Magazine | May 5, 2014, Issue

Noah’s Arc

Russell Crowe in Noah (Paramount Pictures)
A review of Noah

The religious reception of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah — a weird art-house/blockbuster hybrid, part Malick and part Bruckheimer — has moved in three broad waves. First, long before the movie screened, there was anxiety among the religious, fanned by allegations that Aronofsky had turned the flood story into a crude environmentalist tract. Then, after various attempts at outreach and damage control, there was a burst of more favorable publicity, segueing into an initial critical reaction — from religious and secular reviewers alike — that judged the movie an interesting, if flawed, success.

But since then, there has been a religious backlash, on aesthetic and theological grounds alike. The movie has been attacked, predictably, for taking liberties with Genesis: For making God more hidden, for making Noah more morally conflicted, for inserting large rock monsters into the first half of the story (more on that below). And, more seriously and significantly, its religious defenders have been accused of trading their birthright for a mess of pottage — of praising a movie that’s schlockier than the “worst of the cheesy Biblical movies made in the fifties,” as Barbara Nicolosi, a screenwriter and widely respected authority on religion and Hollywood, wrote recently, just because they don’t want to seem unhip, and of being “lured into a defense of the indefensible because they are so afraid of the charge of ‘unreasonableness.’”

As Nicolosi’s formulation suggests, the Noah controversy is probably about something bigger than a two-hour adaptation of the flood story. The movie has dropped into a Lenten landscape where conservative believers feel beleaguered and beset, afflicted by a sense of culture-war defeat. So it’s become a synecdoche for much bigger disputes about engagement with American culture: Dislike Noah, and you’re a self-segregating religious philistine; like it, and you’re a compromised sellout who doesn’t recognize when you’re being played.

Cards on the table: I liked it.

Not unreservedly: There are things in the film that don’t work, and elements that deserve Nicolosi’s schlock-and-cheese dismissal. But it’s also beautiful and appropriately strange in many places, and centered by a great performance from a bearded, often-sopping Russell Crowe. And both dramatically and theologically, Aronofsky’s most important departure from the Biblical narrative is more compelling — theologically as well as dramatically — than his critics are acknowledging.

The basic plot you know, but here are some of the embellishments. Aronofsky eschews the expected Middle Eastern backdrop in favor of an ashy, ravaged, post-industrial landscape (the movie was filmed in Iceland). He has the Creator speak in visions rather than directly, with Noah’s grandfather Methuselah (a crusty Anthony Hopkins) serving as a kind spirit guide. He gives Noah an antagonist — a bruiser named Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), descendant of you-know-who, part thug and part humanist — and supernatural assistants, those aforementioned rock monsters, who are really fallen angels (loosely based on Genesis’s mysterious Nephilim) imprisoned in stone for their rebellion, and who help Noah build the ark for penance.

And then, most controversially, Aronofsky creates a third-act drama around the pregnancy of Shem’s ladylove (Emma “Don’t Call Me Hermione” Watson) and the increasingly unhinged Noah’s conviction that God wants him to ensure the final extinction of the human race . . . even if it means finishing the job on his own grandchild, and with his own hands.

I would not defend all of these embellishments. (The rock monsters/Nephilim have come in for particular mockery, and the mockers have a point.) But I will defend the big “Noah as potential bad guy” twist, because I think it actually makes the movie work.

Stories turn on conflict, and the only explicit conflict in the language of Genesis is within the mind of God Himself. Read with a strict literalism, the flood story features a Deity struggling to figure out how to deal with the fruits of original sin — first despairing of His own creation (“and the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart”) and then, once the floodwaters recede, seeming to come to terms with the situation, making a covenant with mankind even though He knows that man’s heart still remains “evil from his youth.”

Now unless you want to portray Yahweh as a Zeus-style potentate, weighing options on a cloud, such divine ambivalence is an awfully difficult thing to dramatize. So what Aronofsky has done is take the ambivalence — which, again, is clearly there in Scripture — and project it onto Noah instead, making the human protagonist embody what the text portrays as God’s uncertainty about how to handle the height and depth of human wickedness.

I think that this move is truer thematically to Genesis than some critics have suggested. As for whether it’s theologically correct . . . well, that’s a tricky question, since the reality is that the entire portrait of God in the early books of Genesis doesn’t always fit neatly into the fully developed theology of later Judaism and Christianity — a theology in which the Absolute cannot, by definition, actually be changeable or ambivalent or inclined to regret His own decision-making.

So for serious believers, there has to be some interpretation, some midrash, to reconcile theology and text. And Aronofsky’s interpretation implies one not-implausible reconciliation, by suggesting that what the Biblical text portrays as God’s ambivalence is actually supposed to be our own, and that the encounter with the divine should make us feel something of what Crowe’s Noah feels: a deep revulsion at human wickedness, a sense that justice really could demand our deaths, which has to be acknowledged and wrestled with before mercy can break in.

I’m not saying that the movie is ultimately a small-o orthodox reading of Scripture. But at the very least, I think that Aronofsky’s twist is more theologically interesting and potentially plausible than some of the film’s religious critics have been willing to admit. And where today’s Hollywood is concerned, low bar that it may be, a theologically interesting treatment of the Bible deserves applause.

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