Josh Reviews Noah
Holy cow I was absolutely blown away by Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Settle in and get comfortable, because we have lots to discuss as I attempt to dig into my reactions to this film. I thought my previous post, my analysis of the ultimately disappointing The Amazing Spider-Man 2, was voluminous, but this review got so lengthy I decided to split it into two parts, with part 2 coming tomorrow.
I wasn’t that impressed with the bombastic trailers for Noah, which made the film look like a superficial attempt to cross the Bible with The Lord of the Rings. But I think Darren Aronofsky is a very talented filmmaker, and I had been reading for years how Noah was his passion project, so I was interested in seeing it. I must admit that I’ve never seen Pi, though it’s been on my must-watch-soon list for years. But with The Fountain, The Wrestler, and Black Swan, Mr. Aronofsky has written & directed an impressive series of films, each of which is visually stunning and thematically complex and engaging.
Having now seen Noah, I can understand why this was a film that Mr. Aronofsky has wanted to make for years. I can understand how, once he began to develop this very particular interpretation of the famous story from the Bible, he felt he just HAD to get it on screen.
I have never, ever seen anyone approach a filmed version of a Bible/Torah story (whether for movies or TV) in this fashion. Religion has an important place in my life, but I find that I have zero patience for the usual depiction of Bible stories on screen. They tend to have a boring sameness and schmaltzy piety that doesn’t capture my interest. But with Noah, Mr. Aronofsky has shattered the usual the usual approach to depicting these stories.
First of all, he has approached the texts from Torah with great reverence and attention to detail. Nearly all of the most surprising and unusual aspects of the film are taken from actual p’sukim (verses) of Torah. Take, for instance, the Watchers, arguably the most fantastical element of the film. These are enormous rock creatures that are revealed to be fallen angels who, as punishment for disobeying God, have been encrusted with the muck of the Earth. I believe this is Mr. Aronofsky’s way of explaining Genesis 6:4, a verse immediately before the beginning of the flood story that refers to Nephilim, divine beings who existed on Earth. Even more interestingly, there is the entire last third of the film, which is structured as an elaborate way to explain Genesis 9:20-27, a bizarre and enigmatic epilogue to the Noah story in which Noah gets drunk and his sons have to “cover their father’s nakedness.” (I’ll have lots more to say about this fascinating stretch of the film in part 2 of my review, coming tomorrow.)
But while Aronofsky has approached the Torah text with great attention to detail, he was also clearly open to enormous extrapolation. He has used the story of Noah in the Bible as the skeleton upon which he has crafted his film’s story. The Torah text gives us a lot of information about Noah and the flood, but there are also large gaps in the story. (For instance, though we read in Genesis 7:24 that the flood-waters swelled on the Earth for one hundred and fifty days, we don’t learn anything about what happened to Noah and his family on the ark for all that time.) Additionally, though we get a lot of plot incident in the story in the Bible, we learn very little about the character of Noah or any of his family members. We are famously told that Noah was “a righteous man in his generation” (Genesis 6:9) but little other than that.
What Mr. Aronofsky has done with his film is to fill out the story. He dives deeply into the history and character of Noah, and how the effects of his calling from God, his building of the ark, and the arrival of the flood that destroyed the world, all affected and changed him. Mr. Aronofsky develops the characters of Noah’s wife and his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The film also develops the character of Shem’s wife. She is never named in Torah, but in the film she is named Ila. Noah’s grandfather Methusaleh is just a name in the Torah (notable only in that within the many generations chronicled, Methusaleh is the man with the longest listed life-span), but in the film he’s a fleshed out character.
Time and again in the film I was delighted by the way in which Mr. Aronofsky cleverly connected the dots between small details noted in the Torah, and the way in which he gave answers to the many questions that the story of Noah might prompt. We learn Mr. Aronofsky’s explanation for where Noah got the wood for his huge ark. (From a forest that God miraculously caused to sprout around the spot where Noah and his family were living.) We learn just how one man could possibly build such a huge structure. (It took years, and he and his family were assisted by the Watchers, the enormous and powerful divine creatures.) We learn how all the animals could have co-habitated in the ark. (Noah and his family use a mysterious incense to send all the animals into a deep sleep once they board the ark.) I love that, in the film, Noah didn’t go around to pick the animals, two by two, but that pairs of each type of animal were divinely inspired to go to the ark, just as Noah was divinely inspired to build it in the first place. And on and on.
Throughout the film I was impressed by the seriousness with which Mr. Aronofsky approached what could be considered one of the silliest stories in the Torah. This movie takes the story dead-seriously. There’s not a whiff of camp to be found. But as I noted above, Mr. Aronofsky also doesn’t let himself be bound by the familiar Sunday school version of this story. He and his collaborators have freed themselves to let their imaginations soar, trying to answer the many questions posed by the Biblical text and to imagine a world in which these events might have happened, and what that might have looked like.
One of the film’s central, and cleverest, conceits is that Mr. Aronofsky approaches this film more like an apocalyptic fantasy or sci-fi film than as a traditional Bible film. What does that mean? First, the seriousness that I mentioned above. Everything in the film is played entirely straight. Because the actors commit and the visual effects are convincing and the filmmaking is exciting and visceral, this gives the film a heightened intensity that works very much in the story’s favor. In the film’s early going, I was reminded very much of the film adaptation of The Road, in which a family must navigate a terrifying, post-apocalyptic, desolate landscape in which the universe itself seems aligned to cause their death. That was not at all what I was expecting from an adaptation of the story of Noah! In the best possible way, Mr. Aronofsky HAS taken the same approach that Peter Jackson took in adapting The Lord of the Rings. As I had noted above, when I saw the trailers for Noah, it looked like the film was a cynical attempt to add grand CGI action sequences into the familiar story, just to get butts in the cinema seats. And yes, there is some big crazy CGI-enhanced action in Noah. But for me, it worked, because I was so engaged in the story being told. What started as the small, personal story of one family’s struggle to survive escalated into an epic conflict which escalated further still into the destruction of the world. For me, it all worked.
I wrote above that the film was faithful to the Torah text. How can that be the case in a film that contains a huge Watchers-versus-mob battle in the clearing around the ark? Because this to me is all Mr. Aronofsky’s enhancement and elaboration upon the framework given to us in the Torah. The Torah doesn’t describe a battle, but the Torah also doesn’t tell us it didn’t happen. That’s somewhat of a stretch, perhaps, but the important thing to me is whether any of these additions to the story contradict what the Torah tells us, and I don’t think they do. (Well, the only place where they might is at the end, and the confrontation between Tubal-Cain and Noah on the ark, but that has such powerful thematic resonance — I’ll get more deeply into that in part 2 of my review — that I forgive the change.) In fact, not only does the battle scene not in my mind contradict any of what the Torah tells us, but to me it also flows logically from the story as we know it. If we are approaching this story as if it actually happened, and mankind had become so evil and corrupted that God saw no choice but to wipe them out, and one man really was spending years to build a huge ark to survive the coming cataclysm, doesn’t it stand to reason some of those evil men might catch wind of that? Wouldn’t they want to get on board that ark and be saved, by any means necessary? This all works for me.
Now we get into the question of whether the story of Noah actually happened. I think this is a film that works as a film, no matter your personal belief system or connection or lack thereof to the Bible. This story works if you believe in God and believe that this story happened. God exists in this movie, there’s no question. Mr. Aronofsky has handled the depiction of God in a much subtler and, to me, more interesting way than the familiar deep-voice-from-the-heavens or bearded-man, etc. But there’s no doubt that in the world of this film, God exists. We see numerous examples in the film of miracles, and I’m not just referring to the flood itself.
But the film also works, and has relevance, if one thinks the story of Noah didn’t happen, if this film is as much a fantasy as all of the dwarves and wizards and Hobbits and Ents in The Lord of the Rings. Because first of all, as I think I have already made clear, the film works as a ferociously entertaining, morally complex fantasy story. Mr. Aronofsky has also done a number of subtle but vitally important things to return to what I would argue is the main purpose of the Torah text, whether one believes that text is chronicling “history” or not: to tell a parable that has direct connections to our lives today, and from which we can learn from.
Let me give a few examples. First of all, when this story is usually depicted, we presume a primitive, mostly agrarian society. However, Mr. Aronofsky re-casts the setting into a post-industrial age. Mr. Aronofsky suggests that in the time of Noah, mankind has used the knowledge gained from eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to create cities of industry across the globe. These cities have polluted the entire world, destroying nature and giving the planet a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max feel. Setting this story in a post-industrial society connects the story very directly to our own time. Throughout the film, audiences must ask, are we closer to Noah and his family, or to the people God has condemned as to wicked to survive? Connecting the story to the 21st century realities of the effects mankind has had on the environment around us is a clever choice.
I was also struck by Mr. Aronofsky’s subtle shift of focus from early mankind’s central sin being the eating of the apple to Cain’s murder of Abel. We see this murder, shown in silhouette, numerous times throughout Noah. The film doesn’t shy away from the familiar Adam and Eve story — we see clearly that there was a Garden of Eden and Eve did eat of the fruit. But that seems to be of lesser import to the narrative. This is very clever, because having mankind’s sin be the eating of a magical fruit is a little far-out and hard to emotionally connect to. (It’s so easy to say, “oh, I wouldn’t have done that.”) But having mankind’s sin be murder and, more broadly, the crimes we commit towards our fellow man, make the story far more connected to our present-day lives. Think about the uncounted acts of evil, big and small, committed by man every single day, and suddenly this story has immediate resonance. Mr. Aronofsky drives this point home in a notable sequence in which the silhouetted shot of Cain striking Abel with a rock expands into a sequence in which we see multiple silhouettes of men wearing multiple different familiar guises — from robes to suits of armor, all familiar from our actual history — which suggests that this is not a fairy tale from a long time ago but something that could also be in our future if we’re not careful. I love that.
I mentioned the Garden of Eden, which leads me to discuss my favorite sequence in the film, and one that really surprised me when it came. About two-thirds of the way into the movie, the film stops and we get a story of the seven-day creation of the world. Noah is telling the story to his family, and his narration tells us the familiar Biblical story taken from Genesis chapter one. But the visuals presents us with a rapid-fire, almost stop-motion-animation-looking montage of imagery that presents a more scientific version of creation. When Noah speaks of the Earth being formed, we see imagery of the birth of the universe and the eventual conglomeration of matter into the planet, and we see a meteor impact sending ejecta into orbit that eventually accretes to form the moon. When Noah speaks of life beginning, we see cells dividing in the water and the eventual progression of simple life-forms to far more complex creatures. Isaac Asimov once wrote a terrific book, called In the Beginning, that attempted to square the Biblical version of Genesis with the scientific understanding. This sequence does the same thing, with incredible power and tremendous visual poetry. It’s wonderful, and a great example of what I love about Mr. Aronofsky’s approach to this material. By the way, that sequence goes on and we do then get a depiction of mankind in the Garden, and the temptation by the snake. If you believe this is what really happened, then I think you’ll be satisfied. If you don’t believe that happened, then that is all just part of this fantasty-fable being told. Either way, it works. I love that Mr. Aronofsky wasn’t afraid to show God’s presence in the story, to show miracles, to show the Garden of Eden. I also love his restraint and creativity in finding a way to include those elements in a way that not only enhance the power of the story being told but also won’t (I think) turn off viewers who don’t believe in the veracity of those events.
There is so much more to talk about!! Please join me back here tomorrow for part two of my review/analysis of Noah!