Noah: A Way Too Late Review
Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH was doomed as a stateside flop long before the first official images even released. In the evangelical circles the whispers began as soon as the project announced, whispers which then turned to shouts of indignation once writer Brian Godawa published a reaction to an undated version of the script. The film barely scraped in $100 million in the domestic box office off a budget in excess of $125 million (consider that the faith-based feature GOD’S NOT DEAD garnered over $60 million during that same time of the year when only marketed to that same crowd that largely shunned NOAH.) The foreign audience offered the film a much kinder welcome and propelled it from “domestic flop” to “international success.”
The pity in it all is that by choosing to dismiss the film for its flaws (of which there are many) the evangelical crowd by extension chose to rob themselves of an opportunity to engage with a film that took the character of Noah very seriously even as it played fast and loose with the biblical account. The resulting film bore little resemblance to the biblical narrative and had absolutely nothing in common with the Sunday School-sanctioned flannel-graph version. And while the former undoubtedly weakened the film, the latter is what elevates from “biblical misfire” to “flawed masterpiece.”
NOAH is a beautiful film. The viewer, if not interested in such things as dialogue and sound effects, could easily mute the picture and still enjoy it for its cinematography, setting, and visual tone. Even when depicting the ugliness that reigned in the antediluvian world of Noah the film maintains a visual palette that keeps eyes on the screen. Overall the film paints the story in primal tones and hues that give the story the feel of myth and legend, which is exactly how Aronofsky approaches the account.
Because Aronofsky sees Noah as a primeval legend and not as a historical recounting, he mixes in healthy scoops of the fantastic and strong pinches of chronological rearrangement. For instance, Aronofsky takes the ambiguous reference of “the sons of God” in Genesis 6:4 and from it spins a collection of rock-encrusted fallen angels called Watchers who are cursed by both God and man. The skin shed by the snake in the garden also plays a role in the film as well. Methuselah is not merely the oldest man who ever lived in this film, but a legendary figure who possesses miraculous powers. And a craving for berries. While all these aspects are obviously extra-biblical, their presence is actually encouraging because it indicates the earnestness with which Aronofsky approached this film. He had no fear of the fantastical but embraced it even to a fault.
Where the film shines is in Aronofsky’s dealing with Noah the man. While a filmmaker more obsessed with biblical accuracy might have made a film more palatable to the evangelical church, the flip-side of that coin would probably have been a film quantitatively less-interested in digging into Noah’s psyche. Here, we’re not given “Noah the Sunday School character” or “Noah the legend.” Instead we see Noah as an unsuspecting agent of God, one who doesn’t fully grasp the scope of God’s plan or of His intent. We see a man who wants nothing more than to be a husband and a father, a man who strives for some semblance of a normal life amidst a barren, decrepit world. He’s thrust by a heritage he can’t escape and visions he can’t stop into the unlikely role as the agent of God’s terrible wrath.
As the film plays we see Noah progress in his understanding of God’s plan for the world, including a stage in which he is so overcome by the wickedness of man that he is convinced that he and his family must die as well. He believes that God’s covenant with him was only to insure the survival of the animals, not the survival of mankind. We see in Noah a man who becomes so singular in his focus that he very nearly destroys his family in the process of saving the world. Unlike the Teflon hero to which no evil will stick, Noah and his family are shown in all their flawed and fallen glory. They avoid the completely depraved habits of their doomed neighbors by the grace of the Creator, not by their own goodness. NOAH plays like a myth-sized character study in the terrible cost that comes with being chosen by God to perform a task as wonderful and terrible as saving the world.
Aronofsky’s beautiful portrait is muddled, though, by his choice to have much of this internal drama play out post-flood instead of pre-flood. The ark itself is the perfect claustrophobic setting for this heightened family drama to unfold, but this - not the six-armed, rock-encrusted angels or the gun-powder-toting villains – this rewriting of the story’s chronology is what keeps his film from really soaring. The break from the biblical narrative is to stark, here, to clean, for an audience steeped in the biblical tradition of the story to continue their suspension of disbelief. Also, a parting line from Emma Watson’s character so undermines the Creator’s message to Noah that it comes close to irreparably cheapening the two-hours of drama that unfolded prior to it.
In conclusion, NOAH is a film as deeply beautiful as it is flawed. It is a unique addition to the genre of biblical-adaptions for both its tonal and narrative approach to the account it attempts to adapt. It boasts a strong cast, a gifted director, and a powerful story and it wraps these elements together with some beautiful cinematography and excellent effects. But in some places it’s too unique for its own good and a couple instances of lazy writing distract from a sharply written film. Because Aronofsky approached the Noah story as myth rather than gospel-truth (pun intended) he gives the church-bound crowd every reason to dismiss his film out-of-hand. But the story he ultimately presents is compelling and his study of the nature of God and man is decidedly more biblical than his approach to the Noah account itself.