Sunday, April 13, 2014

Cleansing and rebirth--Darren Aronofsky's Noah

It’s hard to have a clear opinion about Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s new film about the ark-builder, family man and reluctant servant of God given the task of saving the animals in order that the old corrupt world can be destroyed and a new purified one can take its place. That's because it raises so many unanswerable questions, using the biblical story of Noah. The Earth must suffer fire to cleanse what little remains in the way of civilization and flood waters that will wipe out mankind and allow for the birth of a new world. Noah is aided in his task of building the ark by the Watchers, creatures that are essentially beings of light (angels) that disobeyed the will of God by helping mankind, and who ended up punished by God--trapped by the elements of Earth—mud and rock. They are also called the 'giants in the earth'. When Noah (played by Russell Crowe), his wife Naameh (played by Jennifer Connelly) and his family meet them, they are giant stone creatures resembling small mountains when stationary, who destroy any person who dares to cross into their territory; they no longer trust humans. But they come to understand that Noah, who visits his grandfather Methuselah (played by Anthony Hopkins) in order to discuss with him the dreams he’s been having, is a good man, descended from the line of Seth, and not of Cain (who murdered his brother). The latter line has succeeded in the space of five generations in ravaging and plundering the Earth and destroying the creatures—animals and birds—who live on it. The Earth is a devastated place, lacking food and water. Noah and his family are nomads and vegetarians, who at times run into large groups of marauders who think nothing of murdering innocent people and taking what they want from them. As you watch the film, you know that the end of the world is coming; it cannot continue this way forever; the film is pervaded by this apocalyptic vision. It’s hard not to make the jump to the present day, where mankind’s brutality, violence, and continual devastation of the environment have marked our own world for extinction—in our case perhaps via global warming and/or natural catastrophes caused by our destruction of the planet we live on. The symbolism is not subtle.

The group of marauders descended from the line of Cain is led by a man named Tubal-Cain (played by Ray Winstone), who is ruthless, dangerous and proud. He believes man was made in the image and likeness of God, using that as an excuse to behave badly; he is not God-fearing, preferring to believe that man can behave like God and decide who lives and who dies. Noah is presumably the hero and Tubal-Cain is the anti-hero. Except that it never is that black-and-white, because as the film nears its end, it’s clear to all that Noah is not without sin. In fact, he is a guilt-ridden, deluded, plagued man, angry with the world and with God for assigning him this mission, merciless and ruthless in his own way. The tasks of building the ark, saving the animals, and saving his family prove to be too much for one man’s sanity, especially when he is challenged by his son Ham (played by Logan Lerman), whose pleas to save the young woman he has met and wishes to take with him onboard the ark are ignored, resulting in her death. Ham and Noah become estranged, and Ham is tempted to betray his father by Tubal-Cain, who has managed to come aboard the ark, threatening the survival of all those on board.

The film’s imagery is impressive. It’s hard not to be moved by the scenes of earthly devastation, the eventual flood (rising waters and death by drowning), the battle scenes between the marauders and the Watchers (and their eventual deaths and release from this world), the scenes of birds and animals making their way to the ark, as well as the segment on the creation of the world in seven days. The latter is especially impressive. But it’s also a provocative film as well as at times an over-the-top and illogical one. The numbers of innocent women and children who perished in the flood is hardly justifiable, if God is a righteous God. But we know that the God of the Old Testament was hardly a merciful God, in contrast to Jesus in the New Testament. In fact, the lives of women and children in this patriarchal age were worth very little. Why did God allow that? Why did God spare Noah and his family alone? Surely there were other good families that could also have been saved? Why did Noah first listen to Ham’s wish to find a woman to take aboard so that he would not be alone in the new world, only to vehemently repudiate that idea (he concludes that his only task was to save the animals, not that humans should repopulate the Earth. The scene where he tells his infertile adopted daughter Ila (played by Emma Watson) who is together with his son Shem (played by Douglas Booth) that she is a gift no matter that she cannot reproduce perhaps portends this)? Was that the correct conclusion? Who can know? Why did he consider murdering Ila’s twin daughters, only then to change his mind (he presumably goes against the will of God as he had divined it)? Did God really want him to kill his own grandchildren (one is reminded of the story of Abraham being asked to kill his son Isaac)? These questions are not answered in the Old Testament, and Aronofsky does not answer them either. I left the theater knowing that I had seen a film that would make me think about the things that Aronofsky is clearly preoccupied with—what are we doing to our planet, are we incurring the wrath of its Creator, is the Apocalypse coming, why are we so preoccupied with the end of the world and can we stop it, can we cleanse our world of sin, how can we be reborn and what will it take, is there a merciful Creator, is love the answer to all things (do women intuit and understand that message better than men), and are both men and women necessary to keep the balance between the cerebral and the emotional worlds we inhabit? We cannot have too much of the one or the other as mortal human beings. Or can we? What is Paradise, and why were its original inhabitants so willing to risk their happiness for something they (perceived that they) did not have? Why were they so gullible to temptation? And if they did not have happiness, then how could where they lived be called Paradise? Is it man’s curse to be forever dissatisfied with what he has? Or is this perhaps the greatest temptation of all—to trust others (sometimes in the guise of well-meaning, wise, 'religious' seekers and worldly leaders) to define happiness for us, when we know deep within ourselves what it really is? We must constantly be on the lookout for, and be able to identify, those who would deceive and mislead us, and we must not deceive ourselves. Not easy tasks, much like building an ark and rebuilding a broken world. 


  1. I really liked this movie. I'm a big fan of the director, whose movies usually end brutally. This one was bigger and very different than his others, and when it took its leftward, almost "The Shining"-type turn 3/4ths the way in, I didn't know what to expect, exactly. His protagonist had essentially been transformed into his antagonist.

    He pulled it off well.

    I also liked the Watchers. The (fairly religious) person I went to the movie with said, "I don't remember them in the Bible!" I said they were in fact there, although they appear more in non-canonical literature like the Book of Enoch.(I wrote a paper on the Bene Elohilm and Nephilim of Genesis 6:1-4 when I was getting my theology master's...)

    As you point out here, though, the whole movie just LOOKS so great and hits so many questions that it's hard to give it props, no matter how loosely iot handles its source material...

    1. I liked it mostly too, Katy, even when it was way out there. Or perhaps better put, what I liked balanced out what I disliked. I loved the imagery--I got lost in it, but I do with most of these kinds of movies. It's clear to me that Aronofsky is thinking about a lot of important questions. Just the fact that he made this kind of movie took a lot of guts. I didn't know about the Watchers either from the Bible, but after you commented I looked up the Bene Elohim and Nephilim. So interesting! Likewise that you did a master's in theology and wrote about them. I remember reading a book called The Stress of Her Regard some years ago--excellent fantasy/horror book--and the Nephilim played an important role. I'd like to see more movies like Noah, so I hope directors continue to make them.