How far would you go for God? How sure would you have to be that he was speaking to you? That it wasn’t just some delusion? What is our responsibility as Christians towards the planet? How important are the choices we make?
Those are just a few of the questions that Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah asks. And they are all very, very good questions. This review is going to be full of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, please go see it first. Do be warned, however – it is a dark movie, and quite disturbing at times. You know, kind of like the actual story of Noah.
There have been a number of responses to this movie, ranging from the EXTREMELY critical (as in, this movie is Satanic) to the academically critical, to the somewhat positive. A lot of reviews get caught up in the weird details that Aronofsky used (and there are a lot of weird details), rather than dealing with the thematic elements of the film. This is what I’m going to try and focus on, for the most part.
One more thing before I start. I’m a Christian, and I value the story of Noah. I don’t think it’s literal, but it’s probably based on some very important historical facts. However, this movie is NOT a Christian movie. It’s a Jewish movie. It’s heavily inspired by Jewish Midrash – this is a certain style of reading the Hebrew Scriptures. Essentially (and I might be getting this wrong), midrash is reading the scripture and then interpreting it several different ways, and letting the interpretations sit. It’s not about finding the ‘right’ way to interpret a scripture, but about providing possibilities. Noah is definitely in this vein.
Ok, let’s begin.
The film opens with a quick recap of the story so far. The world began because the Creator began it, and placed Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. They ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, and were cast out. Shortly after, their son Cain killed their other son Abel. Cain was cursed and marked by God, and sent out into the wilderness where he began busily building cities and such (where the other people came from we’re not really told.) This is all true to the Biblical story. In the movie version, there are also certain creatures called The Watchers which descend from Heaven as well. These are taken from a stream of Jewish mythology. The Watchers, we’re told later, came to Earth as Angelic beings to help the humans who were cast out of the Garden. This was against God’s plan though, and so he cursed the Watchers to be coated in rock and stuck on the Earth forever. We’re not told, in the film, WHY God cursed them, but I’m going to take a guess. The Watchers didn’t understand God’s plan. This is a common theme throughout the movie – people THINKING they know what God wants, but getting it wrong.
The Watchers thought that they could help humanity by teaching them technology. God knew that teaching them these skills would be a bad idea, and it was. Humanity used the technology that the Watchers taught them to enslave the earth, killing almost everything. They then enslaved the Watchers themselves. Methuselah eventually shows up and protects The Watchers, freeing them from their captivity with a crazy fire sword. Again, part of Jewish mythology (I think. Or maybe Aronofsky just thought it was cool).
Ok, so we’ve got the lineage of Cain building cities all over the place and generally ravaging the Earth. This is scriptural, by the way – Genesis 6:11-12 read: The earth was ruined in the sight of God; the earth was filled with violence. God saw the earth, and indeed it was ruined, for all living creatures on the earth were sinful.
Alongside Cain’s lineage, however, is the lineage of Seth, Adam’s third son. From the lineage of Seth comes Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, and eventually Noah. The film opens with Lamech being killed by Tubal-Cain, the descendent of Cain. Tubal-Cain steals Lamech’s snakeskin, a ‘relic’ that has been passed down from father to son from the time of Adam. It is later revealed that the skin is the skin of the serpent, who shed it upon becoming evil and deceitful. It is a memory of a time when God was with His creation, and so is used to bless every generation.
Noah was noted for being a righteous man in the Biblical story, and in the movie he’s shown as loving his family and desiring to follow the Creator, no matter what the cost. He also doesn’t eat meat, unlike the Cain-ites. They’ve basically eaten everything on the planet.
So now we’ve got Noah and his family, the last ‘righteous’ people on the planet. Aronofsky takes ‘righteous’ to mean that they desire to follow God, not that they’re perfect. I think this is not a bad description of ‘righteous’. The planet has been basically ruined, with barren landscapes and dead stumps everywhere. Noah has a vision of water – water killing everything. Even he’s under water, although he can swim to the surface. From this vision he comes to believe that the world will be destroyed by water, and so he and his family (three sons, all young-ish, and his wife), pack up camp and head for Methuselah’s mountain, hoping the old sage can lend them some wisdom. Along the way they pick up a girl who was wounded badly by the cain-ites, and she becomes an adopted daughter of sorts. She’s barren (apparently they can tell by the wound she has), but you can see she’s going to fall for the oldest son, Shem.
So, this vision. This is the first major theme I want to touch on. In this film, God does not speak verbally. We never hear God’s voice. We get visions, dreams, revelations, signs from nature, and stories, but we never hear the voice of God. This is troubling for some. I admit, I found it a bit disconcerting. But if we’re doing midrash here, it makes some sense. When was the last time YOU heard God speak verbally? I never have. And yet I KNOW he has directed my path at times. I KNOW that He put certain things before me, and gave me the choice of what to do with them. You can read about many of these moments on this very blog. So in a way, Aronofsky is placing Noah into our story – God speaks to him through visions and dreams, but not verbally. God prefers to use the mouths of his servants, rather than a voice from the sky. This seems… right to me.
So they arrive at the mountain, and Noah climbs the mountain with his son to see Methuselah. the old sage helps Noah have another vision, and in this vision Noah sees the Ark. He sees all the animals being preserved. on the Ark, and all the people dying below. When he awakens, Noah knows that he must build the ark. He apparently has knowledge of how to do so as well, which must have been given to him by God, although again, not verbally. Methuselah also gives Noah a seed from Eden, which he plants, growing enough trees to build the ark. Oh yeah, those Watchers decide to help Noah build the ark, in the hopes that they can be forgiven for their sins of pushing humanity along this path to self-destruction.
Are you with me so far? The ark is being built, Noah believes that he’s supposed to save the animals from the coming flood, and there’s a storm a’brewing.
Flash forward ten years. The Ark is almost finished. Ham is mad that he doesn’t have a wife like Shem. Jeph is too young to care still. Tubal-Cain shows up with an army, carrying weapons made of iron (gen 4:22), hoping to storm the ark and take it by force. They kinda-sorta believe there might be a flood coming, but more they just want the fertile land. Noah keeps building, but promises Ham that he’ll find wives for him and Jeph before the flood. Tubal-Cain sets up camp near the ark. Noah is still sure he’s doing the right thing, and that his family is the last righteous family on earth.
Here’s the important part – a part that I think many reviewers miss. Noah goes into the Cain-ite camp in an attempt to find a couple women for his sons. I guess he assumes that he might be able to rescue some slave girls or something. Upon entering the camp, he realizes that it is chaos. Pure evil. But it’s not an evil that he expected – it’s an evil of survival of the fittest. Men killing other men for food, men dragging away women to have their way with them, men fighting over and eating raw meat in desperation. In the midst of the chaos, Noah sees a man, the man looks at him, and Noah sees himself in the man. The man’s face is bloody from the meat he’s been eating, and there’s anger and fear in his eyes. He runs off, and Noah, shaken, leaves the camp alone.
When Noah returns to the ark, he has changed. Seeing his doppelganger in the camp has made him realize that there are none who are righteous – no, not one. Even he and his family is corrupt. He says so to his wife – either of them would kill for their family. They’re no better than those out in the camp. From this revelation, Noah begins a new course of action. He believes that all humans must die. Illa, the girl, is barren, and his wife is too old to conceive. They will all board the ark, and they will be the last humans on the planet. This, Noah believes, is the will of God – that all should die due to their sin and corruption. He doesn’t see anything good in himself.
His wife disagrees, and so asks the sage Methuselah to provide a way for humanity to survive. She sees good in her sons and in her husband. The sage agrees, although he warns that it will hurt. He heals the girl, Illa, so that she may bear children once again. Ham, not knowing what his mother has done, goes to the camp himself to try and find a bride. He finds a woman, but she is killed as they flee to the ark. Ham blames Noah for her death, because he didn’t try hard enough to save her.
The floods and the rains come, and the army tries to board the ark. There’s a horrific fight scene, with the stone Watchers fighting off the horde of unrighteous men. In the process they are killed, but forgiven by God – their Angelic selves are seen returning to Heaven.
Some commentators on the film have said that the forgiveness of the Watchers was salvation by works – they did something good, so they got forgiven. I don’t see it that way. They helped Noah not because they hoped for redemption, but because they realized their folly. It was through this realization that they were allowed to go home.
Anyhow, the ark leaves with all its passengers, plus one – Tubal-Cain has hacked his way through a wall, and is hiding in the bowels of the ship. We’ll return to this in a moment. First, I want to mention the story that Noah tells his family while they sit on the ark. He tells them the story of creation, and it is shown in a way that I’ve never seen before on film. It nearly moved me to tears. Now, if you’re a literal seven-day creationist, you’ll probably hate it. I thought it was incredible. Watch it and judge for yourself.
Back to Tubal-Cain hiding in the bowels of the ark (with the snakes, I might add). Now, this is not Biblical, at all. But it is useful for the midrashic style of the movie. Noah, Tubal-Cain, and the women provide three distinct and separate interpretations of God, the Creator.
First, Tubal-Cain sees himself as equal to God. Before the flood he cries out to God, saying something along the lines of ‘I give life, and I take it, just as you do! Why won’t you answer me?’ He thinks God has given him the ability and the right to ‘subdue’ the planet. He quotes Genesis 1:28b to Ham, in the belly of the ark: ‘Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it!’ – It sounds an AWFUL lot like the serpent in the garden – ‘Did God REALLY say that you would die?’ or like the tempter Satan with Jesus in the wilderness – ‘Doesn’t the scripture say…?’ For Tubal-Cain, God doesn’t care what happens to the Earth. He abandoned his people, gave them the tools they needed, and they just have to do as they see fit. Echoes of Judges ring here as well.
Second, Noah simply wants to obey God. He wants Justice. He sees God as just, and that justice MUST be satisfied, even if it means the extermination of all human life. Humans are all sinful, and so all must die to satisfy the justice of God.
Third, the women, Naamah and Illa, feel and see God’s mercy. They see him as merciful, as having saved them from the flood for a purpose, and appeal to that mercy. All three of these voices appeal to the same facts, the same revelation of God, but not all see the same thing.
Things come to a head when Noah realizes that Illa is pregnant. He swears that if the child is male then it will live to be the last person on Earth, but if it is female and able to bear children eventually, that he will kill it. He firmly and completely believes that God’s Justice must be satisfied, and that the only way it can be satisfied is with the end of the corrupting force of humanity.
Illa gives birth – to twin girls. After fighting off Tubal-cain (and Ham killing him), Noah climbs to the top of the ark, knife in hand, ready to kill the children. The scene echoes Abraham – one almost expected a ram to come wandering over. With the knife poised, Noah’s resolve falters. He feels only love towards the children, not the righteous justice he believes is necessary. he drops the knife, defeated.
Fast forward. The ark has made landfall, and Naamah, the boys, and Illa have started a small farm. Noah spends his days at the shore, cultivating grapes and turning them into wine. Many commentators have been confused at this point – why is it that Noah is drinking? Is it survivor’s guilt? No, actually – it’s the opposite. Noah drinks because he believes he has failed God. He still believes that the right thing, the just thing, would have been to kill the children and to let the human race die out. He drinks because he sees himself as having failed God. After all he did, after all he suffered, he still failed.
He drinks himself into a naked stupor. Ham, seeing him, scoffs, and throws back the snakeskin he took from Tubal-Cain. There is no curse like there is in scripture, but the emphasis is there – Ham is disgusted with his father, angry at him for allowing his bride to die, and upset with how everything turned out. He packs his bag and leaves, ‘cursed’ to wander. The other sons cover Noah, and allow him to sober up.
Once sober, Illa speaks to Noah. Once again, it is through the female voice that Noah hears of mercy. Illa believes that God gave Noah the ability to choose – here we hear echoes of Deuteronomy 30:19 - Today I invoke heaven and earth as a witness against you that I have set life and death, blessing and curse, before you. Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live! Noah was given the choice of saving humanity, of giving it a second chance, or of ending it all. Through the love he felt (finally) towards his grandchildren, he chose life.
The film ends with a dedication ceremony of the twins, and a rainbow pulsing through the sky. God, it seems, is pleased with the choice of Noah. He truly has become a righteous man.
I loved this film. It humanized the characters of the story for me, and placed them in a world of real choices and real consequences. The various ‘voices’ speaking about God were delightful – it was if the characters were having a conversation, debating who God really was. We still do this today, don’t we? I also loved the theme of misunderstanding God. Tubal-Cain, even quoting scripture, missed the point of our relationship with the earth. We’re not called to destroy the Earth, but to use it wisely. This is a lesson we desperately need to hear today. Noah, likewise, misunderstood God. Even though he was given revelations directly from God, and signs from the Heavens, he was still able to misunderstand God – because he only understood God in terms of justice, rather than in terms of justice AND mercy.
Now, are there some weird things about this movie? Yeah. The rock monster/angel things are weird. I kind of like their redemption moment, but it’s weird. Also, the snakeskin took me a while to figure out, but I think it does make sense – as a symbol. I don’t think it’s magic. Also, Methuselah the sage with a flaming sword, a seed from Eden, and a drink that helps with visions? Weird. Finally, Adam and Eve are shown in one shot as glowing beings. While this is weird, and seems to lean towards a spiritual/carnal divide that I don’t like, there is some evidence in Scripture which connects glowing light to God – the pillar of fire in the desert, for example, or the glowing of the face of Moses coming off the mountain of Ararat, or the glowing of Jesus coming off the mount of transfiguration. I would have preferred to see more fleshly Adam and Eve, though. It would have fit better with the larger themes of the movie as well.
I think far too often we dehumanize the characters found in Scripture. We don’t think about their emotions, their thought patterns, their doubts and insecurities. We don’t imagine Joseph as actually wrestling with lust towards Potiphar’s wife, or imagine Moses wrestling with his anger and disappointment towards God and towards the Hebrew people. We don’t think about David as his power and love of power begins to corrupt him. We don’t think about Noah wrestling with doubt. If we really believe that the Bible has something to say to real people, It’s important that we engage in these stories in a real way. Perhaps there’s something we can learn from the midrashic style of teaching.