of the two doves and the composite sequence of Noah’s family following the rock giant (yes, you read that right) immediately come to mind. The beauty of it, however, is that the moments of slight silliness disappear as soon as they are off the screen, so you don’t have to dwell on it.
The CGI is spectacular. The animation sequences are all very well done, and the few details they show are well-designed. None of the animals look exactly the way you would expect them to in a “normal” Noah film, but with the severe climatological shift the flood presents, it makes sense. The very smart part is that most of the CGI-heavy scenes are more “mob” scenes than they are character scenes — meaning it’s a mass of movement more than definable “its” — which means the inherent flaws of CGI are largely obscured, leaving the audience free to get lost in the pure visual. The lighting effects were also very well done in post… well done, editors and VFX guys.
The story is competently put together and shown to the audience. It didn’t feel like it bogged down in detail or obscurity — which is notably impressive since half the film takes place on a boat where the entire remaining cast is just waiting for the rain/flood to stop. That said, there were a couple moments where the writing or voice acting were a touch on the silly side (If you’ve seen the film, undoubtedly the line “They are in good hands” should elicit a chuckle). However, those moments, much like the odd camera shot, is here and gone again. None of it ever really overstays it’s welcome. On a pure technical standpoint, Noah is a competent film — well done and nicely presented with a couple moments of hitting the Derp Cola a little hard. Overall, Noah earns a 7/10 on the Technical side.
Was It Entertaining?
Yes. Yes it was. None of the characters ever get “sainted”, and Aronofsky takes great pains to remind us all just how human everyone involved is. As for the people who said that Aronofsky made this film simply to scrub “God” out of the story — it’s pretty obvious to me that they never saw the film. All those references to “the creator”? Yeah… they are talking about God. The film does a good job of presenting the story on it’s own terms. You would be hard pressed to find a place where they shoehorned something in that simply didn’t belong. The pieces fit together nicely and it was an all-around well-conceived and believable presentation of the story of Noah. There was never a moment where I found myself asking “why” something was happening or that felt like it was “left hanging”. For pure entertainment value, Noah is a “worth seeing” film that I enjoyed — 7/10.
For most people, this is where the real controversy about the film rests. I guess for most films, it should be argued that this is where controversy about “any” film should happen. However, with all the hubbub and excitement over another pseudo-Bible movie to be angry about, Noah has become a whipping boy proxy for Evangelicals to gleefully flog the entire film industry. The question that should asked, then, is if that is legitimate. In my opinion, it is not.
To be noted: the film Noah is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Darren Aronofsky — as such, it doesn’t even claim (necessarily) to be a straight retelling of the Biblical narrative. However, that doesn’t mean that you can simply divorce the film from the Biblical narrative either… nor should you.
All of the key elements of the Biblical story of Noah are present and accounted for. The Flood happens as a direct result of mankind disobeying God, turning evil, and God’s judgment. Noah, his family, and (almost) all the animals survive the flood in a boat that God told Noah to build. In that sense, the Noah film does not do any of the horrendous violence to the narrative that many have claimed.
That said, there are three rather large departures from the Biblical narrative: (1) In the film, Lamech is killed by Tubal-Cain when Noah is young — something the Bible never gives any kind of allusion to. (2) The Bible places 8 people on the ark when the rain starts (Noah, his three sons, and the four wives) — Aranofsky’s film places 7 in the ark during the flood (Noah, his wife, his three sons, Shem’s wife and Tubal-Cain [he snuck aboard like Snidely Whiplash]), one of whom gets killed (Tubal-Cain), and two more are born (Shem’s two daughters… apparently to be Ham and Japheth’s future wives??). (3) When Noah is on the ark (in the film), he is convinced that God is destroying mankind permanently because mankind has failed ultimately — in the Biblical narrative, Noah is told that the ark is to save him and his family (the implication being that Noah is going to restart the human race).
In the ultimate sense, none of these three departures are really “that big a deal”. After Noah’s birth, the Bible tells us only that Lamech lived another 595 years and had other kids; the funny time scale of the antediluvian world gives us a pretty open field to run wild creatively; and, quite frankly, if you had to sit in a boat and hear every person you ever knew scratching/clawing/screaming/dying and all you could do is just sit and let it happen, you would go a bit nervy too.
I have to say one of the most interesting parts of the film happens when they are on the ark, huddled around a campfire (of sorts) and Noah takes us through the creation narrative. Part of the reason I found it so interesting is that Noah is telling the story almost word-for-word from the Biblical account of creation, but the camera is showing us a pretty cohesive evolution trajectory — it’s a fascinating little adventure in storytelling to see a renowned atheist essentially arguing for theistic evolution… and a welcome one at that. If you are a strict “Bible adherent” (meaning, you believe that the Bible should be taught in science class), you will undoubtedly find that all of the film’s highlights happen in the first and second acts of the film while the third and fourth act are a very lackluster. I’ll admit, even as someone who sees a lot of elasticity in Genesis until we start talking about Abraham, I found that the slightly jerry-rigged story of what happened on the ark was a little overblown. One of the things that the Biblical story of Noah has is that it spends most of the time on things that didn’t happen on or in the ark. While that means that what happened on the ark is the biggest gap to fill in a Noah story, it means that Aronofsky created a lot of avoidable headaches for himself by having an entire act of the film happen on the ark.
That said, I think one of the most disturbing parts of the film was how believable Tubal-Cain and the wicked men were. When Tubal-Cain gives his big speech on the ark about mankind “subduing” the earth, it really hit home for me… because I know people who would have thoroughly agreed with that line of reasoning. Between that and the scene with people trading their women/girls for food (which happens today in different parts of the world), it’s almost like Aronofsky did “too good” of a job of creating believable villains… which was beautiful.
The key literary value of Aronofsky’s Noah is that it poses a lot of questions that most people either refuse to ask, or wouldn’t think to ask. Questions like, “what ‘did’ happen on the ark for the year (and some change) that they were on there?” “How ‘did’ they keep all those animals from going nuts during the flood?” “How bad was the world ‘really’?” Aronofsky made some very bold artistic choices in how he answered those questions — some of which were done pretty intentionally to rile the Christians (because angry Christians is good business, unfortunately). However, it must be noted that Aronofsky’s Noah is more faithful to the source material than either of the two Hobbit films… and I don’t hear very many people clamoring for a boycott of Peter Jackson.
I understand people having difficulties with the Rock giants (which may have existed– Gen 6:4), or with Seth’s descendants having some kind of limited supernatural powers (when they might have — Gen 1:26), or even with a supercharged ecology (when it might have been — Gen 2:4-15, 3:17-19) — but it should be remembered that the Bible doesn’t give us too much detail of what life was like prior to the flood. We do know that there has been a severe climatological shift when the earth today is compared to what it was some 2800 years ago (when is the last time you heard of wild lions and bears in Israel? 1Sam 17), so imagine what kind of shift could have happened when you are looking at before and after a worldwide flood.
The legitimate arguments to be laid at the feet of Aronofsky’s Noah all have two things in common — (1) they don’t destroy the core narrative and (2) they are believable in the context of the world the film itself creates. In fact, the only “major problem” I could pick with the film is that Aronofsky inexplicably felt the need to completely write Ham’s genealogy out of existence (in the post-film world, that is). For it’s pure literary value, Aronofsky’s Noah has to be at least an 8/10 for me.
Aronofsky’s Noah contains some bold artistic choices that will undoubtedly rankle the feathers of the most conservative of Evangelicals. It’s is a competently made film with a few quirks that might draw a side-eye, but they are quickly forgotten in a very visually intense journey. But above all else, the story is engrossing and entertaining in how it poses questions about things we think we know in a story we have heard before. It’s two hours of my life I don’t feel I need to apologize for later. My hope is that those bold artistic choices will cause people to go “whaaaaaaat?” and pick up a Bible… I wouldn’t gamble on it, but I would hope.