Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Soapbox time!

Full disclosure, reviewing Darren Aronofsky's Noah isn't exactly the first priority of this post. That will happen as a result of the real impetus behind it, which is mostly to rebut some of the badmouthing going around the internet and in certain circles. Put simply: I'm going get a little riled up about this, I'm going to rant about some of the hypocritical responses to this movie, and I'm going to fangirl (pretty hard) over it too. Most of you reading this know me well enough to know what to expect now, and will read on or move on accordingly.

Also, there will be spoilers. I can't really do this review necessary justice without them, especially considering much of the ire directed at this movie has to do with where Aronofsky and co. went "off-script," so to speak, from the Genesis account of Noah's Ark. So if you're interested in seeing this movie, I strongly recommend you see it before reading my little rant so as to fully appreciate the narrative craftsmanship.

Alright, enough disclaimers. Where to begin? I'm going to try to break this down into sections for ease of organization:


We're all familiar with the story, even to a fault. Shortly after creating Mankind, God decides that was a mistake.

The wickedness of the human race is so overwhelming, God decides to purge everything with a worldwide flood. Noah alone finds favor in the Creator's eyes, and as such is charged with building an ark in which he, his family, plus a male and female pair of all animals will survive. The deluge destroys everything, and once Noah and his family disembark from their journey, the Creator promises He will never again destroy the world with a flood by placing a rainbow in the sky as a sign of this pledge. It's practically a children's story; complete with cutesy drawings of a bearded Noah leaning on a staff as smiling, fluffy creatures parade passed him. But therein lies the first problem: it's really not a children's story at all - it's horrifying. The fact that we're so familiar with "Noah's Ark" has completely whitewashed the fact that it's about deliberate extinction. It's about the fact that the Creator was so "grieved in His heart," that He felt it would be better to drown every man, woman, and child than let us go on living.

Think about that for a minute. I don't mean to be patronizing, but it wasn't until I saw this film that I myself had even really thought about the sheer horror of this story. Picture it for a moment: your family, your friends, and you struggling to keep your head above water, your heart gripped by the panic of knowing these are your final moments...multiplied by the entire population of the entire world, because the God that created you would rather that be your fate than anything else. If that idea, even in the abstract, doesn't sober you a bit - you're not really contemplating it. At any rate, hold on to that idea for a moment - I'm going to come back to it.

The film opens - after a quick "backstory" sequence that establishes other familiar Biblical territory (like the Fall of Adam and Eve and the descendents of their sons) with a young Noah on the verge of being given his birthright by his father Lamech. Interrupting the ceremony is Tubal-Cain, a leader of Men who decides that the land Lamech stands on will be turned to a mine. Noah flees, and Tubal-Cain slays his father - establishing the interpersonal dynamics that will underpin the characters later on. Fast forward a few decades and Noah lives with his sons and wife apart from the rest of civilization. They gather from the land "only what they need" - Noah going so far as to chastise his son for attempting to pluck a flower simply because it looked pretty.

Noah then has a disturbing dream about the destruction of the world, and takes his family to see his grandfather Methusela in an attempt to glean from the old man's wisdom and insight. Along the way, they are at first prevented - then assisted - by Watchers; fallen angels who take the form of ill-shapen rock giants.

Don't remember the Watchers from the Bible? You're not alone. They only get name-checked briefly in Genesis 6:2, but Aronofsky still hasn't strayed too far afield. Noah gathers details from several non-canonical texts to flesh out its narrative, not the least of which is The Book of Enoch which contains The Book of the Watchers. For most, these texts are apocryphal and consequently "don't count" towards the overall Scripture-score Noah is tallying up. But I'm going to come back to that as well.

Methusela's counsel is somewhat vague in the familiar, Mr. Miyagi-like way. Instead of telling Noah exactly what his dream means, he says: "You must trust that He speaks in a way that you understand." Emboldened in his vision, Noah accepts that his dream foretells of the destruction of all life in a world-wide flood. After realizing Methusela has spiked his tea with a little something extra, Noah's vision takes on further detail and he comes to the conclusion that while "the storm can not be averted, it can be survived." Methusela then gifts Noah a seed from the original Garden of Eden, and from that single seed springs a forest. Taking the growth of the forest as further confirmation of his divine mission, Noah sets about building the Ark - assisted by the Watchers.

I know it seems like I'm describing this movie practically shot-for-shot, but bear with me. There are some powerful themes that are called back to later on the film, and the groundwork is largely laid in these moments. For the third and final time, I'll ask you to make a mental note of all this for future reference.

 Ok, we can speed things up a bit. Tubal-Cain makes a reappearance, and after seeing the birds and beasts flocking to the Ark believes that Noah's prophetic apocalyptic proclamations (potential album title there) will come true, and vows to take the Ark when the time comes. Tubal-Cain and his people make camp nearby, and soon Noah's son Ham begs his father to find a wife for him there. Agreeing, Noah visits the camp by night - only to confront the wickedness that has brought the Creator to His diluvian decision. There's rape, inter-personal violence, animals are torn apart - still alive - for the meat and Noah even sees a vision of his feral self (or someone who looks a hell of a lot like him) partaking of the debauchery. The experience changes Noah drastically, as he decides that the only reason the Creator has decided to spare him and his family is for the sake of the animals - which Noah refers to collectively as "the innocent." At the start of the film, Noah believed that he and his family were chosen because they were different - he now sees that the darkness is in all of them.

This ultimately leads to arguably the most incendiary aspect of this film. When Noah discovers that Shem's wife Ila is pregnant, he vows to kill the child once it is born. As if tensions on the cramped Ark weren't running high enough, eh? I've skipped over a few details of the movie, but they aren't entirely important for the purposes of this review. They are visually astounding though, likely consumed most of the film's visual effects budget, and kinda put me in mind of the Battle of Helm's Deep from The Two Towers. In short, the "epic" part of this Biblical epic.

Ila gives birth to two twin girls, and Noah seems still determined to end their lives. It's a very uncomfortable series of sequences, definitely closer to a slasher flick than your garden variety Bible movie. Noah goes so far as to raise the knife above the face of the sleeping babies, but (thankfully) can't bring himself to go through with the deed. Fast forward some more, everyone is off the Ark and the flood has abated. Noah spends his days drinking away his sorrows on the beach apart from his family. Ila soon confronts him about why he spared the children. Noah confesses: "I looked down at their faces, and all I had was love in my heart." Though he still believes he has failed in the mission the Creator gave him. Ila instead tells him that the Creator gave him the choice, and by choosing to show mercy he truly fulfilled the Creator's will. We then get our big dramatic closing scene, as Noah - reunited with his family - stands on top of a mountain and proclaims the promises of the Creator for the future of Mankind as rainbows emanate from the sun throughout the sky. It sounds cheesy, I know, but it's a beautiful and triumphant conclusion that fits into the narrative structure of the fantasy epic.


Here's the part of this post where I'm going to gush, because I really loved this movie. It's epic, thought-provoking, beautiful, thrilling, and ultimately uplifting.

Visually, this film is stunning, and I'm not just talking about the visual effects - though those are thoroughly impressive as well. Taking cues from his previous work in Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky utilizes the rapid-cut "hip hop montage" effect a handful of times in Noah - and the result is hypnotizing. At one point, Noah recounts the tale of creation as an aforementioned montage charts the beginning of the earth with the Big Bang all the way to the evolution of life on the planet; billions of years condensed into a few brief and riveting moments on screen.

Elsewhere, Noah expounds upon the wickedness of Mankind beginning with Cain slaying Abel. The silhouette of Cain then morphs according to yet another such montage; in the span of a few seconds shape-shifting into warriors from throughout world history striking a blow against the silhouette of Abel, who similarly changes shape according to the rapid intercutting of innumerable warriors throughout the eons. In this way, Noah frames its own narrative outside of a specific time period, calling our attention the fact that we are - universally - a fallen people.

Noah has been speciously accused of poor characterization and bad plotting. Nothing could be further from the truth. The movie sets up a narrative and a world that is inherently challenging to put yourself into as an audience member, but that's because of the complexity of its characters - not in spite of them. Noah goes from an optimistic prophet to a cold, reaper-like figure after seeing just how depraved the world of Men has become. It's an uneasy transition, but it's supposed to be - he goes from being a hero to anti-hero (even villain) rather quickly and Crowe handles the transformation with convincing menace and despair. Layered on top of that, he manages to convey the sense of doubt that Noah wrestles. Throughout his character's ups and downs, I always got the sense that just behind his eyes he was wondering if he was wrong all along, if Methusela's words still haunted him.

Tubal-Cain, played to mild villainous caricature by Ray Winstone, gives voice to an entirely relatable anguish towards the Creator. He quotes the curses spoken over Adam and Eve when they were cast out of the Garden - to work the land by the sweat of their brow, etc. - and resolves: "Damned if I don't do what it takes." Later on he turns to the sky and asks the Creator why he has not found favor in doing what he and his people were cursed to do. But, as usual, the "shout at the sky" gesture doesn't move the Creator to respond - so the villainous persist, feeling vindicated in their violence.

This is hardly the material of bad characterization or relentless stereotype. I understand that some people just won't like this movie, and there's nothing wrong with that. But make no mistake, Noah is a superb piece of cinematic craftsmanship, and I could go on about it for hours. But instead I'll jump ahead to the juicy stuff...


Ok, so that's the movie. Now on to the controversy.

Namely, why? Why has this movie so thoroughly upset so many people? It's not like it's a commercial or critical flop. It's currently in the mid 70s on Rotten Tomatoes and took in over $44 million opening weekend in North America alone, so what gives?

The "environmentalist agenda" seems a good place to start, and I'm still scratching my head over that one. Of all the people on this planet, I would think that those who cling to the belief that a loving Creator hand-crafted everything - as opposed to those things having evolved over billions of years - would actually be more passionate about taking care of the planet and the creatures with whom we share it. Where's that wacky stereotype? The tree-hugging Christian who cites the fact that God said "and it was good" as sufficient cause to get involved? That makes a lot more sense to me than the Christian who treats capitalism as some kind of sacred cow. So while I can point to a lot of aggression directed at the movie on those grounds, I'm still unable to understand how that undermines the true message of the film or the story on which its based.

What else? Oh yeah, the whole infanticide thing. That's not anywhere in the text of which I'm aware, apocryphal or otherwise. So why put it in?

Let me answer that question with a question: what is the Biblical story of Noah really about? After all - that's what everyone's got their panties in a twist over; that this movie has obscured the true message of the story with all its peripheral agendas, right? I suppose everyone will have their own take on Noah's homily, but I don't think it's a radical reading to say that the story of Noah is meant to serve as a parable about the nature of God - even to foreshadow the prophesied coming of the Messiah. The God of the Old Testament is a vengeful figure who craves justice above all else (re: Punishment via World-Wide Flood), and this is further emphasized early on when Noah tells a hunter that what he wants is simply "Justice." But even in such extreme wrath there is mercy. It's a comparatively minor mercy, which is largely a consequence of the culture in which it was transcribed and passed along. But since Noah does not personify God in the form of a voice or additional VFX shot, it's necessary to mirror the dichotomy of extreme justice giving way to ultimate mercy in some more tangible way. And that is accomplished in watching Noah wrestle with what he believes the Creator wants him to do, but then deciding against it. So, in that sense, Noah becomes a kind of personification of the presence of the Creator in the film.

But all of that inter-Scriptural interpretation is really up for grabs. It largely depends on how seriously you take the story of Noah; if you believe it's meant as a literal story to be treated as history, or a parable whose ultimate purpose is to impart a lesson. For me, it's the latter - the ultimate virtue of Noah's Ark is as mythology. Here I'm not asking you to agree with me, because I know plenty of people in various faiths who regard this story as literal. But even if you regard Noah's Ark as historical fact, I don't think you can deny its power as a parable as well. As a myth, the story allows believers and non-believers alike to partake of the wisdom it has to offer. This is Noah's greatest strength. Rather than force atheists and agnostics to scoff at the lack of physical space to accommodate all the animals, Noah invites everyone - regardless of religion or lack thereof - to inspect this tale for lessons we can apply to our every day lives. Again, this is something that Aronofsky did deliberately in order to highlight the universal truths embedded in the narrative. But in order to be efficacious, even the most fantastical myth needs to be grounded in a measure of reality. And that's where the characterizations become essential. They have to be believable, realistic.

So put yourself in Noah's shoes - you've had a prophetic vision of worldwide annihilation, and you're literally listening to the world shriek in abject terror outside the walls of the boat you built to survive the same storm that's destroying them. You wouldn't wipe your forehead in a gesture of mock relief, then wink at your family and smile. You'd be fundamentally scarred by that experience, psychologically damaged even, and the next few months confined to that Ark would only amplify that damage. Noah has to become the personification of the Creator's vengeance, and it's more than he can bear - it shouldn't be surprising that he cracks towards the end of the film. Frankly, he had to be just a little cracked in the first place to take his own prophetic visions seriously. So while the detour into homicidal tendencies isn't Scriptural and makes everyone really uncomfortable, it makes perfect sense in the context of the narrative as a film and as a myth. Moreover, it further draws attention to the mercy he ultimately chooses, which in turn reflects the mercy of the Creator in sparing Noah and his family.

There are plenty of other details to deconstruct and defend, but this post is already a bit longer than I initially intended. So here's my point: judge this film based on your own opinions and convictions - not those of pundits and bloggers who went into this movie with their confirmation bias-goggles on. You might hate it, you might love it, you might be somewhere in between. But the people who seem to be most vocal in their opposition to Noah are largely those who also seem to know the least about it, or can't resist the urge to be snarky and oh-so-clever in their reviews.

Matt Walsh accuses the film of being nothing more than a "marketing strategy," and that every creative decision guiding its production was made by "they" (meaning the studio) to stir up controversy, because "controversy sells." Never mind that Aronofsky was given final cut by the studio, or that he repeatedly emphasized that adapting this story has been his dream since he was a kid. Barbara Nicolosi over at Patheos seems to be under the impression that the positive critical reaction is thanks to the "shameless, agenda-driven critics over at" - either completely unaware of how RT actually works (aggregates of professional critics and user scores) or deliberately ignoring it. And she's hung up on the "rock people" too.

Here's what it comes down to: I can't fathom why people will accept - wholesale - a story in which an impossible number of creatures can miraculously fit into an impossibly tight space for months, but draw a line at fallen angels chipping in to help out. Fallen angels that, again, are mentioned in both canonical and apocryphal texts. I don't understand why the collective "church" in America is so vehemently opposed to a message of environmental responsibility and stewardship - a principle that is 100% Biblical. (Genesis 1:26, Job 12: 7-10, Revelation 11:18...just to name a few) So when I hear these voices hurling random insults that don't even apply towards this movie, the result is the not-very-funny series of paragraphs you've just read - or skimmed.

I've got no problem with people who just didn't like this movie. What I have a problem with is people acting like they're entitled to outrage over the changes made to their preferred version of a story that's been making the campfire rounds for thousands of years. Civilizations all over the world have flood stories and Noah-like figures, many of them pre-dating the Genesis account and containing plenty of differences. So to assert that your version is superior to theirs is socially arrogant and historically ignorant.

This film is simply another incarnation of an epic myth handed down through the millennia, and Aronofsky has crafted a piece of intensely personal film-making well worth the while.

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