Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 7 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 3
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.
“How long can you tread water?” Those of a certain age will still break out in laughter over that question, one posed by comedian Bill Cosby in his Noah skit. However, I am sure that you will hear very little laughter during the over two-hour period of Darren Aronofsky’s take on the Genesis story. After watching Darren Aronofsky’s film of one of the best-known tales from the Bible, I can see why Fundamentalists, who take this ancient legend literally, are howling rather than laughing. Aronofsky’s Shakespearean approach to the story, with a dash of Conan the Barbarian and The Transformers genres, was bound to elicit screams of protest from Bible literalists. And despite the hundreds of years of sets of arks and cute, carved animals created as toy sets, this is not a film to bring the kids to—were I rating this I would assign it an “R” rather than a “PG-13,” due to the extraneous violence imported into the story.
Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel have greatly altered the Genesis story so that the director’s claim that it is “the least biblical film ever made” is very true, though those who approach this intriguing film as a work of art rather than as a religious film will find much of value in it. For one thing, the even more primordial myth of creation and the Fall brought on by the serpent is invoked at the beginning of the film as a preface to explain how all of humanity except Noah and his family are slated by the Creator for destruction. (I don’t even want to go into the silliness raised by a member of a Fox News panel discussing the film who railed that Noah never utters the name “God”. What’s wrong with “The Creator,” used throughout the film?) The image of the slithering snake and a bright red fruit (not necessarily an apple) is intercut at many points during the course of the tale. The maker of this “least biblical film ever made” certainly knows how to use biblical imagery!
The film’s special effects begin long before the storm when the filmmakers expand on Genesis 6:4: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.” “The Nephilim” are the inspiration for what in the film are called “The Watchers,” giant creatures that look like Transformers, their bodies made up of boulders and rocks. They too are upset with the wickedness of humanity, so they decide to work with Noah when the patriarch is convinced that the Creator wants him to build an ark to escape the terrible flood being sent to punish wicked humanity. This helps explain how Noah and his family can build such a huge vessel in such a short time. (The Message gives the dimensions as “450 feet long, seventy-five feet wide, and forty-five feet high.” Gen. 6:15) The Watchers are the ancient equivalent of having a dozen cranes, tractors, and power saws.
The film also provides us with a specific villain, rather than just the mass of “wicked humanity.” He is Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), king of the nearby people who become aware of Noah’s huge construction enterprise. As his name implies, he is the descendent of the first murderer, a brief incident that, like that of the snake and the fruit, we see several times in the film. Thus we are set up for lots of computer-enhanced fighting when Tubal-cain leads his hordes in an attempt to capture the ark for themselves. The Watchers bash in the brains and hurl into the air the bodies of hundreds of warriors in this attack, conducted as the rain pours down from he sky and water spews high into the air from the underground springs that the Creator has opened up (the latter interesting detail is from Gen. 6:11-12). One by one they are brought down by the attackers, which I suppose explains why Noah took none of his allies aboard.
But I am getting ahead of the story, as the building of the ark is itself a fascinating sequence. Production designer Mark Friedberg comes up with a great, sprawling set for Noah’s inland shipyard, the ark simply a huge box, rather than the conventional ship with a prow. A huge scaffold surrounds it. When it comes time Noah and his sons do not have to gather up the animals—they come by the thousands to them, including the slithering snakes. (By the way, have you ever noted that Genesis states that Noah was to select seven pairs of “clean” animals? The conventional view of “one pair,” or “two by two,” comes from the command to select just a pair of each of the ritually unclean animals.) The film gets around the issue raised by skeptics pointing out that no ark of this size could possibly have held enough food for Noah’s menagerie by having Noah and Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), as his wife is called (she is given no name in Genesis), dose all of the creatures with fumes from a concoction they mix, the result that the animals fall into a deep sleep.
The filmmakers change the ages and marital status of the three sons of Noah–Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll)–from middle-aged married to single, their ages from the early twenties to teenaged to preadolescent. This allows for family acrimony, with Ham deeply anxious about marrying and replenishing the earth. He has sneaked out to Tubal-cain’s camp and found Na-al, a young woman thrown into an open grave but very much alive. However, while running away for their lives, Na-al was caught in a trap. Noah had come upon them, but there was no time to extricate her, so she is trampled to death by their pursuers as Noah hurriedly drags away his protesting son.
The movie Shem does have a mate in Ila (Emma Watson), a non-Biblical character, an orphan whom Noah and Naameh had raised from infancy. She had been barren because of an injury, but then after a visit with grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) who gives her his blessing, is impregnated by Shem. Noah meanwhile during the long days of rain has become convinced that the Creator intends to end the human race. When he discovers that Ila will have a baby, he announces that he will kill the child. Thus Shem also is upset with his father, quickly joined by Naameh. Ham even becomes enmeshed in a plot against his father with someone I’ll let you discover. The ark family becomes as dysfunctional as that of King Lear or Hamlet’s (hence my earlier allusion to the Bard)—or if you prefer a modern example, the family in August: Osage County.
With all the fighting, arguing, and raining we keep looking for that rainbow, but when it does come at last, even it is delivered by Aronofsky in an unorthodox way. One thing I was glad that he did change—the cursing of Ham, once so dear to the hardened hearts of slave owners trying to justify their “Peculiar Institution.” After the waters have receded and the sons find their father naked and drunk and cover him up, Ham does leave home, but if there was any cursing by the angry father, it was off screen.
No kiddies’ tale this, because from the Genesis account’s reworking of the even more ancient Sumerian Gilgamish epic the filmmaker has reformatted the tale into an environmental parable. The last words we hear Noah speak are his paraphrase from the Genesis creation story of the blessing to be fruitful and multiply and to be responsible for the earth. This latter interpretation of “to have dominion over” is stressed throughout the film. Noah is even depicted as a vegetarian, whereas it is Tubal-cain and his brutish followers who are meat eaters. Darren Aronofsky might be an atheist, but he has crafted an artistic parable that affirms the basic values of the Bible, even employing the miraculous numerous times (wouldn’t the sequence in which a grove of trees quickly spring up around the ark, thus supplying the timber, make a great ad for Miracle Gro?). It is too bad some are so blinded by their Biblical literalism that they cannot see the good contained in the film. Don’t let that happen to you.
The full review with a set of discussion questions is in the Aprils issue of Visual Parables, available at the Store.