I’ll begin by cutting to the chase: Forget most of what you’ve read about Darren Aronofsky’s new film, Noah. It opens Friday. Go see it and decide for yourself.
Having said that, in my opinion Aronofksy’s Noah is a beautiful, powerful, difficult film worthy of the “epic” label. A vivid, visually spectacular reimagining of an ancient story held as sacred by all three Abrahamic religious traditions, it also is the most spiritually nuanced, exquisitely articulated exploration of the ideas of justice and mercy I’ve ever seen on a movie screen.
And despite what you may have heard elsewhere, Noah is deeply, passionately biblical.
***SIGNIFICANT SPOILER AHEAD***
Nothing in the film contradicts the Bible’s account of Noah and the Great Flood, either in spirit or detail. Yes, Aronofsky (who directed and co-wrote the film) takes poetic license in creating a cinematic antediluvian world, includes characters (such as Noah’s adopted daughter, played by Emma Watson, or the murderous Tubal-Cain) that don’t apper in the biblical story, and pulls in other characters from the Bible (Methusaleh, portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins) who don’t appear in Noah’s story in Genesis.
And yet, these additions don’t detract from the film’s reverential, respectful retelling of the Bible story. They enhance and expand it, which is the prerogative of a fictional feature film. After all, Aronofsky wasn’t making a documentary.
Nevertheless, Aronofsky and his co-writer, Ari Handel, spent years pouring over the Genesis text, investigating the meaning of each word, consulting with biblical scholars and studying complimentary ancient texts including the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Book of Jubilees, and The Book of Enoch.
The filmmakers even went so far as to construct not one but two precise, full-size arks according to the measurements and directions in Genesis. (In a ironic twist, Aronofsky had to postpone filming in New York City in October 2012 when Hurricane Sandy threatened the safety the 450-feet-long, 75-feet-tall, 45-feet-wide ark docked in Oyster Bay, Long Island.)
Using state-of-the-art technology, Aronofsky filled his ark with computer-generated animals so lifelike it was easy to forget they weren’t real. One of the more clever artistic licenses filmmakers took in the film was concocting a viable explanation for why the animals on the ark didn’t eat each other or cause a riot. They were asleep, thanks to a cloud of homeopathic tranquilizer incense cooked up by Naameh, who, as the embodiment of biblical womanhood, was a proto-naturopath.
Another brilliant turn of poetic license is the filmmakers’ take on how the two women and four men on the ark managed to repopulate the earth. But I won’t spoil that plot twist for you.
The Book of Enoch is a noncanonical book (although Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox churches consider it to be part of the biblical canon) traditionally attributed to Noah’s great-grandfather Enoch. It includes “The Book of the Watchers,” which chronicles the fall of the angels responsible for siring the Nephilim — offspring of the "sons of God" and the "daughters of men" mentioned in Genesis 6:4.
In Noah, the Nephilim are called “Watchers,” and are massive, rock-encrusted creatures who prey on and are preyed upon by the humans they once loved and abandoned heaven as angels to come to Earth to help. They are beings of light trapped inside hard slag exoskeleton — a punishment from God for their disobedience. They are estranged from the God they love and crave a relationship with, seeking divine mercy but finding none.
The Watchers are one of many narrative and visual elements of Noah that lend an almost mythic air to the film. Noah’s Earth is not our Earth. It’s a world none of us has seen, a liminal plain between after the Eden and The Fall but before The Flood. Wickedness has run rampant. The descendants of Cain (the “first murderer”) have taken dominion over all the earth with brutal impunity, while a righteous few — Noah (Russell Crowe), his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) sons Ham, Shem, and Japheth, and adopted daughter Ila (Watson) —are faithful vegetarians and stewards of creation.
There is an overt environmental message to Noah, for which Aronofsky is boldly unapologetic.
“There’s something about that wickedness — and that violence and the ability to do what we have done — that, for me, is such a clear, ecological message in Genesis,” Aronofsky told me in last week in an interview for The Atlantic . “The first thing Adam is told is to tend and to keep the garden, in Genesis 2:15. Then Genesis 6 talks about how we’ve filled the world with violence.
“[You can connect] that to what’s going on right now, with the knowledge that we’re living our second chance and yet, no matter where you stand on the spectrum, we all know the water is coming. The irony is crazy, and not to take responsibility for creation when we’re this far up the river without a paddle,” he said. “For me, there’s a big discussion about dominion and stewardship. There’s this contradiction [between the two], some would say, in the Bible, but it doesn’t have to be a contradiction. It can work together. The thing is, we have clearly taken dominion over the planet. We’ve fulfilled that. But have we been good stewards?
“Leviticus, also in the Bible, talks about how every seventh year we’re supposed to give the land a rest. When’s the last time our land has gotten a rest? We’re way overdue for that jubilee. And I think that’s what I want. That’s why I made the film. For that reason.”
Rather than ill-fitting anachronism, the environmentalism of Noah feels authentic to the spirit (if not the letter) of the biblical story.
But the devil is not in the details of Noah, because they are gracefully eclipsed by the film’s overarching themes of mercy and justice, a God of second-chances and rebirths, and the tension that can exist between faith and family.
The creative vision of the Noah filmmakers is inspiring. They breathed new life into an ancient story, putting flesh and blood and a racing heartbeat into one of the Bible’s most emotionally complex and spiritually confounding stories.
Crowe’s Noah is incredibly compelling. Rather than a two-dimensional cartoon of a man, his Noah is truly human — complicated and conflicted, at times brooding and broken, but ultimately redeemed. He must navigate apocalypses both real and relational, searching imperfectly for a balance between justice and mercy that Thomas Aquinas is found "in everyone of God's works.”
I’d be willing to bet thousands of viewers will, like me, return from the movie theater and open their Bibles (or a Google search) to read the Genesis account of Noah for themselves.
And perhaps, with the story of Noah planted in our imaginations in a new way, more than a few of us might be inspired to find that same righteous balance in our own worlds.