Darren Aronofsky has been on my radar as a filmmaker for a while. I saw П in the theater back in 1998. It was fantastic. The Fountain was a dreamy, mind-bending trip. And Black Swan was creepy and involving. But there’s nothing there to indicate that the guy should reimagine one of the iconic stories of the Bible’s Old Testament into a film. (Well, there’s some Jewish mysticism in П, and some religious imagery in The Fountain, but that’s about it.) But reimagine it he did.
Russell Crowe is the titular character, a man of deep faith and strong family ties. He’s sent a cryptic message from the Creator (the only name we ever get for God in this film) about the end of the world. So Noah seeks out counsel from his grandfather Methuselah. (Yeah, that Methuselah.) Noah learns that the message means he must build a vessel for keeping the animals safe from a world-purging flood that the Creator has planned. So he builds the Ark, and he and his family get on and they brave the 40 day rainstorm and the nearly year-long flood. End of movie.
What Aronofsky does with the story, though, is fill it out to a full length movie by answering some interesting questions, questions that the Bible never addresses. How does a guy with only three sons build this monumental craft? How do the animals know to come to him? Why don’t the lions eat the gazelles? And what do the animals use for food anyway? If Noah’s family are the only good people on the planet… where do his sons’ wives come from? And, most importantly, how does Noah interpret his mission from the Creator?
The film takes some bold chances, but amazingly, never strays from the text. Everything in those handful of verses is in the movie, and nothing in the movie contradicts that text… there’s just more stuff in there, too. Stuff that some people will balk at, I’m sure. (I’ll get into that down below.)
One thing in particular that has permeated the discussions of the film, in reviews, and even in pre-release commentary, was the ecological message of the film. Yes, there’s a bit of that, but it’s mostly in the first third of the film. The cities of men in this era have, it seems, deforested the planet. (That seems a stretch, just ten generations after Adam, but it’s a movie.) The devastation to the landscape is, in some sense, the motivator for wanting to save the animals. They are the truly innocent victims. But this angle is soon pushed to the background and the essential evil of mankind comes to the fore as the real problem that the flood is here to address. (Though, there is an interesting back and forth about vegetarianism that runs through the film, too.)
As a side note, I love the fact that the three act structure of the film can be seen by watching the changes in Noah’s hair.
This film had some remarkable imagery, great performances, and an atmosphere that put me into the Old Testament the way I never had been before. Kudos.
Now, on to the spoilers.
Central to the story, and only barely teased in the marketing, are the Watchers. These are monstrous rock golems that help Noah build the Ark and defend against the attack of Tubal-cain. On the story side, it’s great to have an explanation for how Noah managed the construction and was able to keep hordes of desperate folk off his boat. On the mythology side, these Watchers are angels who wanted to live with humanity, but as that was forbidden, the Creator cursed them to be “in the earth”, literally. Their glowing, ethereal bodies are just barely visible in the shapes they take and the bits of illumination that seep out of their bodies. I thought the Watchers made for a great subplot, and they totally fit into the slightly weird descriptions of the antediluvian Old Testament.
But the Watchers are only the most obviously mystical thing in this world. Several of the descendants of Seth (Noah’s family) seem to have some magical ability. They can put people to sleep. They can set fire to entire armies with a magical weapon. They can heal with a touch. Most of these things are done in a simple, understated way. It echoes the ideas of The Lord of the Rings, that magic is a part of the “old” world that we have now lost. One item in particular is never truly explained. Seth, apparently, got hold of one of the shed skins of the Serpent that tempted Eve, and it has been passed down through the generations. It’s not clear why, or what it’s for, but it plays a part in a little ritual that I found touching. I love these odd little grace notes.
One part of the Biblical story is that Noah took his sons and their wives onto the Ark. The oldest son, Shem, gets his wife early on, in the form of Ila (Emma Watson). But Ham (Logan Lerman) doesn’t have a wife. When, at the last minute, he meets a young woman, we are led to believe she will be that wife… and then she gets trampled by hordes of an army meaning to steal the Ark. That moment stunned me, because now I’m thinking Aronofsky has changed the text. It clearly says the wives are on the Ark. He has created this amazing dissonance in my head, where now all bets are off. What else might he have changed?
It’s the final third of the film, the third with the least special effects, that is the most gripping and heartrending. This is when Noah has become convinced that not only is it his job to save the animals, it’s his job to end humanity. Since Ila is barren (he thinks), then it’s a done deal. No more babies. He doesn’t know Methuselah cured her, and Shem impregnated her. Now she she’s pregnant, Noah has come to the conclusion that if it’s a girl, he has to kill it. (Creepy!) Interestingly, there’s no mention of having to kill Ila herself, because she could always get pregnant again. And Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) certainly looks capable of procreation. But the film chooses to focus on the death of the infant, probably as a reference to the future Abraham/Isaac moment of child sacrifice.
When we learn that Ila is carrying, not one, but two little girls, my dissonance is removed. He did follow the text. Noah did bring the two wives onto the Ark… he just didn’t know it! Brilliant. But we still have to deal with Noah’s certainty that humanity is too evil to die.
This is the most brilliant part of the movie for me. At no point does the Creator come down and tell Noah to not kill the babies. The Creator, in this story, is ambivalent about the outcome. And it’s because he’s very, very smart, that one. He puts Noah into a situation whereby his own tendencies will either save or doom humanity. If his instinct is for destruction, then destruction will be the fate of man. But if his tendency is to mercy, then humanity will be saved. Humanity will get, in the end, what it deserves. And, thankfully, Noah relents and the story ends as you already knew it would.
There are scenes depicting the Creation, and Adam and Eve in the Garden, and the death of Abel. There is the scene that I think is foreshadowing to Abraham and Isaac. But Noah’s explanation for why he relents is an even more important foreshadowing. He says that when he looked at his granddaughters, all he could think of was love. This is right out of the New Testament. “And the greatest of these is love,” “God is love,” etc. In the midst of all this terrible Old Testament destruction, we get a glimmer of the hope that will come so many generations later.