How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Or, How to Do a Sequel Right)

There is a scene in the pilot episode of the critically acclaimed TV show Breaking Bad when Walter White describes the parallel between chemistry and life. “Chemistry,” he argues, “is the study of change…it is growth, then decay, then transformation.” While this acts as foreshadowing for Walter’s own arc in the series, and can be applied to any well-written story-arc for that matter, it is especially relevant to sequels, and more to the point, their critical success.

All too often movie sequels are shameless cash grabs, created more because their predecessor was a goldmine in the box office than because the story needed any sort of continuation. While the financial success of a film is not a problem in and of itself, it becomes a problem when the subsequent sequels do nothing to further the story in a significant way—in short, when there is no meaningful change.

Thankfully, How to Train Your Dragons 2, the sequel to 2010′s DreamWorks story of a Viking boy named Hiccup (played by Jay Baruchel) who befriends a dragon, knows this, and uses change as a running theme in a number of smart and logical ways.

Set five years after the events of the first film, Hiccup, who has now come of age, must deal with the pressure from his father, the village chief (played by Gerard Butler), of taking his place. A la Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, Hiccup is reluctant to embrace his birthright, feeling that he’s not meant to rule.

Without spoiling too much of the plot, as there are quite a few major reveals, I can say that this tension between forging one’s own path and accepting duty is made much more dramatic later on in the plot, resulting in a sequel with even more emotional complexity than the original.

Perhaps the biggest story addition to the How to Train Your Dragon franchise is that of the hermit-cum-dragon rider Valka (played by Cate Blanchett) who helps guide Hiccup. While her role was revealed in some of the trailers, I would imagine a viewer would find more delight in not knowing her identity until seeing the movie. Rest assured, both the character and the emotional implications of her are a highlight of the film.

Along with the changes that come with Hiccup’s newly entered stage in life and the introduction of Valka, the sequel adds in a number of “upgrades,” for the protagonist duo. Hiccup, shown to be an inventor in the first film with his makeshift dragon saddle, has added to his arsenal his own personal wing-suit and a flaming sword with a couple tricks up its sleeve that create some truly gorgeous animated sequences, sure to entertain both kids and adults alike.

Furthermore, Toothless, Hiccup’s inseparable dragon, discovers a hidden power within himself in the climax of the film, giving an already incredibly dynamic (despite silent) character more depth. It’s simple additions like these that add a satisfying layer of change to the formula that, for all intents and purposes, succeeded in the first film.

As I’ve glanced at several reviews, I’ve noticed a lot of reviewers making comparisons between How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and it’s not hard to see why. Perhaps the most famous of sequels, The Empire Strikes Back built upon the strengths of A New Hope in almost every way. It was more ambitious, more complex, and ultimately much better. Similarly, nearly every aspect of How To Train Your Dragon 2 builds upon the strengths of the first. The visuals and 3D are sleeker, the dialogue is wittier, and the story has an even deeper emotional hold.

One area of the sequel that unfortunately stands out negatively, however, is the villain. For a film that otherwise sets itself apart from other animated films through its originality and quality of storytelling and writing, Drago Bludvist is largely forgettable. His take-over-the-world goals are cliché and underdeveloped, and his final encounter with the village of Berk ends, as T.S. Eliot would say, “not with a bang but with a whimper.” All of this is made painfully obvious because it may just be the only weak aspect of an otherwise fantastic movie.

When the first How to Train Your Dragon hit theaters in 2010, it immediately won over the hearts of viewers and critics alike with its stunning visuals, witty dialogue, and uncommonly emotional story. In How to Train Your Dragon 2, director Dean DeBlois continues the success of its predecessor and builds upon it to create an even more emotional and thrilling experience that soars to even greater heights, and reminds us that the best animated films don’t necessary come from Pixar.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor.

Movie Review: Weepy ‘Fault in Our Stars’ Exceeds Weepy Lovesick Teen Genre

The Fault in Our Stars works excellently as a teen love tearjerker, but good acting, a lively script, and great source material elevate it to a story about the risk of loving at any time and at any age.  [Read more...]

Christian Film Briefly Nominated for an Oscar, ‘Alone Yet Not Alone’ To Make Theater Run

Audiences will soon see for themselves the film at the center of all the fuss during Oscar season. Alone Yet Not Alone, the movie that was nominated, and quickly denominated, for a Best Song Oscar, comes to theaters on Friday, June 13.

George Escobar, c0-director of Alone Yet Not Alone, says his head is still spinning from the very public controversy. [Read more...]

Review: Angelina Jolie stars in ‘Maleficent,’ an Irony-Free Answer to ‘Wicked’

2001 brought us Shrek on the silver screen and 2003 Wicked on stage. Both stories made the case for the villain, how society is so twisted that evil is good and the villain really the hero.

The wind has shifted again and 2014 brings us Angelina Jolie in Malificent, the story of the fairy who curses the princess known as Sleeping Beauty.

Malificent isn’t misunderstood or disguised good wrapped in black leather. She isn’t a victim of circumstance. She isn’t delightfully evil or wickedly charming. [Read more...]

Review: Tom Hardy Sets His Own Standards in Riveting ‘Locke’

Some dramas need scores of extras and epic settings to keep the audience on its edge, but a rare gem of a movie can dial down the setting, the action, and the cast to a minimal few and still give you a pit in your stomach and tears in your eyes.

Locke, destined to be one of the best movies of 2014, brings the audience in so tightly to the personal drama of one man, one single man, that the rest of the world, entire, seems superfluous. [Read more...]

Review: ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2′ is a Teenage Dream

Oh to be Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens.

They’re young. They’re beautiful and/or handsome. They have keen minds and bright futures ahead of them, one in a career in science and the other as a secret web-slinger.

And they’re in love. Sweetly, innocently, desperately, consumingly in love.

The chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, real life sweethearts playing onscreen sweethearts, makes the movie work. You just can’t help but root for them.

It’s the kind of love that blooms at 19, in the first blush of adulthood.  Beyond it, this Peter Parker just oozes superhero teen angst, a lighter, younger Spider-Man than Tobey Magurire’s turn ten years ago.

He longs for his deceased parents and frets about the safety of his girl, but not enough to mute his wise-cracks or temper his sheer physical joy at swooping and swinging around New York City high-rises. He doesn’t sit in remote webs brooding or carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. He just wants to thwart criminals and take Gwen to the mall, not necessarily in that order.

The film exults with him, using the full force of 3D CGI to plunge with him through city canyons, skim the roofs of yellow cabs, and swoop up on his silken thread to dizzying heights. The only thing missing is the wind in our hair.

But alas! Life, as we all discover eventually, is never that simple. Parker is frantically worried that his crime-fighting ways will endanger Gwen, a possibility that becomes reality when not one but two villains arise: Electro (Jamie Foxx) and the Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan).

The Green Goblin is your average diseased lonely heir whose early friendship with Parker, which he considers betrayed, turns him sour on Spider-Man, although DeHaan is excellent as always in the role.

Electro is something much, much more interesting. In Foxx’s hands, with help from a powerful script, Electro is a villain that embodies black rage, more Malcolm X than mutant.

The parallels aren’t subtle. He begins as an invisible man, a nobody, an unnamed, unthanked worker in the power grid. He builds the foundations of power but has none on his own. Suddenly empowered, he becomes dangerous to the eye of the authorities, even though he himself has not as yet used his power to hurt anyone. He is automatically a threat. But once he realizes that the general world will never accept him, he grows into his power. And then, watch out. He wants nothing more than to shut the system down.

Electro’s whole being is a metaphor.

It’s a fantastic performance by Jamie Foxx and the most interesting part of the movie. In a movie that was more concerned with ideas, it could have been a fascinating and illuminating (excuse the pun) look at racial identity. This is not the Dark Knight trilogy, however, and the movie never fully steps into the promise of this thread.

What it is, however, is fun and frothy, something you could share with a child. Rated PG-13, the rating comes from sci-fi violence and action along with a storyline involving deep loss. The rest is squeaky-clean. The language is clear, the romance chaste. Better yet, Garfield’s Peter Parker and Stone’s Gwen Stacy are the type of recent high school grads we’d all like our kids to be: earnest, hopeful, sincere, kind, and self-sacrificial.

It may not be the most meaty treatment of the comic subject matter, but we already have Batman and Wolverine for dark heroes. There’s nothing wrong with lightening it up a bit, for the kiddos or for the sometimes overly-serious adults who accompany them.

 

Released from Paramount Contract, ‘Noah’ Bible Guru John Snowden Responds to Ken Ham, Ray Comfort, Brian Godawa

Editor’s note: John Snowden was a youth pastor in the Los Angeles area when Rob Moore of Paramount approached him about a project. Snowden came aboard Noah as Biblical advisor and we know the rest. As of April 1, Snowden is no longer under contract with Paramount pictures and now gives his full reaction to the controversies swirling around Darren Aronofsky’s film.

John Snowden on the set of NOAH.
photo: Niko Tavernise. (c) 2012 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

I knew some wouldn’t appreciate Noah’s liberties, for sure, but I didn’t expect the level of ire I’ve heard about the now apparently controversial Bible movie. Ken Ham, along with Ray Comfort, and similar disagreement from Brian Godawa, have led an all-out assault on the film. Here is my response to a few of their thoughts, which hopefully will also be an opportunity shed more light on what I firmly believe is very positive theology in the film. (Warning: There may be spoilers if you haven’t seen the film!)

Objection: Humanism!

Godawa in particular focuses on the fact that Aronofsky is allegedly a “humanist.” I put that in quotes because I don’t actually know that Darren is such. He might be. He may even “probably” be. But Godawa presumes that Aronofsky’s worldview has compelled him to tell a subversive story undermining God, and the proof is not what is in the film, but that Aronofsky is a humanist. This cynical view (and cyclical argument) assumes no person can tell any story that they don’t wholeheartedly embrace. So a humanist, for example, could never put into his film critical Christian theology such as that man was created in God’s image, because that would undermine his humanist agenda.

The only problem with this is that the film clearly holds this very important piece of theology front and center, that God created people in His image. Despite Godawa’s clearly false claim, the film repeats it many times from many characters. It is said by Noah twice, The Watchers said it once, Lamech said it, and it is perverted by Tubal-Cain. Throw in the bonus that Noah clearly says “we get our power from The Creator” and the whole humanism thesis quickly dissolves.

Objection: Veganism!

In an ongoing criticism of the film, Godawa vents that the depicted sin of humanity is all about meat eating in the film. When one reads through Genesis, there are two ways to read it regarding meat eating. First, the most literal way is that God never blessed eating anything but plants until after the flood – thus meat eating is a sin to Noah in scripture for the timing of most of the film. Or there’s the more “nuanced” way – which we’d naturally assume is Hollywood’s tendency: “Nuance it” to justify an agenda, right? Well, the nuanced way is: Sure, God never really gave permission to eat meat until after the flood, but since God did kill animals for Adam and Eve (but did He?), and since He gave Noah instruction to bring 7 of each clean animal onto the ark, and since we can read into that statement the Torah’s definition (that Noah hadn’t heard) of “clean” certainly implies kosher food laws it must mean that those animals were for eating, therefore Noah eats meat in Genesis.

For what it’s worth, I think both are actually viable ways to read the text. And since there are two ways to read into vegetarianism in Genesis, maybe we can give “Hollywood” a pass on taking the more literal interpretation as their own.

Objection: Creation From Nothing!

Creationism in the film was allegedly subverted too – because it starts with “In the beginning there was nothing.” That’s Pagan, they say! Atheists believe that!

So do I. I’ve taught the Bible plenty. My favorite part is creation and Genesis 1:1 – 12:3. The Hebrew verb for “created” in Genesis 1 is a word that is only used with God as the subject and it means to create from nothing. And in the creation sequence the film follows that very line with God speaking light into existence on “the first day and it was good.” The creation narrative in the film then goes on to name the six days one by one (albeit with an evolving-animals sequence), yet then on the sixth day, God distinctly creates humanity in his image. While I wish it said it was “very good” at that point, the fact that God created us in his image on the sixth day is very clearly in the film. Adam and Eve didn’t just passively evolve in the film. How can an atheist tell an atheistic version of creation with “The Creator” as the creator and still be pushing an atheist’s agenda?

Objection: No Rebellion Against God!

In the most head scratching criticism from Ken Ham, he suggests that the film doesn’t depict “rebellion against God.” It’s head scratching for two reasons. First, never are those words a part of Genesis 6 – 9. Second, more importantly, Tubal-Cain’s speech as the rain starts is so so overtly personifying rebellion against God: Tubal-Cain’s arrogant comparison of himself to god, giving and taking life, that men united are invincible, or that Tubal-Cain cries that he will build a new society in his own image are all manifestations of rebellion against God. Even just yelling at God to do what Tubal-Cain wants God to do images such rebellion. Tubal-Cain says to Ham “A man is not ruled by the heavens but by his will.” These are the same themes of Biblical rebellion against God that we find throughout scripture including at the Tower of Babel, which the story of Noah (and the lineage of Ham) feeds.

Ham got on the boat. Ken Ham missed it.

Objection: Environmentalism!

But the most important sin in this film is supposedly the environmental “agenda.” It’s pretty much unanimous after all, since almost every American right-wing Christian who’s seen the film has completely objected to the environmental undertones in it. It’s honestly not my favorite part either, but this is where grace (and not even that much is needed) toward a non-Christian director has to come into play.

But even with such grace, and to be clear, I’m a right-wing homeschooling Ken Ham-VBS-curriculum-teaching conservative-talk-radio-listening Christian myself (I really am), I defend the fact that the film clearly depicts primary sin as the violent arrogance of man time and again. It doesn’t depict “property rights advocates” in a bad way like Godawa claims, it depicts a bad guy subjugating his fellow man and taking the land that others are living on. It’s man’s inhumanity to man – the very thing Ken Ham alleges the film didn’t depict. And it most certainly doesn’t explain the flood as anything but man’s wickedness – which is partly environmental as depicted but is so overwhelmingly shown as violence (threatening, intimidating, killing, selling women in the mob scene, stealing, and people fighting over, yes, natural resources). You’d think from the reviews Tubal-Cain is the non-violent CEO of the Exxon corporation (yet carrying a “gun”).

But then even looking closer we can find that it would undermine its own ostensible “environmental agenda.” For example Noah scolds young Ham (played by a pastor’s kid, no less) for picking a flower, he uses environmental jargon to teach his son a lesson. An environmentalist “agenda” would leave that flower dead, destroyed, and irreplaceable. It would be the final action that sets in motion the ball rolling that will actually clinch the destruction of the entire planet – right? But that’s not the story told in that scene nor in the film as a whole. What happens in that scene is that God immediately and miraculously replaces that flower, clearly demonstrating that God is going to take care of things – just like he does in the end of this film, and in the end of Revelation 21-22. True story – an executive for one of those environmental organizations saw the film and was not happy with it. Why? Because the film showed that the “Almighty” (his word) fixed the environmental problems in the end, which is contrary to environmentalist’s messaging. There you have it.

Naameh says in the film to Noah, “We are surrounded by darkness, yet beauty survives even in this barren ground. Maybe it is a sign he comes to heal.”

God makes all things new. God restores the broken, grows gardens from deserts, and brings fertility from bareness. That is good theology, and that is in the film.

Objection: Unrighteous!

Nearly every rejection I’ve read mentions that Noah was righteous yet the film allegedly depicts Noah as anything but. Instead of being righteous he was sinful, mean, and focused on killing his grandchildren believing that God wanted him to kill off humanity. While I wouldn’t make the theological case that the Biblical Noah was blind to God saving humanity through him (nobody is claiming that’s the Bible’s position – it’s simply a movie’s dramatization of God wanting to wipe out humanity which IS in the Bible), and probably in a million years wouldn’t have dreamed up that plot for my own Noah’s Ark movie, it is clearly a choice they made in the film. But it doesn’t make Noah not righteous. Hold on, you say? You object? Let’s think it through – how can a person who almost kills children thinking it’s God’s will be righteous? Well, you can ask Abraham. How can a person be a prophet of God when he doesn’t obey God and wants people to die? Ask Jonah. How can a person be after God’s own heart but also be a murdering adulterer? Ask David. Why do we protect Noah as proto-Jesus by assuming righteous means anything other than Noah trusted God? In the film, Noah wasn’t taking pleasure in the idea of killing humanity, he was angry about it, and he was assuming it was God’s plan just like it says in Genesis 6:5-8. I also, for the record, believe that in the end the film does not communicate that it’s God’s will for Noah to kill the babies, but it is God’s will (as Ila explains) to help Noah learn God’s mercy in contrast to the stark justice he just witnessed.

Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. Where does Noah’s come from?

Objection: Paganism!

But all of these aren’t the real issue. No, as I see it, the core of the criticisms I read boil down to the fact that a person who is not of the Christian worldview is making a Bible film. Or perhaps if Christendom allowed this, why on Earth did they let him have any ability to have any creative control over his own film? Either way, I’m reading between the lines that this is what is truly and fundamentally intolerable. How could a non-Christian possibly get it right? Is there a line that would have been “right enough?” No, I don’t believe we would allow it. Rather any creative choice that strays too far from the text (if from a non-believer’s mind) should be rejected. The text stands alone – and I believe it does. Maybe that means we should actually reject any depictions of a Bible character? Or maybe only if it’s done by a non-believer. This is all sounding awfully similar to a fatwa, and it grieves me.

Wrap-Up

Let’s wrap this up. ”Love your neighbor” is our charge. That is expected of us even if we think he’s a secular liberal vegan pagan atheist humanist environmental whacko Hollywood director. Vilifying him (and effectively his whole team) will not get us any closer to God. And to me, he was personally quite a kind, thoughtful, creative, hyper-intelligent colleague with whom I had incredibly fruitful conversations. I’m thankful that he took a huge risk to tell a Bible story in a very creative way, and did it quite impressively. You don’t have to like the movie, love the movie, or see the movie. But we really need to respond better than this when we have objections.

John Snowden served as the Biblical Consultant on Noah from April 2012 until March 31, 2014. After six years of vocational youth ministry in West Los Angeles, John moved with his family to Kathmandu, Nepal, where he is a Vice President of CloudFactory, a tech company seeking to connect a million people in the developing world to basic computer work while raising them up as leaders to address poverty in their own communities. He is not related to Edward.

Read More:

Rebecca Cusey on An Invitation to Listen: How the Church Should Think about Noah

Rebecca Cusey’s Review: A Bible Movie That Doesn’t Preach or Browbeat

Rebecca Cusey’s Interview with Aronofsky and Handel

Peter Chattaway’s Extensive Noah Coverage

Barbara Nicolosi Accuses Me of Selling My Soul to ‘Noah’ Marketers – For a Stale Bagel

Apparently my colleague Barbara Nicolosi is going to blow the cover off the scandalous secret of Christian film marketing.

I want to be very clear that I have a lot of respect for Barbara. She was instrumental in helping me start thinking about movies specifically and culture in general. She taught at the Act One writing program at the time, a screenwriting school that takes the business of Hollywood seriously and trains Christians to hone their craft so they are able to professionally and artistically speak into the moviemaking and TV business.

Barbara was never soft with her students. You have to make a career of Hollywood, she taught, not a hobby. You have to respect the craft. You have to actually work hard, very hard, and maybe in decades you’ll be at a point where you can make a difference.

It was tough love, tough love that the Christian culture needed and she helped shape Christian thinking at that time and I’m grateful for her voice back a decade ago.

That’s why it bothers me so much, though, that in the case of Noah, Barbara will not concede that other Christians may have a valid different opinion on the movie (here’s my positive review). She has said that those of us who like it don’t really like it, but are lying and have received some shady, yet undefined, payout from the studio.

Because we have the temerity to disagree with her.

This is insulting at best, slanderous at worst.

I certainly don’t get paid much for being a movie critic. If I were selling my soul, I’d expect it to pay better.

Barbara has taken what was a friendly debate among various Christian critics and turned it into something ugly and personal. Us versus them. The righteous versus the evildoers. The godly versus the diabolical. Over a movie. Over, let’s repeat again, a movie. Not human trafficking or homelessness or war theory or abortion. A movie.

This was not necessary. And it’s not right.

Yes, marketing firms focus on the Christian market. This is not news either. We can’t have it both ways, saying that Hollywood ignores people of faith on one hand and demanding products (i.e. movies) that we want to see, and then turn around and complain that we’re treated as a market.

So you can peek behind the curtain here, let me tell you how I came to review Noah early and interview the directors.

By the way, separately from my screening and interview, the advertising department at Patheos made a deal to advertise the film on our site. Many other sites advertised the film as well. One had nothing to do with the other. This is an age-old dilemma in news, from the early days of newspapers. Like all reputable sites, we have a firm line between editorial and advertising, which is why what Barbara says about the Entertainment Channel at Patheos, which I run, being undisclosed paid advertising is patently untrue.

The stories I ran were selected for their news value and nothing else. With all the worldwide press this film has generated, I hardly have to argue it was a news-worthy story.

Peter Chattaway here at Patheos was covering Noah and other Bible stories in more depth than anyone else long before he was offered an interview. He continues to do fine work. And Steven Greydanus’ work on Noah has been extremely valuable and insightful as well.

By the way, Barbara will receive a decent sized check for her post, paid for in part by the advertising she so denounces.

Anyway, Paramount and Grace Hill Media, who have always treated me well and with integrity, offered me an advance screening and an exclusive interview on a movie with a lot of buzz, especially to my faith-based readership. I jumped at it.

That’s called journalism.

I know “journalism” is a lofty word to throw around about movie criticism, but ultimately that’s what I aspire to. Like Jake Tapper scoring an interview with the President or Barbara Walters interviewing Bono, we all scramble for content that will bring eyeballs to our writing and serve the public. We want the big story, the scoop.

I do many interviews a year, some of them pitched by Grace Hill Media, most via other contacts. I turn down quite a few pitches from GHM and others as well. Some interviewees are big names, others you wouldn’t recognize but have big talent. Here’s the interview I did recently with Jason Bateman about the extremely R-rated Bad Words, an interview I also very much enjoyed, and which, frankly, should be WAY more controversial than my work on Noah. 

Of course I jumped at Aronofsky. I would be crazy to turn down an advance screening and interview with the hottest movie of the year so far and a story that was making waves not only in religious circles, but worldwide secular circles.  It has nothing to do with the pride of meeting famous people or stoking my ego, except in the sense I would like to be an excellent journalist. It has everything to do with scooping the story and serving my readers. This is what journalists do.

I agreed to an embargo until a certain date – standard operating procedure in many beats of journalism – and nothing else. It was clear that the studio hoped I’d like the film. It was clear that I might not and that was the risk they were taking. We discussed that ahead of time.

Paramount tried to set up the screening and interview here where I live in DC. Darren Aronofsky was still editing some aspects of the film and could not take time for an entire day trip to DC. So I accepted a flight up to New York paid for by the studio. Patheos does not have a budget for travel, at least not yet, something not unusual in the tightened financial arena of current media.

The plane was just a rickety puddle jumper. More dubious than luxurious. I flew there and back the same day. I watched the film in a screening room and missed lunch time doing it. Someone brought me tea in a styrofoam cup (which I spilled all over the floor and myself like a dork but at least it helped me identify with the characters in the flood scene).

I liked the film very much, immediately. Paramount reps rushed me to make my window with Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel. I talked with them for 25 minutes and found them both fascinating, intelligent, respectful, and well-thought. This is not always the case with Hollywood types, but it was here. (Read my entire interview here.)

I confess that in a moment of weakness brought on by low blood sugar, I did accept an abandoned stale bagel that was laying around the Paramount break room.

Ah the glamour of show business!

I then went home, paying for my own crappy overpriced airport dinner, which I scarfed down like an orphan in a Charles Dickens novel, and wrote an honest review and interview feature. Oh, I bought myself a nine-dollar beer too. I might buy myself another one after finishing this post.

All in all, I would rather have stayed in DC that day if it weren’t for the story I was chasing. I went through a long day of travel for a story that I thought, and still think, was valuable to my readers. The travel about as much fun as a root canal. The story itself was great fun. I do not appreciate Barbara or anyone implying I have done anything scandalous, immoral, or unprofessional here.

Barbara’s reasoning goes: These critics disagree with me, therefore they are lying. If they are lying, they must have a reason to lie. If they have a reason, they must be bought. It’s the worst kind of ad hominem attack and betrays a shocking arrogance about the presumed correctness of her own point of view.

She’s so right that anyone who disagrees with her is not only wrong, but evil.

My salvation hardly rests on whether I agree with Barbara on how many stars a movie should get.

I mean, I agree with Rotten Tomatoes’s Tomatometer 76% of the time, but I don’t expect that to get me into heaven.

I liked Noah. I’m not going to apologize for that or be bullied into changing my mind. I liked having a scoop. I’m not going to apologize for that either.

But I would much rather engage Barbara, learn from her, and enjoy her usually insightful analysis than fight her. I hope she’ll be willing.

Exclusive: Darren Aronofsky: ‘Everyone Believes in God’ in ‘Noah’

There has been some talk about whether or not God appears in the movie Noah.

When I talked to Darren Aronofsky, he could not have been more clear. Speaking of the villain Tubal-Cain, he said:

What’s interesting is most of the time when you make a bad guy in a movie, if it’s a religious movie, you make the guy a nonbeliever or something. But that’s not the case. Everyone believes in God in this movie because God is ten generations ago. Adam is ten generations ago, creation was just ten generations ago.

Co-writer Ari Handel added:

In his genealogy, Noah is the first person born after Adam died. So the idea that God doesn’t exist in the universe, it nonsense. So Tubal-Cain has a relationship with God, it’s just a negative relationship with God. He’s angry but he’s also, in that scene, he’s also looking for more. It’s complicated.

Read the full transcript (with some spoilers, so beware) of our conversation here. 

Read my review of the film.

Read my letter to Christians: An Invitation to Listen, How Christians Should Think About Noah

Transcript: Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel on ‘Noah’

Transcript

Darren Aronofsky, Director, co-writer Noah

Ari Handel, co-writer, Noah

March 14, 2014

New York Paramount Offices

Warning: Some spoilers in the conversation.

Patheos: Tell me about your personal relationship with this story. How did it come about?

DA: It started probably when I was 13, I was a public school kid in Brooklyn. I had a really great teacher who asked us all to take out a piece of paper and pen and write something about peace. I ended up writing a poem called Dove about Noah. It turned out it was a contest for the UN. I ended up winning it and having to recite it in front of the UN a few weeks later. And so, Noah has sort of been a patron saint of mine, in setting me down the path of creativity. When I eventually made the film Pi and was thinking about future films, I thought it was so weird no one has ever done the Noah story as a movie. In fact, it’s a little weird that the Bible epic as a genre has been dead for 50 years. There seems to be this new frontier there. Back in 2000 I started pitching it. In 2003 we started writing a draft. And then 2006 we set it up somewhere but it didn’t happen. And then after Black Swan, suddenly a lot of doors were open and my representation was like, you know you might be able to get that made. It’s kind of been a life long passion and adventure so far.

AH: I came to it when Darren, around 2003, said let’s do this.

DA: We were college roommates, Ari and me, Ari actually has a PhD in neuroscience. After college, he also got

Patheos: Was that at Harvard?

DA: We were roommates in college and then he got a PhD at ..(audio unclear)

DA: And then when he got his PhD, he was kind of wondering what he was going to do with his doctorate. Over those seven or eight years you were in training, I would always pick on Ari’s brain because he’s a neuroscientist and he’s really really smart. And he would always help us and I was like hey do you want to write something together and that’s how it all began between us as a collaboration.

Patheos: So let’s talk, the controversy, one of the controversies, is the environmental issue, and so what’s your reaction to people saying oh well the sin of Noah is not that he wasn’t an environmentalist.

DA: The sin of man was not that they were destroying the world.

Patheos: The sin of man. I misspoke, you’re right.

DA: That they weren’t destroying the earth.

DA: You just saw the film so you can see that surely there are issues about man’s violence against man, that’s really outlined in that war montage, there’s definitely man destroying, killing animals, brutally, that’s a part of it. And there’s also the sin of murder with Cain and Abel, I mean what happened is we looked at the Bible really really closely for clues and if you look at tradition, the Noahic laws, the seven laws of Noahic laws, which were the laws that came before the ten commandments, were set up after the flood. But before that, what were the laws? And there’s only kind of three rules we could find. The first rule was don’t eat from that tree, which we broke, and there was probably don’t kill, even though that wasn’t a rule before it happened, after Cain kills Abel, God was clearly upset with it. And there was a third rule which was all the green things in this garden are for you to eat. It’s in tradition that Noah and his family were vegetarians and didn’t eat from animals until after the Noahic laws. In fact, one of the Noahic laws is an interesting one, which is you can eat animals now but don’t eat live animals. Which made us go, what does that mean don’t eat live animals? That’s disgusting. It must have to do that before the flood, they were somehow brutally you know destroying animals. When you look at the story of Noah, he’s saving the animals. That’s what he’s entrusted to do. It’s not saving all the good people or trying to find the good people to put on the ark.  He’s saving the animals, all two by two, he’s saving God’s creation. And like Pope Frances is now talking about, he was a steward of creation. And you know I think people are putting this political agenda on it, which isn’t really part of what we’re doing. We’re just trying to represent what is in Genesis.

AH: If you look, at what it literally says in the Noah story, of what the wickedness of man is, cuz, Obviously we went right there to figure out what’s going on, it doesn’t say very much, it says they corrupted the earth and filled it with violence, so obviously if they’re going to corrupt the earth, it has to be something that is pure in order to be corrupted. So the idea of corrupting a pure earth and the idea of filling it with violence, and we tried to very much show that violence, which I’m sure you saw the man on man violence, we see a corruption of pure earth. We’re just trying to find what is the story telling us actually happened.

Patheos: How important – I’m getting a sense of this – but how important was it to you to stay with the text and do you, is there anywhere in your knowledge where you went, where you feel like you didn’t adhere to the text?

DA: We, not making a joke now, the text was paramount, not talking about the studio, it was the final word on everything. We worked very hard not to contradict anything in the actual text. And if you go through the film, you can see there’s nothing that contradicts the text, but the text is four chapters long. There’s no way a two hour movie in those four chapters. In fact, Noah never even speaks in the entire, up till the flood is over, he doesn’t speak. How can you cast Russell Crowe, you can’t really make a silent movie with him. But there were clues, there were really interesting clues. The second thing that Noah does after the flood is he gets drunk. A lot of people forget that, but it’s the first mention of wine in the entire bible, and he’s naked and he doesn’t get covered by Ham. For us, it’s like, well that’s really interesting, maybe that’s not just one event, maybe something led to that.

AH: A relationship story

DA: A relationship. What type of relationship led to it. If you look at our movie, it’s a pretty well-woven thing. You follow Ham’s story back to him plucking the flower in that opening scene. A kid, you know, who’s curious. And where that leads in a situation that’s very difficult, where that relationship falls apart even though it’s a very loving relationship. We wanted to bring that to life. And we wanted to show, that when Ham goes off and is cursed and his descendants, you know, end up Nimrod and Babel, that this idea that yes, the first story after the flood is the tower of Babel, so it goes from restarting everything to the wickedness of man again. So for us, there’s this idea, it was like ok, clearly there’s this idea of what is good and what is wicked and how we go through these waves. So clearly Noah and his family was carrying the idea of wickedness. They had original sin in them. How do you portray that as a story? How do you bring that to life?

AH: And find a way to treat that mercifully as opposed to judgmentally, which at the beginning of the story, has this, you know, people are going to be punished for what they’ve done, and by the end there’s this notion that yes there’s still wickedness and also you have those temptations, but there’s mercy for that. And we’re not gonna punish the world, so you know,

DA: We were always coming back to the text and grounding in the text and looking for clues in the text. Whenever we got stuck, we looked for clues in the text.

Patheos: I was like, but he didn’t bring the wives on the ark, and then you got me. I was, like, I’m obviously not going to reveal, I was thinking, oh man they really deviated here, but you didn’t.

DA: It’s funny. We talked to a lot of religious people and I’m like ok tell me where we contradicted the text, directly contradicted the text. And there are a few things, a few lines, but basically, it’s very truthful and honorable of the original text. If you go through it, we did dramatize it.

AH: It is the way people have preconceived notions themselves of what the text may mean, you know, like with the wives.

DA: One guy was like, what about the fact he wasn’t 940 years old? And so you know we tried to sort of say, first of all, how are you ever going to do that? Everyone is going to be in age makeup? It’s silly, you know, to create a film like that. So we decided to say it predeluvian times, who knows how time was and what that aging was? And maybe they were that old, we don’t really know, but you know, we basically took the length of his life and divided it to a hundred year old man. And basically said at this point he’s 40 and at this point he’s 50.

AH: Noah died when he was 930, so he’s 500 years old when he has his children and the flood comes when he’s 600 years old. And maybe over a thousand years, that’s middle aged. And that seemed actually more realistic actually to being longlived, to just you know, the first 80 years you’re kind of young and then you become just kind of old.

Patheos: What about the …so this is, at least in my world, this is being discussed in religious circles, and but I’m almost wondering if the fact that it’s being in kind of the Christian right and Bible movie circles, do you want a broader audience, do you think the broader audience will be interested, do you think they’ll be turned away because it’s been “How Noah was blah blah blah.”

DA: For us, the film’s for everyone. It’s for believers and nonbelievers. And I hope it creates conversation between both sides. One thing I’ve noticed is how much anger there is out there between those two sides, just seeing some of the articles written on the internet and seeing comments, there’s a big battle, and I hope this film can actually make the conversation civil, it can bring people together to talk about these ideas. Because I think believers are not, if they let go of their expectations that this isn’t exactly how they imagined it, but actually look a little bit beneath the surface and look at the themes of this story, they’re going to see the same themes of hope, second chances, survival, family, they’re all values that I think believers find in the story and that definitely preachers and pastors can talk about it and relate it back to ideas that they’re trying to discuss. The exciting thing is that nonbelievers are going to get a film that ‘s an action filled exciting great, hopeful, warm top-notch actors in the world right now, bring these character to life, so that it’s, so they’re going to have a very deep entertainment that’s a family drama about a man who has an impossible task ahead of him and has to sort of accomplish it. It’s a superhero film in many ways, um so…

AH: And they can have the feeling that just because a story is in the Bible, doesn’t mean it’s a not story that they’re interested in, and those same themes that we’re talking about, they don’t have to have a religious stance to being completely invested in those themes as human beings because they’re universal themes.

DA: I do think we do want it to go to everyone.

Patheos: So talk to me a little bit about the Tubal-Cain character. He was a big surprise for me. Almost his laying out of theology. Where did that come from, his view of God, and man’s role in the universe?

DA: I think um, he’s a character named in the Bible, he’s a, if you follow the genealogies, he was alive at the same time as Noah, he’s described as the first worker of metal and weapons, and so he seemed like the right guy to sort of create a personification of the wickedness of man. But I think once again what was important to us is that we’re all descendants of original sin. You know, Adam and Eve are all of our distant ancestor. And so that original sin is in everyone and so we didn’t want to paint just a purely evil guy and a purely good guy. We wanted to discuss how all of us have temptations and how all of us have to make choices to do the right thing in our lives. What’s interesting is most of the time when you make a bad guy in a movie, if it’s a religious movie, you make the guy a nonbeliever or something. But that’s not the case. Everyone believes in God in this movie because god is ten generations ago. Adam is ten generations ago, creation was just ten generations ago.

AH: In his genealogy, Noah is the first person born after Adam died. So the idea that God doesn’t exist in the universe, it nonsense. So Tubal-Cain has a relationship with God, it’s just a negative relationship with God. He’s angry but he’s also, in that scene, he’s also looking for more. It’s complicated.

DA: There’s a lot of father son relationships going on here. Throughout the film, Noah and his sons and between the Creator and Noah, there’s a father son relationship but also between Tubal-Cain and his Creator, there’s  relationship. But what was interesting to us is that God is not mentioned in the Bible in those ten generations after Cain. The last thing God does is he marks Cain and then you don’t hear about it until his heart is grieved because of the wickedness of man. For us that was a really interesting thing. There’s a big gap here of God’s presence. So how would a character who didn’t have God for ten generations feel? It’s interesting because Ray Winston would talk about it, as I was describing this relationship, he would say it’s kind of being a latch key kid who’s like left alone and burns down the kitchen and then the parent comes home and is really upset and the kid is like what did you want me to do I was here all alone. And that’s how he feels is that God has abandoned us and now he comes back and wants justice, that’s not fair, which for us was kind of a really cool theological idea. And just you know because people can look at this time now and go where is God in this world and what is our responsibility to God, so it relates to a lot of ideas that people are thinking about now.

Patheos: So I felt like –I’m trying to think – you left it open whether Noah had failed or not. Whether or not he was supposed to, or at least in his mind, it seems like he never really settled that, is that something you want people to wrestle with, kind of the sin, how dark humanity is?

DA: Well, I think, it is second chances, is kind of for me, what it is. There is an ambiguous end to the story if you think about it the next story is the story of Babel as I said, so we go right back to wickedness.

Patheos: You had it even on the ark they’re fighting, trying to kill each other, father against son.

DA: Yeah yeah yeah. We were just trying to play out that conflict. But for me, I think, what Eula says on the rock, maybe don’t print this, just for your own take, I think she’s sort of explaining that you were tested and you went through a test and maybe this is what you want. And I think with second chance comes responsibility and I think that’s kind of how Russell played it, sort of hope and responsibility and then that kind of rainbow cosmic image at the end is a new pact, like ok we’re going to try a second chance

AH: When you look at the Noahic laws and you look at the covenant that comes, theirs is an added responsibility, it’s that people are supposed to have courts, they’re supposed to judge themselves, they’re supposed to take a little responsibility for how they behave and for enforcing it. So I think there’s an ambiguity there but I think the solution of the ambiguity for Noah is, oh, maybe we don’t know, we’re not all good, we have dark tendencies within us but we can do a better job, we can do better, we have to better ourselves.

DA: See this is what we want, we want conversation, exactly what’s going, because I think there’s a lot of ways to think about the film and I think there’s a lot of nervousness about Hollywood but this is not a “Hollywood” movie, this is something that I’ve been passionate about my entire life and this is something Ari and I spent a decade studying and thinking about and trying to think about a way to bring it to life. There is no, like, agenda of some you know people trying to make money off of Bible stories.

AH: The only agenda is like these themes you’re bringing up, the relationship between man and God, the relationship between goodness and wickedness, mercy and judgment, We went to the story to find those themes of what those stories are about, what questions is it asking, why is Babel next? Is wickedness and goodness between people or in every person? Those are the questions we saw there and that’s what we were trying to bring forth into the film and dramatize and that’s what we’d love people to be talking about and not whether, you know….

Patheos: That’s what makes it challenging too.

DA: It is challenging. You know, it’s interesting because people have a lot of preconceptions about Noah, they think he’s all good, a good old man, but it doesn’t actually say that he’s good, it says that he was righteous in his generation. And there’s been a lot of Jewish thought for centuries about what that means, righteousness in his generation and what we sort of came away with is that righteousness is a good balance of justice and mercy. As a parent you may be able to understand that if you’re too just you destroy your child through strictness and if you’re too merciful you destroy your child through leniency. So being a good parent is about balancing justice and mercy, which is what Noah is. And at the beginning of the story of Noah, God is purely, purely vengeful and wants justice. And so we decided to sort of align Noah with that, that he is upset and wants justice for the world, and like the rainbow at the end, where god basically finds mercy and grace for mankind, Noah too finds mercy and grace, so we kind of gave him a similar emotional journey and then with the balance of mercy and justice, he actually is righteous in his generation.

Patheos: You took it down off the nursery wall, which I think needed to be done How much did you go back to older versions of the story. In the scene where the water first comes and they’re all on that rock of that reminded me of

DA: Doré

Patheos: Is that the woodcutting?

DA: Yes, exactly, that’s good you’re the first person to pick up on that.

DA: That’s called the Doré shot, actually, it’s named after, that’s what we called it.

Patheos: When the drop fell, it reminded me of the passion of the Christ.

DA: I don’t think I was referencing that. I..

Patheos: Were there other shout outs?

DA: We looked at every piece of art that’s ever been done on the Noah story that we could find. And it was really interesting it’s like, for instance the white dove is maybe four or five hundred years old. Before that the dove is different colors and stuff.

AH: It doesn’t say it was white and there’s lots of different kinds of doves.

DA: Like the ark is a perfect example. Most people picture this houseboat but if you actually look at this description in genesis, it describes a box, it tells you this many cubits long, and if you really think about it, it didn’t need to steer anywhere, it doesn’t need a keel. It was basically a storage device three levels big. That’s how it was described. If you look at our vision of what the ark looked like, it’s probably the most accurate of what’s been done according to Genesis. We tried to find a lot of artwork to help us but there’s very very few that sort of captured the magnitude of it because it’s been turned for a very long time into something comedic and for children and I think it’s because of the animals, it’s because of man saving the animals and that’s something kids can relate to

AH: I even think it’s something deeper than that, I think there’s something really scary in the story which is that God would think about killing all of the people. That ‘s a really dark thought and I think the reactions to that really dark thought is to put it under the rug a little bit and not think about that. There’s a way there’s a part of the story that people have turned away from by sanitizing it.

DA: You just gave me a flashback of my childhood, of hearing the story early on as a kid and being scared that that could happen again and I could not get on the boat. I just actually felt that for a second. Sorry I haven’t felt that for a long time.

I’ve long thought it was bizarre we put it up on children’s walls.

DA: It’s a very intense story. We wanted to capture the spirit of that and bring it to life because I think actually there’s a lot to get from that story. There’s a lot there. It’s a lot richer than just a nursery story, absolute faith, there’s lots of interpretations but it doesn’t usually get into the whole idea of wickedness and sin and goodness and grace, which is the stuff we were attracted to talking about.

 


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