Saturday, March 29, 2014

Watching Noah

Spoiler alert: This commentary/review contains major spoilers, inasmuch as any review can be said to "spoil" a myth embedded in the collective consciousness of Western civilization.

I tried to see this movie in an innocent a state-of-mind. I did not re-read any portions of Genesis in advance. I read almost no reviews, consulted no biblical commentaries.

Simulating a second naiveté is not easy. Most clergy have read and re-read this story, first as children in the Sunday school version--then later as seminarians, in the Did you know Noah got drunk? stage--then even later in the Oh crap I have to preach this beast stage.

It seems many are coming to this movie hoping it will engage issues of theodicy--the question of God and evil. Others worry that it will fumble the handling of the biblical text, even abuse or misuse it, for ideological purposes (in the culture war over global warming and degradation of creation).

For my money, Noah exceeded expectations. It's a Hollywood movie in almost every possible way--beautiful actors, considerable melodrama, special effects and movie star messaging--yet for all of that, and perhaps precisely in and through that, it evokes the big mythology that is the Noah narrative.

Noah paints with very broad strokes. You never miss the point. If the issue is justice, the actors talk repeatedly about justice. If they have shifted to mercy, they talk about mercy. There's very little show, don't tell at work, but then heck, this is an early Genesis account. We haven't gotten to the subtlety of late Genesis or Exodus. These are big stories, narratives of origin, etiologies.

The movie opens with brief background, Abel's murder of Cain, the growth of cities that slowly destroy creation (by mining an energy source), Noah's ancestors retreat from meat-eating, technologized city-life. It introduces the Watchers, angels who fell to earth and, as a sort of punishment, were encrusted by the same created matter of Adam (remembering my Hebrew, that Adam means earth, and man, and blood). In the movie, the Watchers are pretty much awkward stone giants pulled straight from LOTR.

Although they're derivative, I liked the Watchers. The encrustedness of their earthly existence reminded me of the theology of the cross, the Incarnation as it pertains to life in a mixed body, earthly and heavenly, fallen yet rising, forgiven and still sinning. The Watchers are awkward in their identification with humanity. Their pain is also their joy.

This is not the line for Noah. This is the line for God's Not Dead
I was intrigued by Methuselah's gift, a seed from the Garden of Eden, which when planted ushers forth water from the ground and grows forests. Here again, we have a mixing together, for the very trees growing pristine and beautiful as restored creation are grown for Noah to harvest for the Ark. By the time the Ark is completed, Noah and family live on an ugly scar of land not unlike the cities they have been avoiding. Having crossed a Lorax-like landscape to get to Methuselah's mountain, they end up repeating the act of the Lorax in order to transcend it.

Any novel or cinematic portrayal of this story has to deal with the animals. What was that like? What did they all do on the Ark? Aronofsky's solution: Naamah brews an incense the smoke of which puts all the creatures to sleep. The massive piles of slithering, striding, now sleeping beasts is cute and creepy all at once. It's a solid solution, and one that avoids the issue of what to do with all the manure.

Returning to theodicy, the movie handles this topic deftly. Rather than introduce a novel aspect of theodicy and create disequilibrium in viewers, the story as narrated leaves enough of both God and humanity ambiguous as to open up larger questions of good and evil than simply the topic of evil and suffering in a world created by a good God. Miracles happen in oddly timed ways. The rain stops and Noah reads it as confirmation he is supposed to end the human race, first by killing the infants. But then the dove returns with mud precisely when he spares the lives of the infants.

God's communication with Noah is therefore both revealed and hidden, clear and smoky. It leaves Noah and God mixed up together, encrusted like the Watchers.

Then there's Tubal-Cain. I wasn't a big fan of this character. He ends up being a carnivorous Ayn Rand who punches her way through the side of the Ark, asserting will-to-power Objectivism only to perish at the hand of Ham. There's very little here that's biblical. It's much more mid-20th century epigonish philosophizing.

However, the movie weaves Scripture in at other times in fascinating ways. Noah's commitment to kill twin girls born to Ila (Emma Watson) has Binding of Isaac overtones (Genesis 22). The depiction of Noah's commitment to kill the girls is perhaps the most disturbing part of the whole movie, and rightly so. Fear and trembling and all of that.

The barrenness of Ila is itself biblical, even if not taken straight from Genesis 7-9. It's one of the most frequent motifs in all of Scripture, and the mixed blessing of Methuselah, one that confuses and almost destroys Noah while saving the human race, is a perfect addition to the film version of Noah if it isn't exactly faithful to the text itself. Even Ham's separation from the family (poor Ham), although not strictly from Genesis 7-9, parallels familial alienation familiar to readers of the later portions of Genesis.

Sometimes in order for something to be true, it requires intertextuality. This film gets that, in spades. The best and most perfect move--Noah dims the lights on the first night of their stay on the Ark, and tells a campfire story. The story? Genesis 1-3. The hero of Genesis 7-9 carries the fire, and tells the early chapters of Genesis to his children, ostensibly so they can tell it to their children, so that now, these millennia later, Aronofsky and great actors can make millions of dollar when we all go to see it in the cinemas. And eat popcorn.

At this point, the film shifts to staccato imagery, the evolution of creation and life on the planet told in fast-motion photography, then a shift to the genesis and repetition of violence. It's a fantastic three minute spot.

In some ways, I feel like there is no early biblical story more appropriate for the big screen than Noah. For this reason if for no other I love Aronofsky's attempt, and hereafter Russell Crowe is Noah to me. Not everything about the movie is perfect, but enough is great about it that I loved it.

Did I mention that the Watchers return to God after asking forgiveness? Did I not mention God enough? Although God plays a big part in this movie, its part of its interpretive genius to make God not a character in the movie per se, but rather a character who is no character, hidden in its revealing, hermeneutically sealed up only to be audible and visible in waking dreams.

Part of me wants to fly off now onto some Walter Benjamin reveries about film as a training grounds for perception. If for centuries the book itself was the central medium through which our perceptions of the world and art were formed, that place may now go to film itself. The question is not whether film is art, but rather how "our very conception and practice of art has changed in light of the cinema" (315, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility).

But I won't inflict these on you now. It's late. This will be enough to start the conversation. Enjoy the film.


"There's a difference between interpreting a text literally and interpreting it faithfully. I think Aronofsky has done the latter. Listen to the NPR interview with him. They read tons of Midrash as preparation for the movie, and his goal was to interpret the narrative not take liberties with it. I think he succeeded.…


  1. I also saw Noah yesterday, and I agree with basically everything you said. The Watchers were the strangest part of the film for me. I had a little trouble taking them seriously due to the animation (so similar looking to the stone giants from the Hobbit, who also distracted me), but their plot line was interesting.

    I loved the hiddenness of God throughout the film. Noah's misunderstanding of God's plan was so incredibly relevant to life, even if not in the text. I so appreciated Aronofsky's willingness to embrace the ambiguity of the story. And of course, I went in wondering if Noah would get drunk at the end - I would have been upset if they left that out.

  2. I found this blog post about the whiteness of Noah's world interesting and disturbing:!noah-movie-white-savior-epic/c245r

  3. We went to this as an ongoing series of "Movies with Your Pastor" (so thankful I got this and my colleague got "Heaven is for Real"). I loved it too, but my favorite part was the conversation about sin that Noah had with his wife. I know the realization that sin would not be eliminated just because of Noah's perfect family (designer boots and all) was important to Noah's conclusions about their survival, but it was actually one of the most honest conversations about sin I have ever seen on any sized screen. Kudos for that alone.