The reviews of this week’s movies will undoubtedly center around Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and rightfully so. But last week’s major blockbuster, Noah, also caught the eyes of almost everyone. Now that the controversy has settled down a bit, and knee-jerk reactions from critics are all but eliminated, I decided it would be fruitful to conduct an honest assessment of Noah and analyze other critiques of the film.
My overall reaction was one of enjoyment: I found myself much more entertained than I was expecting to be. Were there theological issues I could not get over? Yes, there were many, and they gnawed at me throughout the whole film–just like director Darren Aronofsky wanted. That should not distract from the fact that the film had both good and bad points. The problem is one of confirmation bias: supporters of the film won’t see the bad, and people who are critical of the film will not see the good. Unfortunately, my preferred response–in which people objectively seeing both the good and bad aspects of Noah–did not come to pass. After reading over a dozen reviews of the film, I saw everything from “Babylon Chainsaw Massacre” to “The Worst Film I’ve Ever Seen.”
The “worst” film you’ve ever seen? Really?
I made a promise to myself that I would not read any other reviews of the movie until after I saw it with my own eyes. Perspectives cannot be built solely on presuppositions, which kill our own unique understandings and experiences, but must rest largely on our own principles. To honestly see the movie for what Aronofsky wanted it to be, I needed to let him have his chance to show me what he was doing. I would only give others’ opinions time in my head after that.
Unfortunately, many people let others speak about Aronofsky before they let Aronofsky speak himself, igniting epic rage online. So, after giving everyone their time to speak, let’s analyze some of the more criticized elements of the film.
Out of all of the reviews I read on the film, the best was the one composed by Dr. Brian Mattson. Mattson starts off his critique of the film by first and foremost making an important point: Aronofsky is not going to stick to the Christian perspective of Noah that we see in Genesis. Aronofsky does not hold Genesis as truth in the same way the majority of Christians do, so Christians should not go into the film expecting to see Genesis played out verse by verse. Aronofsky never claimed that he would. The film, rather, is clearly presented through the lenses of Jewish Gnoticism.
The world of Aronofsky’s Noah is a thoroughly Gnostic one: a graded universe of “higher” and “lower.” The “spiritual” is good, and way, way, way “up there” where the ineffable, unspeaking god dwells, and the “material” is bad, and way, way down here where our spirits are encased in material flesh. This is not only true of the fallen sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, but of fallen angels, who are explicitly depicted as being spirits trapped inside a material “body” of cooled molten lava.
Admittedly, they make pretty nifty movie characters, but they’re also notorious in Gnostic speculation. Gnostics call them Archons, lesser divine beings or angels who aid “The Creator” in forming the visible universe. And Kabbalah has a pantheon of angelic beings of its own all up and down the ladder of “divine being.” And fallen angels are never totally fallen in this brand of mysticism. To quote the Zohar again, a central Kabbalah text: “All things of which this world consists, the spirit as well as the body, will return to the principle and the root from which they came.” Funny. That’s exactly what happens to Aronofsky’s Lava Monsters. They redeem themselves, shed their outer material skin, and fly back to the heavens. Incidentally, I noticed that in the film, as the family is traveling through a desolate wasteland, Shem asks his father: “Is this a Zohar mine?” Yep. That’s the name of Kabbalah’s sacred text.
This hits the target exactly. In the film, there is much talk of the children, who are “inherently good.” The mom says “I see nothing but goodness and love within them.” She says this when Noah is trying to kill his two newborn granddaughters, and the audience is left in the cross-hairs during this scene. Aronofsky is forcing the audience to decide whether or not man is inherently good, like Noah’s son and wife are painted to be, or man is inherently bad like Tuba-Cain and all of the other wicked men.
Aronofsky is going to make the uninformed viewer choose sides, and no one wants to fall on the side of the wicked in the film. On this point, he wins before the story is even digested by the audience. Aronofsky wants you to believe that everyone is capable of good, and that even demons (the “Fallen Angels”) can be redeemed. Nothing is absolutely or inherently bad.
At least, that’s what Aronofsky wants you to think. However, you and I both know that no one is perfect. Even Noah was found passed out naked and drunk in his tent.
That’s not the only thing that Aronofsky wanted viewers to see: he wanted viewers to see just how much of a homicidal maniac he truly believes God to be. The more Noah gets closer to God, the more he is convinced God wants to annihilate all of mankind. It isn’t until he sees innocent infants that he experiences what he refers to as “love” for the first time, and in feeling this he chooses not to kill. That’s not a coincidence: Noah’s reaction and relationship with the “Creator” is the closest relationship the audience has with the deity in the movie. Instead of seeing the deity for ourselves, which we would likely imbue with our own familiar notions of God, we see him through Noah’s experiences as an unnamed, unrecognizable, non-speaking, and wrathful deity. That detached experience was an intentional choice made by Aronofsky to challenge the viewer.
While I have some theological issues with Aronofsky’s piece and his portrayal of both Noah, Angels, and God, he did a few things that I would commend him for that are largely going to be overlooked.
First and foremost, he portrayed the story of Noah for who I believe he was: a righteous man, according to Genesis 9. Some in Christian circles are trying to make the argument that he was not, but it’s simply not true. Noah was a real man, a righteous man, one who took care of the animals, and was the ideal steward for his environment. In the film, we see this in the way he cares for the earth, telling his children not to take more than what’s absolutely necessary. This does not make him some sort of hippy environmentalist (although the vegetarian part might). Aronofsky does portray Noah as a righteous man until, as I discussed previously, he gets more involved with Aronofsky’s deity and begins to lose it.
Second, the depravity of mankind was put on strong display. The scene in which Noah goes out to the makeshift city of “man” in search for wives for his sons to take aboard the Ark really stands out: Noah stands over the city and sees the people raping, killing, trading their daughters for meat, and throwing animals over fences to crowds of hungry people. Noah stood there and watched as people tore pieces off of living animals and stuffed them in their mouths. It was a gruesome and bone-chilling scene.
Finally, Aronofsky treated the flood itself well. The part that stood out to me the most in the film was the intensity of both the violent crowds and the screams from the flood. Aronofsky said that he first perceived the story of Noah not as a story out of a children’s book with stuffed animals, as some Christians do. Aronofsky perceived Noah as the first apocalypse story, and he did a phenomenal job highlighting that: the scene in which Noah’s family is inside the ark, trying to get warm around the makeshift fire they have inside, was nearly unbearable. They sit quietly, holding each other as they listen to the screams of people outside: the people are forming mountains to stand on top of the waterline and cry for mercy from “The Creator.” Even if his structure was shaky, Aronofsky’s imagery was remarkable.
Aronofsky didn’t do what many in the media wanted him to do with Genesis, and that’s OK. Rather than portray the comforting images that many are familiar with, he made theological and directorial choices that challenge our own views on Scripture and the Flood narrative. This reinterpretation does some good things and quite a few bad things, and many of us may want to avoid seeing it altogether after all the negative feedback. However, our own preconceived notions about what the film should be shouldn’t take away from what the film is as a final product.
If Aronofsky was out to paint the flood as the first apocalypse that wiped away the wickedness of man as described in Genesis, he did one heckuva job.
Tanner Brumbarger | @Brumbarger