First of all, Noah is a good movie. It is thrilling and surprising, richly symbolic, and affecting. Noah moves you in every way you want a movie to move you: voyeuristically–it immerses you to a fantastic world beyond your imagination and makes you believe in it, viscerally–it pulls you along and keeps you entertained, and vicariously–it features complex characters who you can relate to, because though their situation is radically different than anything you’ve ever experienced, you can see yourself in them. Purely as a work of cinema, Noah is worth your time.
Now, I rarely begin a review by discussing a movie’s quality. In most cases, I consider my opinion of the quality of the film secondary to my responsibility to interact with the film, to converse with it, to take seriously the questions the movie is asking and respond humbly and honestly. As it is with people, satisfying the felt need to judge whether a film is good or bad gets in the way of forming a loving relationship with that film and the people who created it. I would never write off a person because he or she is ineloquent, so I will never write off a film simply because it isn’t well-constructed. At Reel Spirituality, we value conversation over criticism, relationship over reckoning.
In the case of Noah though, the quality of the film matters more than usual. Often, Christians are prone to give Biblical films a pass on quality as long as the film adheres to common interpretations of the text. Because of this, many Biblically-based films are so devoted to the letter of the law, they are lifeless. These films appeal to select groups of Christians, but their reach ends there. The general public demands a film be good before they give it their time and money. Noah is faithful to the text, but it is also a good film, and most people are going to see it because it is terrifically entertaining, not because it is textually exact (though it is that too).
Noah is so entertaining, because it is constantly surprising. Screenwriters Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel have taken the story we all know, the very few details given to us in Genesis, and realized them on the screen in remarkable ways. You’ve never seen Noah and his ark like this before. You are going to have to decide within the first fifteen minutes of the film whether you are going to allow yourself to go along for the ride or not. If you can grant the filmmakers the freedom to take seriously the Biblical narrative you know and imagine it in ways very different than the flannel graphs of your youth, you’ll have a great time at the movies. You’ll likely be informed and impacted by Noah’s story in a way you probably haven’t since you were in Sunday School.
Aronofsky has always been a very visceral director. He grabs you and yanks you along. In some films, like The Wrestler, he’s done this by putting his characters through physically brutal situations. In others, like Requiem for a Dream, he’s done this by forcing you inside the minds of people with a chemically altered perspective of the world. In others, like Pi and Black Swan, he crafted worlds of paranoia and madness where you never know what the characters are going to do next. In Noah as in The Fountain, Aronofsky and his team hold your attention by taking the story in directions you’re not anticipating and by realizing familiar symbols in surprising ways.
Watching Noah is a bit like solving a mystery every few minutes. As soon as you’ve discovered how, for example, the filmmakers hypothesize Noah gets all the animals to come to the ark, you start wondering where Noah’s son’s are going to find wives. It’s a lot of fun if you allow yourself to be surprised by the questions the filmmakers are asking about the story and the answers they suppose.
Aronofsky and Handel have been researching the Noah story to make this movie for the past ten years. They’ve read Jewish midrash on the passage, consulted theologians from at least the time of Thomas Aquinas to today, and looked at every artistic depiction of Noah’s ark they could find throughout history. As I watched the film, I constantly asked, “Is what they did here true to the text?” and in every case, I think it is. In fact, based on the many interviews Aronofsky and Handel have given on the subject (I like this one and this one), they are truer to the text than I would have ever been had I made this film.
So, Noah is terrifically entertaining and true to the details of the text, but more importantly, is it also true to the spirit of the story? To put it another way, does Noah care about the things the Bible cares about?
Noah is a story about deciding to choose mercy over judgment. The one description we get of Noah in Genesis is that he’s a “righteous” man. Righteousness is a fine quality, but righteousness can manifest itself as judgmentalism as well, giving one license to condemn the many for not measuring up. A righteous person might also turn her or his gaze inward, recognize the many imperfections in oneself, and decide to hate oneself because of them. Noah explores all these temptations and moves its characters toward mercy.
This is, of course, the same movement God makes in the Genesis story. Prior to the flood, God seems to choose judgement with greater ferocity than God chooses mercy–God curses the serpent, the ground, Adam, and Eve for their sin (and gives Adam and Eve clothes), God curses Cain for killing Able (but says Cain will be protected), and God chooses to destroy the world because of the violence running rampant upon it (but preserves Noah, his family, and the animals in the ark). Then, the flood waters recede, and God puts a rainbow in the sky, promising to extend mercy to humanity and the earth and never destroy everything with water ever again. God covenants mercy.
Too often, we treat individual stories in the Bible as if they have to contain the entire story of the Bible. They don’t have to do that. Noah and his ark and God’s activity with them is one part of the very beginning of the unfolding story of God’s relationship with Creation. It’s important, because it’s the first time God makes a covenant with humanity. A few chapters later, God makes a covenant with Abraham. Much later still, God fulfills God’s promises in Christ. Noah’s story isn’t the end. It’s quite literally in the beginning, and if Aronofsky and his team want to make a sequel, I’ll be the first one in line to see what they discover in the rest of the story.
The above trailer was made by Phil Cooke and his company, Cooke Pictures. Phil runs a great website, and he recently published a few pieces on Noah. One of them even quoted Reel Spirituality Co-director Rob Johnston at length. It’s a good read.