Last week, my 14 year old and I headed over on Friday night to the local movie mall to catch the opening of Divergent (which, as fans of the books, we enjoyed). In the plethora of previews shown before that movie, we were surprised and excited to catch our first glimpse of Noah. It was clear from the trailer that the director was expanding on the biblical story, and it looked very promising. So when a buddy of mine texted me earlier today to ask if I’d be interested in attending a blogger and writer’s special screening of the movie tonight, I looked forward to checking it out. The 14 year old pop culture critic that lives with me and I jumped in the car, headed to Green Hills, and joined with other “progressive evangelical bloggers” (as the marketing guy called us) to watch Daron Aronofsky’s take on an ancient story.
Apparently there was some controversy in the production of the movie regarding Aronofsky’s choices in straying from the biblical text. That conversation has been completely beneath the radar for me, for I never knew the movie existed until seeing last week’s trailer. However, I have little problem with a director taking creative license with the biblical text to create a compelling drama. Certainly as a pastor I get nervous because more often than not folks (including my church members) will walk away thinking that these expansions are somehow a part of the biblical story. And yet, the fact is that the Noah story as reported in the Bible doesn’t really say much. Much of the bulk of the biblical story involves the directions for building the ark, and there isn’t much personal reflection present. Any storyteller is going to have to interpret things in ways that creates drama and conflict. While I may disagree with some of the interpretive leaps Aronofsky chose, there isn’t anything wrong with using a biblical text as a framework and/or inspiration, but building a world and story that moves beyond the written word.
My issues with Noah, however, are that I didn’t find the movie all that compelling. Now I confess that I’m not much of movie reviewer. I generally am not concerned with the subtext of the underlying metaphor that is represented by the sacrifice of the lead character. When I attend a movie I’m a simple guy — give me a good story and characters that aren’t wooden and have some depth, and I’m a pretty happy guy. I want to get caught up in the story to the point where I no longer am aware of the level of the acting or the quality of the effect. That never happened for me with Noah.
Noah (played by Russell Crowe) is about as unsympathetic a leading man as I’ve experienced. At the beginning of the movie he hardly has a personality, and as the movie develops he transforms into a very troubled and sick individual. For that matter, I found very few of the characters to people that I wanted to cheer for. Noah’s wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) was perpetually worried and somewhat whiny, while the three sons were nice to look at (at least according to the 14 year old) but had very few lines other than setting up Noah for his next soliloquy. Emma Watson’s Ila had at least some range of emotion, but like Connelly, more often than not she was fraught with worry and dismay with very little joy. The most compelling character in the movie was Anthony Hopkins, who plays Noahs’ father Methuselah, and yet his function in the story is not unlike that of Yoda in the Star Wars movies — to be the inscrutable quirky magician who facilitates the plot twists. In fact, the way Hopkins was made up, he even looks a little like Yoda (“…like it you do?”).
Perhaps the strangest thing of the movie was the inclusion of “The Watchers”, based on an separate story in Genesis which immediately precedes the Noah corpus, and tells about the mysterious “Nephilim” who had children with humans and were the heroes of old. In some strange turn Aronofsky takes this strange little text and transforms the Nephilim into “The Watchers,” who are portrayed as rock bound figures of light who have come to earth to help humans only to be rejected by them. The Watchers look and move like Transformers (where is Michael Bay when you need him) — only with a rock skin instead of metal car parts — and frankly, they act like them too — poorly. Their main important was providing an interesting visual element in the climactic battle scene between the forces of good (Noah and his family) and the forces of evil (personified in Ray Winstone’s Tubal-cain).
I suppose the watchers were in keeping with the superheroization of the entire story with the clear division of good and evil; a tortured lead character who is trying to do “the right thing”, even when that flies in the face of what he knows is good (only to discover at the end in a syrupy way that “the right thing” couldn’t have been right at all); and a dystopian society in which there is little joy or happiness. However Aronofky’s polemics about the evil of man (demonstrated in Tubal-cain’s focus on human domination of the environment and human control over one’s own destiny) were heavy handed to the point where the audience can find itself agreeing with Noah that ALL humanity should die — if for no other reason than to put these people out of their misery.
To be very honest, God (called the creator) doesn’t come across very positively in this movie. Of course, one could argue (and many reviewers seem to take delight in doing so) that God is utterly despicable in the original biblical story in the decision to blot out the humanity God created. This movie certainly ties into the notion that many have of Yahweh in the Hebrew bible as a blood thirsty deity only out for revenge. However part of the reason that happens in Noah is the decision by Aronofsky to avoid the parts of the biblical narrative which describe God’s perspective, and especially God’s regret in sending the flood. The biblical story is one of a God who realizes that he has used violence to end violence, and regrets his actions. The rainbow as a sign of blessing is sent not because of Noah’s faithfulness, but because as God’s reminder that God will never do this again — thus setting up the rest of the biblical story of God’s reaching to humanity in different ways. The decision to avoid God as much as possible in the movie only leads to creating an image of God as an evil dictator or puppet-master.
Much has been made in the press of Noah’s high budget and special effects, so I was shocked by an opening which utilized a fairly cheezy animation, and other effects lapses that drew me out of the story. These lapses (seen for me primarily in bad compositing between the actor’s in front a green screen and the underlying background) made me wonder if the movie makers hadn’t spent all their money on A-List casting, and had to take short cuts in other places in the film. Yes, I’m an ex-video editor, so these things may be more visible to me, but the 14 year old in the seat next to me agreed. In fact, the 14 year old’s take on the entire movie was that it was more akin to a bad disaster movie like 2012 than Lord of the Rings. She spent most of the drive home picking apart the inconsistencies in the story.
As I’ve read the reviews the common theme seems to be Aronofsky’s bravery in taking on a familiar biblical story and using it as a commentary on themes he wanted to lift up. That may be true.
But his attempt to turn Noah’s adventure into The Black Swan fell flat for me. Noah, according to the biblical story (and Aronofsky’s own script) is supposed to be the personification of good. But “good” in Aronofsky’s vision is more focused on the opposition to evil and the resolve to do right than any virtues that build relationship and community. Noah may be a hero, but there is nothing likable about him whatsoever. In fact, the most heroic character in the movie was his son Ham, who reached out and offered food to a woman in need, only to see his father abandon her and allow her to be trampled by the crowd.
My suggestion is that you avoid getting YOUR foot caught in a trap because I seriously think that Aronofsky will run away as you are trampled by the crowd trying to run away from this movie.
But, as I said before, I’m not much of a movie reviewer. I may have missed the subtext of the underlying metaphor — something that this director seems to revel in. I’m just looking for a good story and compelling characters. I didn’t find then here.