Warning: There are potential spoilers in this review. (Even if–especially if–you are familiar with Biblical narrative.)
My dislike of Noah is one of those judgments that comes with so many qualifications I have a hard time believing it will be of much use to anyone who doesn’t mimic my own tastes, affinities, and beliefs pretty closely.
It also appears to be a minority opinion, both within in the broader critical community and the narrower subset of that community that professes, as I do, to be informed in some way in its judgments by a Christian faith. That’s probably the only reason why I bother to write at all. Minority opinions are important things, particularly in Christian circles where they are rarely trumpeted or met with as much charity or respect as they ought to be. So it is worth disagreeing publicly if not to persuade, at least to model that it can be done without vitriol or condemnation.
First the qualifications, more or less in order of importance:
1) I have not exactly been a fan of Aronofsky’s previous work. I suppose The Wrestler is the only film of his I can say I “liked.” I acknowledge the skill and craftsmanship at work in Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, but I have never had any desire to view them again. I probably didn’t dislike Black Swan as much as Dan Mohr did, but I disliked it enough to ask Dan if I could use his review rather than writing my own.
2) My reservations about Noah fall almost entirely under the column of “conception” rather than “execution.” It’s a well made movie. It is not only competent, it is artistic. It’s just that it does a very good job at doing something that I am not sure ought to have been done, so no matter how well it is executed, I can’t really get behind it.
3) In amplification of #2, my misgivings are bound inextricably to my Christian faith and how it is informed by my understanding of the scriptures of that faith, both in the texts that are being adapted for this film and those that are part of the larger Biblical narrative in which it fits. There is enough room for competing interpretations of the Biblical text for me to have learned through hard experience to be reluctant to condemn or question the sincerity of those who profess as I do but interpret as I don’t. But it is hard for me to separate my own feelings about the ideas in this film from the principles I extract from Revelation 22: 18-19. I don’t deconstruct the Bible. Neither do I reimagine it.
A case could probably be made–and I am sure will be made–that the film is thematically of a piece with the Bible even where it appears to my eyes to amplify an admittedly sketchy portion of it to flesh out motivations and underscore themes. But I kept thinking about my friend Todd’s comments regarding Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring when he did not like it and others defended it as being “close enough” to the source material despite some small but strange alterations the director made to that (slightly) less sacred text. The longer and more perilous the journey, the more likely are seemingly small navigational deviations to lead you farther off course than you imagine.
I suspected I was in trouble when the film opened and I was told that “in the beginning” there was “nothing.” Okay, perhaps the Creator is assumed to be an exception to that and perhaps the writers did not want to cleave too closely to the language of the Biblical text. But the Bible is made up of words and when you tell the same story but change the words, don’t you risk changing the meaning? If not in denotation at least in connotation?
When Noah recites the Genesis narrative to his offspring, he says it is a “story.” Don’t the patriarchs of the Old Testament set monuments to remember the history? Also, as Noah recites the Genesis narrative, the visuals are clearly meant to imply an evolutionary understanding of that narrative. That’s a defensible interpretation of Genesis, to be sure, but it’s hard for me to get around the implications of putting such an interpretation in Noah’s mouth. It appears to support a mythopoeic understanding of the Bible–that there are truths embedded into it but that the farther in time we are removed from the historical origins of these stories the less accurate is our understanding of their meaning. Isn’t that ultimately an agnostic position? There is truth, at least in an historical sense, but it is unknowable except in a very general way.
Mostly though, I had issues with the film’s back half. Noah interprets the flood as God’s desire to eradicate mankind entirely, not to begin again with a remnant. That sets up a third act in which Noah suddenly morphs into Abraham, further arousing my suspicions that the film’s source is not so much the Hebrew Bible as written but as reconstituted by a first year mythology student doing a Joseph Campbell paper. In reference to my third qualification, I would say that most Christians I know are taught to read the Bible as a whole as a narrative of God’s redemptive work. As such, it is an article of faith to me that God intended to save mankind through Jesus’s sacrifice all along, that Jesus’s work was not Plan B or option #2 of some sort of Biblical “Choose Your Own Adventure.”
The fact that my understanding of the Old Testament is admittedly informed by my understanding of the New Testament puts me between a rock and a hard place (pun intended) when trying to interpret Noah. Either Noah is incorrect about his interpretation of God’s will–a notion that he himself appears unwilling to entertain–or the film’s understanding of God’s purpose in sending the flood and commanding Noah to escape is drastically different from both what is recorded in the Genesis narrative (where God commands Noah to repopulate the earth) and how that episode fits into the larger Biblical narrative of the saving work of Jesus. That won’t just be a narrative detail for some, it will be the whole ball game.
Well, okay, what of it? Is it not permissible or even profitable to create variations of Biblical narratives that may be historically inaccurate but amplify our understanding of the history by forcing us to examine and think through it? How is Noah different from, say, Lewis’s Perelandra or The Magician’s Nephew? My very short answer to that question is that Lewis creates an alternate world in which to explore these ideas. And while he seems to postulate that such alternate histories can exist in conjunction with our own, he never presents these as a substitute history, only an imaginatively supplemental one. Hypothesizing about another world in which there is another Eve who never sinned is substantively different from writing an imaginative history in which the Eve of our world and the God she interacts with conduct themselves differently than they do in the only historical record we have of them.
It’s worth returning to my third qualification above before I close. Darren Aronofsky is under no obligation to make art that is consistent with my interpretation of a collection of writings I believe were divinely inspired and divinely preserved. Neither is any viewer, Christian or not, under any obligation to eschew or dislike his art for the same reason. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to interpret sacred writings, whether one does so as an artist or a critic, and I’m not sure whether or not in the end we my all have things we need to repent stemming from ways we’ve misunderstood what God is trying to tell us. I have more faith in God to lead us ever back to the light than I do in any preacher, teacher, or artist to keep us from ever stumbling into the darkness. So I’m grateful for artists who try, even if the task they set out for themselves may be impossible.
“If then we go wrong, it will be in the direction of the right, and with such aberration as will be easier to correct than what must come of refusing to imagine, and leaving the dullest traditional prepossessions to rule our hearts and minds, with no claim bu the poverty of their expectations from the paternal riches.” — George MacDonald, “The Hope of Universe.”