Noah is the first of the great Bible epics coming in 2014, and it's probably going to be the weirdest. Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky has created an intense, disturbing reinterpretation of the Old Testament flood story that owes a lot to obscure rabbinical debates and fantasy epics. Get ready to see the Bible through new eyes.
After watching this deeply strange movie, I had to wonder why anybody thought it would appeal to Christians. It's a film that's steeped in debates that go back centuries in the Jewish tradition, where rabbis have argued over the meaning of Noah's story in texts like the Midrash and the Talmud (these are kind of like the Silmarillion of the Old Testament). One of the biggest of these debates is whether Noah was in fact a good man, or a somewhat stupid man who seemed righteous simply because the people of his era were so debased that he looked good by comparison.
With his gorgeous, theatrical evocation of a Biblical fantasy Earth, Aronofsky does a fantastic job showing us Noah's pre-apocalyptic world. If you recall your Old Testament, Noah is the descendant of Adam and Eve's son Seth. Their other famous son, Cain, is the guy who slew his brother and was cursed to till the Earth in an even more laborious way than Adam was after the whole snake incident. In Noah's world, the children of Cain have created a great industrial civilization of cities that have eaten the planet's precious minerals and blackened the forests. Yes, it's a very heavy-handed environmental allegory but it works nicely — this movie is, after all, based on one of the most allegorical stories in all creation.
As the movie opens, we're immediately alerted to the fact that it's more like a rabbinical interpretation than a retelling of the story from Genesis. We see Noah's father slain by one of Cain's sons, an evil industrialist who speaks the words usually attributed to God. All the animals and the plants of the Earth belong to man, he says, and therefore we should use them as we please. In the Biblical Genesis, by contrast, Noah's father lives to a ripe old age. And nobody questions the awesomeness of the idea that humans should have dominion over the Earth. Certainly this idea is never attributed to an evil force.
Aronofsky's version of Noah, however, is a kind of Old Testament vegan. He eats nothing but plants and is horrified by watching Cain's children kill animals for food. When he journeys into the city we are given a vision of hell that includes industrial fires, pollution, rape ... and the abuse of animals. This is one of the many peculiar twists on the Noah story in the film, which tries to reconcile the tale of Biblical creation with the scientific account of how the Earth really evolved and what humanity has done to it since.
Perhaps the most deeply moving sequence in the film is when Noah retells the creation story to his family, and Aronofsky uses his trademark psychedelic visual style to illustrate it with the Big Bang, followed by the formation of the Sun, Earth and Moon (yep, a planet-sized body hits the Earth and makes the Moon). Then we watch as plants and animals evolve — Aronofsky even adds a subversive line about giant animals that no longer exist, as we see dinosaurs. Finally, monkeys swing down from the trees and enter Eden. It feels like the sort of thing you'd see on the show Cosmos, and again I would argue that it's a very Jewish way to interpret the Bible. In most Jewish traditions, there is a lot of room for debating how new ideas fit into old stories.
So Noah works as a contemporary commentary on the Old Testament story, but Aronofsky isn't satisfied with that. He also wants to give us a realistic portrait of the kind of guy who would actually build an ark to save the animals of the world from the Creator's deeply scary apocalypse. And this is where the movie becomes uneven and extremely disturbing, because of course if Noah were a real guy he would be an abusive psychopath who locks his family away in a ship and watches as the world drowns. Which — well, if you've seen Black Swan or Pi or any of Aronofsky's other films, you know he's going to go there.
Unlike the Biblical Noah, who is ambiguously good, the Noah of Aronofsky's interpretation is kind of like somebody's eco-fascist hippie father, who takes his family away to a remote farm and forces them to live off the land in the name of environmental purity. Russell Crowe's performance, full of grizzled insanity, only enhances this feeling. With help from a magical seed from Eden, Noah grows a forest out of the industrial, blasted landscape near one of the cities and starts building his ark. Again, his monomania seems reminiscent of an extreme prepper scenario, and it's obvious that we're supposed to see parallels with religious militia groups like the ones whose compound was attacked by the FBI in Waco, Texas.
At the same time, Noah is being aided by some six-armed, rock-encrusted angels, who look like something made by Ray Harryhausen. The whole "animals coming into the ark" bit veers between cheesy and so realistic that it's awkward. During those moments of uncomfortable realism, Noah threatens his wife (a weepy Jennifer Connolly) into doing what he says, watches impassively as innocent people are murdered, and abuses his son Ham so profoundly that the kid hardly seems to merit the curse he eventually gets in the Bible. There's a narrative whiplash going on, as we switch randomly between Noah as allegorical figure and Noah as scary, self-destructive dad.
Most of the movie hinges on a question that seems ripped from the pages of a Bill McKibben book, or Alan Weisman's The World Without Us. Do humans deserve to "be fruitful and multiply" in the post-flood world? Or should Noah destroy his progeny so that the Earth can be left in peace, and humans can no longer abuse nature and themselves?
Again, this debate does not exist in the canonical Bible story, where God clearly wants Noah's sons and their wives to repopulate the Earth along with all those animals they've brought along. In rabbinical texts, there are suggestions that perhaps Noah actually wanted to destroy humanity — but not that he wanted to wipe out his family, too. This version of Noah seems closer to the Qur'an's account of the man, where Nuh (based on Noah) begs Allah to destroy humanity because they have become so corrupt and incapable of righteousness. Still, none of these versions, from Judaism, Christianity and Islam (or even the original Babylonian source material), suggest that one of the options is that humanity will die out so that nature can finally be free of our nasty exploitation. Aronofsky alone has turned the flood myth into a story about eco-terrorism and its aftermath.
Though it's easy to have a profound conversation about the spiritual traditions Noah evokes, it's just as easy to find a lot of the film laughable. The animals are like something out of a sappy poster in Sunday School, the monsters are like bad Lord of the Rings ripoffs, and Crowe's hairstyle changes so often that it practically has its own character arc. As I said earlier, the movie is unrelentingly weird.
Noah may succeed as a pop culture version of a rabbinical commentary. But Aronofsky clearly can't decide whether he wants to give us stark realism, or thoughtful allegory. And the two don't mix well in this story. It's hard to take one man's domestic alienation seriously when gouts of water are shooting out of the ground and giant rock angels are lasering into the sky.
Still, props where they are due. This is a movie that actually takes the Bible seriously, not as a record of truth but as the opening salvo in an argument about the righteousness of humanity. And if for no other reason, that's why you should watch it. This is how it's done, kids, by the religion that started it all: Judaism.