“Noah” is Darren Aronofsky’s Midrash

Darren Aronofsky has made an eminently biblical film.

That is, if you see the Bible as a living, complex text full of conflict and theological questions.

If you see the Bible as a wooden history book, you’ll probably dislike Noah. Or at least you’ll be confused.

We pick up the story 10 generations after Adam and Eve. Noah is a boy, descended from the line of Seth. Of his tribe, we only meet his family — if there are others from the line of Seth, they are not allied with Noah.

The rest of the populace comes from Cain, the original murderer. And, although Cain’s vegetable sacrifice was rejected by God, his people are now ravenous meat eaters  — almost zombie-like in their quest for blood. Sethites are the vegetarians, and this is only the first of many comments that the movie makes on our present situation.

Thankfully, Aronofsky does not try to guess at what human wore and carried thousands of years ago. Instead, he creates a credible and visually stunning world, in which Noah and his family are completely circumscribed. It’s closer to a Shakespearian play set in Nazi Germany than it is to the biblical epics that we all grew up with.

That original murder haunts the entire 2 1/4-hour movie. The murder of Abel by Cain is the black cloud that hangs over Noah, his family, and every other human. Noah dreams about it, and the descendants of Cain admit that the Creator has abandoned them, that he’s been silent for generations. “We’re on our own,” says the king of the Cainites. But Noah disagrees.

God — referred to primarily as “the Creator” — does not speak. Instead, Noah has a vision, confirmed by his grandfather Methuseleh, that the world will be destroyed because God is tired of human evil. God doesn’t exactly show Noah the ark in the dream; Noah seems to come up with that himself. But there is a moment after the vision when Noah realizes the difference between destruction by fire and destruction by water, and that’s probably worth the price of the ticket right there.

—SPOILERS BELOW—

First, let’s deal with the stone ninja angels. As soon as I saw one I said, out loud, “The Nephilim!” Now you’ve got to be pretty deep in the weeds on the Bible to even know about the Nephilim, much less to know that one of the two verses in which they’re mentioned is the verse directly preceding the story of Noah and the ark.

There is not one Bible professor on the planet who has a friggin’ clue what the Nephilim are. They are a complete mystery. So Aronofsky has as much right as anyone to decide that they are fallen angels who tried to help humans but instead became like human and were therefore encased in stone as a punishment. And now they kick ass.

Regarding the setting, two very different experiences await you as a moviegoer. In the first half of the movie, this tiny family of five (and then six) wander a treeless dystopia, every bit as postapocalyptic as a Mad Max movie, complete with the wandering hordes of Cainite thugs.

But in the second half, they’re thrown into a space little bigger than the sub in Das Boot. And it’s there, in those cramped spaces, that things begin to unravel. Noah’s interpretation of his dream becomes suspect — he’s convinced of one thing, his family thinks another. Will he submit to the wisdom of the community or stand fast with what he is sure is right? That’s the real plot spoiler, so I’m not going to answer it. But I will say this: during a couple scenes, I wondered if Russell Crowe was playing Noah or Abraham. (Here’s hoping that Aronofsky makes a movie about Abraham!)

This movie is magical realism on film. And I loved that part. It’s a retelling of one part of the Bible’s pre-history. Anything before Abraham is pre-history, people. It’s the mythical framework for the rest of the history of Israel, and as such, Aronofsky has a lot of latitude in telling the story. And he took that latitude, in spades. Any student of the Bible will have to get over the fact that only one of Noah’s three sons has a wife on the ark, but since that’s central to the conflict on the boat, you can see why Aronofsky did that. Also, the animals are quickly marginalized with a hallucinatory smoke that doesn’t affect the humans in the least. But if you get hung up on that, you probably don’t like pretty much anything in the Bible. Other non-biblical choices are more easily overlooked.

I loved it. I cried. I actually cried. And if you love the Bible, I bet you’ll love Noah, too.

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  • http://henryimler.com/ Henry Imler

    Thanks for, the wrap-up and review. My thoughts mirror your own.

  • Ben Bartosik

    I’m really looking forward to seeing this movie. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Lindsay Hawkins

    ….beforehand I thought, -another christian movie blah blah, but, your review has drawn me in :), I look forward to seeing where Mr. Aronofsky takes us! I want to cry too :).

  • joel

    “…another Christian movie blah blah…” Wow. I mean, just wow. Not only does your comment infer intolerance toward Christians, but also no knowledge of the story or the Director. Aronofsky is Jewish. The story of Noah is told in the Hebrew bible…

  • Eric Boersma

    Very, very excited to be going to see this soon. Aranofsky is brilliant and I’ve enjoyed all of his films I’ve seen. I suspect this will be no different.

  • http://waynebowerman.com/ Wayne Bowerman

    I had absolutely no desire to see the film before reading this review. Now I am thinking that perhaps I’ll check it out.

  • Dan

    Just saw it. Plodding, horrible score. Acting was good. Effects were OK. Nephilim rock monsters were really dumb and out of place, just a ripoff of Peter Jackson’s Ents. Sort of like a re imagining of the story by an Episcopal Bishop on hallucinogens, channeling Green propaganda. There was a flood and an ark, lots of talk about sin and evil, but the primary sin seemed to be mistreating the planet, in spite of the allusions to Cain. Noah purposely wants no fertile women on the Ark so that humans die out and the innocent animals live on without man? No childbearing wives for his sons? And what was with the skin of the original snake as some sort of sacramental talisman? Just revisionism – not a wee but if artistic license, pure revisionism. And not very good.

    For the record, “Son of God” fared not much better in my view. Too much paraphrasing, not very well executed.

    • Larry Barber

      Because, of course, it’s perfectly alright to trash God’s very good creation. Nothing sinful about that at all.

      • Dan

        I see you are reading my comment with the same artistic license Aronofsky gave to the text of Genesis 6-9. Of course I said nothing of the sort. Had the film simply included allusions to good stewardship of the earth I would have had no problem. But instead we get a Noah who kills three men who hunted an odd prehistoric beast in Act 1 and leaves a young girl to die in Act 2, at least in part so his son would not reproduce. Then he spends most of Act 3 brooding about whether to kill his unborn granddaughters so man would die out and leave the planet to the innocent animals. The most gruesome scene was not the killing of a human, but the fabricated scene of Tubal-Cain biting the head off of a crawling creature.

        Of course the text (if a text matters in this culture anymore) repeatedly says that God wanted to cleanse the earth because of violence (man against man, see Gen 9:6) and says at least four times that God commanded Noah to board the Ark with his sons “and their wives”. The whole point fo the Ark was to save a remnant of humans (without which the animals would not have survived either.)

        There is certainly a place for artistic license, insertion of dialog that does not exist, speculation about “the watchers”, etc. But this movie made fallen angels (demons) into good guys, made Noah into a morally confused vegan and made God into a silent, distant entity who left Noah to figure out “mercy” on his own instead of the God who made a covenant with Noah from the outset. It turned the narrative on its head. “Wooden literalism” is not the point, the entire narrative was refashioned in ways that do violence to the original.

        • Luke Allison

          The original narrative is a page long dude. And Noah never talks. Also: didn’t he leave about ten thousand young girls to die in the traditional reading of the story?

        • Luke Allison

          Aranofsky’s version draws on Rabbinic debate/commentary over Noah’s motivations and morality. He presents a strange and odd (dare i say ancient?) world that doesn’t really look like ours.

          What I think Christians want is a vaguely middle eastern setting that feels “realistic” except for the echoing voice from heaven, animals flocking to an ark two-by-two, fallen angels having sex with women, the whole earth flooding…etc. In the end, our presuppositions would be confirmed, our theology would remain unchallenged, and we could go home and continue life.

          I haven’t stopped thinking about this film since I saw it. It’s so odd, a little off-putting, but highly effective as a theological statement.

        • Larry Barber

          You clearly implied that ecological sins aren’t really to be taken seriously. In fact, the Bible is not really clear, intentionally, I think, on why God sent the flood. You might infer from Gen 9:6 that it was violence, but Genesis 9 is after the flood, and what is in the Noahic covenant might not have a direct relationship to why the flood was sent.

          You are criticizing the movie for not being what it was never intended to be. It is not a retelling of the Biblical story, it is using the Biblical story as stage for discussing some of the most pressing issues of our time. It is not meant to be Biblical, nor historical, it is a midrash, applying the story of Noah to our own circumstances.

          I guess you have a direct line from God when it comes to figuring out mercy, must of us, and Aronofsky’s Noah, aren’t so fortunate, we have to figure it out on our own. I also note that you criticize the depiction of Noah, but the same criticisms could be leveled against a God who destroyed the earth and all that was in it. You take issue with Noah agonizing over the fates of a couple of people, but say nothing about a “Creator” who wipes out the whole planet. (It’s questions like these that make me glad that this is mythology and not actual history.)

          • Dan

            Genesis 6:11 specifies: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.” So Genesis 9:6 is in that context. The specific command to not murder those created in God’s image comes as God vows never again to bring a flood as judgment.

            While Genesis 1-3 does tell man to be a steward over creation, there is nothing in the text to say that was a primary reason for the flood as Aronofsky’s movie suggests. Perhaps it was a part of the corruption, and that would have been an acceptable embellishment – “filling in the blanks” had he not subverted so many other things.

            As for whether God would be evil for passing judgment on those of his own creatures who were apparently full of murder, I am not going to make that call. It seems He will pass judgment on all men again one day. I think there is mercy on the other side of the coin, but that’s just my opinion, along with the opinion of almost all Christians for 2000 years. Who are we to argue with a movie director?

            • Larry Barber

              “Violence”, yes, but violence against what or whom?

              Not that it makes any difference, you are still insisting that the movie should be something that it isn’t and was never intended to be. You want a literalist movie? Make it yourself. Now, since any dialogue you put into this movie will be “non-Biblical”, it is going to be very boring, lots of scenes of Noah looking out a portal at the rain, I would imagine. But it would probably do well at the box office.

              • Dan

                If you can’t tell the difference between inserting dialogue and situations that are consistent with a theme as opposed to turning a story completely on its head, then I guess I might as well be saying nothing at all because reading my words is irrelevant to you. You are going to project some nonsense on to my viewpoint that has as much to do with what I wrote as Aronofsky”s movie had with the story his studio marketed to churches.

  • herewegokids

    I cried too. A lot. It was brilliantly done I thought.

  • Luke Allison

    Saw it today and thought it was mesmerizing from the first shot. I had no idea what to expect; this was not even close. This worked on many levels for me, and the couple other seminary students I saw it with. The thing we all agreed on was that this was the first time we ever saw somebody try to capture the fundamentally alien world of the Scripture; and hit some very nice notes capturing the fundamentally alien portrayal of God as well.

    Evangelicals typically want midwestern conservative values wrapped up in a vaguely middle-eastern environment with a few special effects shots and a suitably deep voice from the heavens. I can see why this would throw them off.

  • keely1

    Poppycock! If you want to see a movie about Noah, don’t see this one. If you want to see an interesting story that somewhat resembles the Noah story, but also resembles Lord of the Flies, Psycho, Castaway, and Waterworld, then by all means see it, but save your money and wait for the Red Box.

  • bill stamets

    A word to the literalists: this film ends with a preposterous claim that
    any resemblance between any character in NOAH, including Noah, and
    anyone else is a coincidence! Despite the director’s repeated claims he
    is drawing upon authentic texts as sources.

    • R Vogel

      I think my bible has that same disclaimer…..

      • bill stamets

        I erred. The term “coincidence” does occur in other disclaimers in the end-credits, even for those films that begin with “Based on a true story.” But as an online NOAH exegete noted, that film’s makers and lawyers instead claim: “The persons and events in this motion picture are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons or events is unintentional.” That would sound like a damnable lie, to at least some viewers of NOAH. Wonder if the films SON OF GOD and LINCOLN (and ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER) used a similar disclaimer.

  • nathanmattox

    Geat review Tony–my thoughts about the movie are basically exactly aligned with yours–I even made the “Mad Max” postapocalyptic/prehistory comment to my wife while we were watching. Regarding the Watchers/Nephilim, I thought they looked a bit weird too (reminded me of Rock Biter from the Neverending Story) but I liked the back story as to why they looked like they did. Also the watchers being something completely different elementally, and not just human looking beings who glowed or something, was a good idea. I think Darren Aronofsky kinda conflated the story of the Watchers and the Nephilim into singular beings, and instead of the Watchers prcreating with earthly women to create the Nephalim, the Watchers basically combine with Earth itself to become Nephilim. Have you seen Pi and The Fountain?

  • Tim Kuhn

    Super great film, I loved it too.

    The watchers aren’t actually the Nephilim, but rather the angels that fathered the Nephilim. The cool part is that the watchers are picked up from the extra-biblical book of Enoch. The whole ‘watchers give people technology and ruin stuff with it” is completely in line with this Jewish tradition. Some Jewish tradition actually thought “the fall” was found in the story of the watchers rather than Genesis 3.

    Props to Aronofsky for doing his homework.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Enoch#The_Book_of_the_Watchers

    • Agni Ashwin

      Enoch is extra-biblical only if you’re not Ethiopian Orthodox.

  • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

    Thanks for your thoughts & perspective!

  • wisething2do

    I thought this was a very thought provoking commentary:

    http://drbrianmattson.com/journal/2014/3/31/sympathy-for-the-devil

  • Pam Herbert

    I actually loved “Noah”. And I was almost in tears several times, too. I know Christians are bashing it because the director took liberties. I also remember growing up and every Easter Christians would watch “The Ten Commandments” with Charleston Heston. Now there is a movie that took liberties yet Christians adore it. Funny.

  • Donna Schillinger

    Agreed. Great movie and just as valid as the next guy’s attempt to fill in the blanks. Also glad to know a movie can make you cry.

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