Darren Aronofsky makes movies about obsessive people. To be the protagonist in an Aronofsky film is to be a mathematician who studies the stock market looking for hidden or even mystical patterns, or a middle-aged woman who takes drastic measures to lose weight because she thinks she will be on television soon, or a scientist who neglects his wife because he’s trying to cure her terminal illness, or a wrestler or ballet dancer who would literally rather die than miss an opportunity to give the performance of a lifetime.
Aronofsky also makes movies that explicitly deal with religious themes and metaphors. Pi (1998), his extremely low-budget first feature film, touches on an aspect of Jewish mysticism which holds that there are numerical codes hidden inside the Torah. The Fountain (2006) revolves around a tree of life — maybe even the Tree of Life — and the belief that death is but a necessary step toward regeneration. And The Wrestler (2008) centers on a man known as “the Ram,” whose sort-of girlfriend, a stripper, calls him a “sacrificial ram”; she even quotes the suffering-servant passage from Isaiah and applies it to the Ram and his wounds, saying she got the quote from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
So it’s not at all surprising to find that Aronofsky has now focused his efforts on making an actual biblical epic, about Noah and the Ark. And it is also not surprising — or at least, it shouldn’t be — that Aronofsky has put his personal stamp on the story by portraying Noah as someone who is so obsessed with the task that God has given him that he almost takes it too far, driving members of his family away from him in the process.
The film hits you from its opening frames with a bold mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Jarring notes on the soundtrack accompany a series of title cards that list Adam’s three sons1 and describe how Cain killed Abel and was afterwards protected by a race of beings known as the Watchers, who enabled the descendants of Cain to spread out over the world and wreak environmental havoc. Later scenes feature a sort of magic snakeskin that is passed down to the descendants of Seth, as well as a flashback sequence in which we learn that the Watchers are angels who took humanity’s side after God cast Adam and Eve out of Eden, but who were then betrayed by the very humans they had come to help.
So from its very opening moments, the film could be somewhat disorienting to the average viewer who thinks he already knows his basic Bible stories. The film fuses the biblical text with apocryphal Jewish legends (the flaming sword wielded by Methuselah in one flashback was inspired by a midrashic tradition, and the film borrows some of its ideas about the Watchers from the non-canonical Book of Enoch) and modern socio-political concerns (such as the abuse of animals and the effect of modern technology on the environment), and all of it is filtered through a fantasy aesthetic that owes more than a little to The Lord of the Rings.
But those who approach the film looking for a pure fantasy adventure will find it challenging in other ways, too. For one thing, Noah is not quite the hero — even the reluctant hero — that Frodo and Aragorn were. When we first encounter the adult Noah (Russell Crowe), he is living in utter isolation from the rest of humanity with his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and their three young sons; he is also a stern defender of plants and animals who chides his son Ham for plucking a flower needlessly and violently fights back against poachers in the name of “justice.” When Noah receives the visions which indicate that God is going to destroy the world and wants him to build an Ark, Noah assumes it is to save the animals but not necessarily the humans, who he figures would only ruin the Earth all over again.
So, while audiences might cheer as Noah and the Watchers2 fight off an army led by the villainous Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) — a self-proclaimed king who plans to take the Ark for himself and his men when the Flood comes — they might begin to question Noah’s goodness when he leaves a potential wife for one of his sons to die in the forest, and then refuses to help some people who are battered by the waves as they cling to a mountain peak that is not yet fully submerged. And they might come to actively dislike the character when, learning that his daughter-in-law Ila (Emma Watson) is pregnant, Noah declares that he will kill her child if it turns out to be a girl and is thus capable of continuing the human race.
This last plot element in particular has caused quite a bit of controversy ever since an early draft of the screenplay was leaked two years ago. But a few points are worth bearing in mind. First, rather than endorse Noah’s environmental extremism — what some have called his Earth-Firstism — the film actively critiques it, not least through members of his own family, who actively oppose and even subvert his plans. The miraculous intervention of his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) is especially interesting here, as the old man, who is something of an eccentric mystic, otherwise accepts the Flood as a sign of God’s justice. Second, Noah is driven by an awareness of what you might call original sin, and that includes an awareness of his own sin. He does not set himself above the rest of humanity; rather, he feels that he dare not exempt himself and his family from God’s judgment.
But it’s also interesting to look at this plot twist in the light of Aronofsky’s other films, which often dwell on the idea that purity or perfection is impossible, and that the pursuit of these things is self-destructive. Sometimes the self-destruction is presented as a positive thing, as in The Fountain, which explicitly states that “death is the road to awe.” At other times it is more ambiguous, as in Black Swan (2010), where the ballet-dancer protagonist lies dying on the floor after her climactic performance and says, “Perfect. It was perfect.” And at other times there is no upside to it at all; witness the doom and gloom that affects nearly every major character’s fate in the final scenes of Requiem for a Dream (2000).
Seen in that context, Noah becomes another Aronofsky protagonist who is determined to achieve perfection — meaning, in this case, a world where the animals can live as they once did in Eden, without fear of exploitation by fallen human beings — even if it means letting his family die out, indeed ensuring that his family dies out. And the question that hangs over this section of the film — especially when Ila offers a rival interpretation of the “sign” that Noah interprets as validation for his plan — is whether Noah’s violence can still be seen as an extension of divine wrath, or whether it is part of the fallenness that he shares with other human beings, whose violence incurred God’s wrath in the first place.
In the end, of course, Noah chooses mercy; even as he holds his knife over Ila’s twin girls, in a pose that is awfully reminiscent of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, Noah is overcome with love for them and decides he cannot go through with his plan. And in a scene set some time later — when the waters have receded, the Ark has landed, and Noah is reconciled to most (but not all) members of his family — he reminds his children that they, like their ancestor Adam, are made in God’s image and must care for creation, and he enjoins them to “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the Earth.” This statement is immediately followed by the appearance of a rainbow, signifying that God approves of this benediction.
With a budget reportedly double that of all his previous films combined, Aronofsky is working on a much bigger canvas here than he ever has before, and he uses digital effects to create some of the most powerfully unsettling and inspiring visuals you’re ever likely to see (from Noah’s dream of corpses drifting underwater to a spellbinding sequence that finds common ground for evolutionary theory and the Genesis account of Creation). Whether the film works on a purely dramatic level is more difficult to say, at least after a single viewing; there are plot holes and seemingly inexplicable changes of heart on the part of certain characters, but then, one could argue that there are gaps in the biblical account, too.
Either way, Aronofsky is mining rich theological territory here, and it’s to his credit that he is asking his audience to think about concepts like sin, forgiveness, and righteousness, instead of reducing the Bible to popcorn-friendly heroics. Noah may be Aronofsky’s first foray into major studio moviemaking, but he has kept his obsessions intact.
Peter T. Chattaway is a freelance film critic and blogger at Patheos.com with a special interest in Bible movies. He lives with his family in Surrey, B.C.
1. The Bible gives names to three of Adam’s sons, but it says he had “other sons and daughters” as well (Gen. 5:4).
2. The Watchers help Noah build his boat as a sort of penance for their earlier disobedience; you might say the film gives them a “redemptive Ark.”
— A version of this article was first published in Books & Culture.