I just watched Aronofsky’s Noah. It was a powerful, disturbing film. I don’t know if it was calculated to please a religious audience, but I think that Christians ought to be pleased by it. What follows is my take on the film, and there are a few spoilers – so be warned.
First, some reasons to be pleased – the makers of Noah decided to take the story seriously, both as a work of literature and as a religious story. Unlike Troy, where mention of the Greek pantheon is almost completely scrubbed away, Noah is made even more miraculous, if that were possible. Themes that might have embarrassed a less daring team of filmmakers are not only left intact, they are emphasized. It would have been so tempting to downplay various aspects of the story – the destruction of all mankind except for 8 survivors, the drunkenness of Noah after successfully saving humanity and the animal kingdom, the permanent rift in the family due to Ham’s transgression, the global scope of destruction – yet all these are preserved and given focus and attention. We see mankind brought to utter ruin by its own wickedness, the just destruction brought about by God (in the movie called simply, “the Creator”), the saving of animals through miraculous means, and a rainbow at the end. We even take a few minutes for Russell Crowe to narrate Genesis 1, right down to the order of days, the sinless perfection of the garden of Eden, and the fall of man through the choice to sin.
It’s a movie I never thought I’d see: the story of creation to deluge, played out on screen like a true story, with no irony, nothing played for laughs, no subtle “wink” at the audience to let us know that the filmmakers thought it was all ridiculous. And what is best – no effort to change the core moral component of the story. The book of Genesis, and the Old Testament in general, is conspicuous in the degree to which humanity lusts for the status of gods. Adam and Eve fall, not out of desire for each other, or for wealth or kingly power, but to have the divine knowledge of good and evil. Lucifer falls out of desire to ascend God’s throne. The Tower of Babel represents mankind’s desire for omnipotence. While Moses receives God’s law on Sinai, the people of Israel build a golden calf to worship, so that they could venerate something they made, rather than the One who made them. Even the patriarch Jacob wrestles all night with his divine visitor. People in the Old Testament don’t suffer from lack of belief, they believe in God but elevate themselves instead. God’s greatness is something with which to compete, to strive to attain and perhaps, if possible, surpass.
This desire to be like God is so destructive, and so dangerous, that all of creation is weighed down by it. The world waits for the day when it will be set free. G. K. Chesterton once wrote that he found it silly that modern Christians wish to deny original sin since it was the only thing in the Bible that could be independently proved. The wickedness of mankind is, or should be, the most obvious part of ourselves, and this isn’t a feature of the “bad” people instead of the “good” people. All people are fallen, all unrighteous. Aronofsky’s Noah portrays this particularly well. Humans have destroyed everything – they kill each other (Cain until the present time), they warp the natural order, and they destroy the thing they were commissioned to preserve (tending the garden). The leader of the tribe laying siege to the ark spews statements fit for a Nietzschean Superman, defiant and contemptuous for an absent creator and exalting the power of human will to power. When the flood waters come, it is almost a relief, almost an act of mercy. We get a glimpse of humanity so sick that it needs to be put out of its misery – a humanity so fallen no remedy is available.
Genesis offers no narrative of Noah’s thoughts or feelings. What would he believe about the coming destruction? How would he defend the ark against the people who would try to board it? How would he bear the screams of the people that he would not save? What would he believe about his mission? Is he destined to be the new Adam, or the last man? If he’s supposed to be the last man, is the mission a success or a failure? The film explores some of those possibilities, and does so well. Since all those elements are missing from the Genesis account, the writers of Noah had to harness their imaginations to give us an inner story for Noah-the-man that would allow us to connect the dots between being a person of important lineage, to undertaking a vast construction project, to his sons finding him passed out, naked and drunk. Kudos. That was no easy task.
There are two areas where I anticipate some distress on the part of the Christian community.
First – the wholesale additions. The earth is mined for stones that provide energy. This is not in the Biblical account and seems calculated to serve as an analog for fossil fuel extraction today. There are fallen angels trapped in stone bodies – also not in the original story. The epic battle for the ark – nope, not in the original either. Let’s just say that the method of acquiring wives for Ham and Japheth was pretty surprising and unusual as well. Noah’s dilemma regarding the fate of future generations was also nowhere in Genesis, or anywhere else Noah is mentioned (though it bears a curious resemblance to scenario 2 in the prologue to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling). Adding to the story will make some people uncomfortable. But the additions were, in my estimation, neutral. Fire stones didn’t make mankind less wicked. The epic battle served as a visual metaphor for the desperation of the last remnants of humanity. Fallen angels are an amalgamation of various cryptic passages in the Bible regarding pre-flood interaction between men and angels. Again, they do not lessen the moral choices the characters face, or change the message of hope at the end. Methusaleh being something of a wizard-alchemist – fun and interesting. Nothing is lost by allowing these imaginative additions. In fact, given how little we are told about the world before the flood, and how different it must have been from the world of today, adding a few things to help us keep that in mind was probably a good choice. The world that then was, being overcome by water, perished. The world now is substantially different.
Second – the environmental theme. Noah’s story in Genesis says nothing about the earth itself being destroyed by man, only that humanity was completely corrupt. Genesis 6:11 mentions that the world (or earth, depending on translation) was corrupt due to man’s wickedness, but it seems a stretch to make an environmentalist epic based on a phrase that could mean “all people” or “all the inhabitants of the earth” instead of “nature” or “the land.” What should we make of this emphasis? I have two considerations that might help make sense of it.
First, from the standpoint of making a good movie, it is difficult to express visually the pervasive wickedness of pre-flood humanity. Sure, you can show people being wicked to each other, and there is a fair amount of that in the film, including one rather disturbing scene in the makeshift refugee camp that forms around the ark. But there is only so much of that the filmmakers could do. Each time that would happen, it would be an event, it would take time, the main characters would need to react to it, and so on. But if humanity’s wickedness extended to the despoiling of nature, it could be on camera the entire time. In the background of two people speaking the audience would see the barren and depleted world. The wickedness of humanity would be on display throughout the whole movie, but without making it an event every time. It would just be there. Film is a visual medium, and sometimes the best thing to do is to tell a story visually. Having the earth visually barren is a good choice for the filmmakers to make, even if one thinks that it isn’t warranted by the original story.
Second, from the standpoint of understanding the Bible, there are a few things we might keep in mind. God, in the process of destroying the world, took the time (and effort) to save a breeding pair of every land animal. Preserving each species looks like a legitimate issue of Christian concern. If what lives on our planet is not just the result of blind chance, merely the things that haven’t yet died out or haven’t yet been displaced by a competitive species, but instead is the work of a divine creator, each one is worth saving. If God saves so many of his creatures from a deluge by the miracle of the ark, who are we to be callous to their struggle against extinction? Given our original mandate (repeated in the film, no less), to be fruitful and multiply, to tend and dress the garden, shouldn’t Christians be concerned about what’s left of our garden?
Finally, and perhaps most important, if we take Genesis seriously there is no question about who the villains are in the story. It is us, those who carry on the legacy of sin. The earth is cursed because of us. God clothes our nakedness because we destroyed the purity of our nakedness. We are cast out of the garden for our own protection and because we were no longer fit to live in it. The very ground on which we walk suffers because of what we have done. This theme carries into the New Testament. Romans 8 discusses the redemption from sin setting free the creation from its corruption and bondage. How strange it is that a Christian audience might object to a movie telling us that mankind is the antagonist, the criminal. This is a far cry from Avatar and its valorization of native tribal lifestyle and its appeal to the ecosystem as a divine “mother” that can fight to defend itself from the greedy. No, nature is victim in the long war of humanity against God. Sin, as it must, destroys everything. Yet God is just and merciful. He gives humanity another chance so that, in the fullness of time, sin and death can be wiped away – saving man instead of destroying him.