What better way to end the year than with an ‘end-of-the-world’ film?
The single biggest question I think worth asking about director Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is whether the viewer is willing to appraise the movie in terms of the story it wants to tell, or if its rather wayward treatment of the Biblical inspiration invalidates the whole production out of hand. It’s worked well before. One of the first stories recorded in the ancient text is also one of its most bittersweet, where man and beast alike are wiped from the earth because of the extreme evil filling it, as shown in Genesis 6. The Lord God in his grace is willing to give a few last souls and the animals another chance, but first come the rains …
The beginning of the end
The film begins with a short explanation of the line of Adam, who with his wife Eve had three children, Cain, (who later killed) Abel, and finally Seth. Then the story brings in the “Watchers,” rock monsters that look impressive even if I don’t exactly remember them from studies. These Watchers, in this story, helped Cain’s descendants create a great industrial civilization, but its cities devoured the world by way of their wickedness. Amusingly the continents here in the story aren’t arranged like they are today, thus placing the film at probable odds with a “young-Earth” timeline barring divine intervention. Only Seth’s line defends and protects what is left of Creation, and from this family, the young protagonist is entrusted with caring for the well-being of the world.
Noah’s beginning is rather quickly paced, as several miners show up, led by one Tubal-cain. He cements his role in the story by committing a murder, and the adverse impact of his men on the environment is also shown. The now older Noah, by contrast, is scolding his middle son Ham (yum) for pulling up a flower to look at it, since his family only collects what they have a need and a use for. A raindrop falls, and a flower sprouts in an instant. It’s an impressive visual effect, as are the others to this point, even as the Watchers with their rough-at-times animations tend to look and sound like Transformers.
Bona fide action comes in the form of several poachers, who have been chasing a majestic but mortally wounded animal and now have Noah surrounded. The thing is, he’s quite a competent fighter, making this movie begin to look like one of those post-apocalyptic survival films, a description it kind of fits except that the apocalypse hasn’t arrived yet. Noah’s children are baffled by the idea of eating animals at all, and their father reminds them that strength comes from the Creator (an idea echoed in Psalm 18:29), not from the poachers’ apparent notion that eating animals makes them stronger.
Noah tells his wife Naameh about Ham’s encounter with the hunters and about the flower, which she is taken aback by. It gives her comfort about God’s plan of justice–Noah, not so much. There’s a very quick dream-flashback to the tempting serpent in the Garden of Eden, the forbidden fruit, and a mysterious shadow that becomes recognizable later.
The film by this point has gotten off to a good start. The effects, most of the acting, and especially the fast pacing all do their part to make this increasingly strange production enjoyable and worthwhile without necessarily having to appeal to, or perhaps against, any one specific audience.
A more traditional story?
In stages, Noah receives both a vision from God, who is going to destroy the world, and a standard-feeling quest: Go to your ancestor Methuselah’s mountain. Off go he, Naameh, and their sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, despite whatever skepticism they may have. They pass through a devastated but surgically cut forest, part of a local ecosystem that has been destroyed and left to rot. Even the miners’ equipment is dilapidated, and one of the boys casually asks if the owners are all dead. Many are, but there’s one girl who’s still breathing but is grievously wounded. Her name is Ila. Naameh and Shem help nurse this girl’s injuries, but the evil men have returned for a chase, complete with shaky camera. Noah wakes a giant before running back toward the men with a weapon, and he gets bonked.
He himself awakens to witness several other rock monsters, each with decent-looking rendering. They speak, and one of them is cynical about Noah’s motives in heading toward Methuselah’s mountain. His distrust makes sense–you have nature-evoking monsters resisting the whims of a man whose bloodthirsty forces show contempt for the earth. One of the Watchers tells Noah their history: they pitied Adam and Eve as they fell into sin. These creatures were angels who came to Earth to help mankind, though such was not their place, making their story feel similar to both the Greek story of Prometheus and Star Trek’s Prime Directive. Now they are stranded in shells. A scene of many evil men being burned up is quite a spectacle despite the surrounding movie trying to condemn violence (including its own? The action scenes throughout are too much fun to make a message like this work).
Noah and Shem eventually reach Methuselah, who looks and acts somewhat like Yoda but sounds like Gimli. He is a delight of a grandfather, and the two older men (Shem is asleep) discuss the future fate of the world. Noah wants to intercede on its behalf and save it from destruction, and he eventually has another vision–it’s the bow of the giant vessel known as the Ark, with masses of animals gravitating toward it. He is also given a seed from Eden. As with any story based on pre-existing material, blatantly straying from that material can make the plot unpredictable and its purpose unclear, but most of the numerous changes are entertaining in their own way, even as the film feels more like a standard but well told fantasy epic than a fastidious “Bible story.”
Noah plants the seed, and from it God instantly creates a beautiful forest, complete with really good animation that looks much better than what the Watchers get. There’s a massive time lapse, with tons of different nature scenes that look like The Tree of Life on fast-forward, and the Watchers are shown helping with the Ark, which is marvelously rendered, complete with wooden scaffolding and the visible internals of the ship structure. I don’t know if the wooden platforms could hold giant monsters with rock bodies, but whatever. God did it.
Ila and her mate Shem are playfully chasing each other, and the former’s Emma Watson doesn’t come across like her well-known role of Hermione Granger at all. Rather than being friendly but bookish, she is amazingly considerate first and foremost, stopping their displays of increasingly passionate affection when she notices the still single Ham looking on, and her kindness persists throughout the story. Though the Biblical account mentions Noah’s sons having wives when they enter the Ark (Genesis 6:18, 7:13), the movie makes one of its most noticeable divergences and deprives Ham of one, for which his desires make up a large part of his character motivations. Japheth is still fairly young at this point.
Birds of all kinds have come, and their swirling for the camera is an amazing sight. Naameh is working with plants and filling various food bowls; Noah never doubts his or God’s plans, so not only does this showcase the faith God has given him, it also keeps the plot from slowing down (“no, God, I’m going to go do something else”) while the audience waits for the inevitable. Before any of that happens, however, Tubal-cain and his men show up again. He was cynical about ‘miracles’ at first when he saw the birds, and he thinks that the Ark is intended as protection from him and that God doesn’t care what happens in this world. While Noah trusts in God and in the Watchers, Tubal-cain trusts only in his own abilities and equipment, plus the men at his back. He intends to survive the coming storm (if there will even be one) in Noah’s ship and to crush the giants while he’s at it.
The animals come in an orderly fashion, not in a stampede, and they all seem to be in single pairs (as opposed to seven pairs for certain animals–Genesis 7:2-3–but explaining the difference would probably slow the movie down). At this point I’m wondering what will happen to the Watchers, an important question the film hasn’t really dwelled on, since Rock-types are weak to Water, after all. Tubal-cain’s “forces” are in disarray, many of them starving and heavily demoralized, and they’ve resorted to cutting up animals as their finite resources run dry without the continued and undeserved grace God gives. Donning a hood, Noah takes a look at his aggressor’s civilization, which is a hellhole, complete with cannibalism, a man offering his girls (whether for sex or food) in exchange for meat, and one poor animal having its leg ripped off while it’s still alive.
As Noah’s feet are shown to be stained in blood while fire begins falling from the sky, I’m reminded of how I felt going in to watch this film. Based on Aronofsky’s The Fountain, I wasn’t expecting a positive or sympathetic portrayal of God, since even the firmest of believers would have reason to admit that the idea of wiping nearly all life from the earth is at the very least a tragedy, whether necessary or not. No such emotional challenges come in this film, and after seeing the consummate wickedness that so many of these people exhibit, I unfortunately felt nothing at their demise, nor did the movie seem to ask me to. It’s no wonder Noah is too shocked for words to explain to Naameh just what he’s seen.
Ham has run off, and Ila chases after him, yelling for Ham so many times that I feel like I’m watching Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo again. Wives for the younger boys aren’t coming yet, and Noah and his wife begin to have their first dramatic divide, as Naameh appeals to the boys’ goodness and their positive attributes while Noah thinks he and his family will complete their task only to die like everyone else, an idea Naameh at least tries to rebuke him for.
Tubal-cain, who doesn’t actually cease to be relevant in the story when the flood comes, is an immoral but highly engrossing character who continues making armor when the rains come and declares himself to be like God in the giving and taking of life. “We are men,” Tubal-cain says to a civilization with many starving women and children, and men united are “invincible.”
It may be important to note that, since emotional violence is something I’ve never really enjoyed in my movie-watching, this film’s excess in this area is probably its single biggest failing. If seeing a girl beg repeatedly for her life in torture fashion (to no avail, of course) is not something you are willing to mentally accept and deal with, you may want to skip this scene, and I’ve known several people who avoided the entire movie because they simply know things like this set them off. While Noah’s physical violence seems fairly typical for the rating, arguably minus a shot of one man’s bloodied leg only half-attached, this is downright terrifying and not at all something I would be comfortable with allowing children or young teenagers to watch. As if that weren’t enough, the girl gets stomped, and the audience gets to watch.
More enjoyable, yet far more intense, are the escalated conflicts between Tubal-Cain and the Watchers, who are being assaulted by his fire weapons and in some cases impaled. The movie never tries to blame God for any of this, and as the conflict nears its conclusion, the entire world is covered in huge storms while water springs up from the earth, causing the Ark’s scaffolding to fall away. There’s a genuinely amazing scene of Noah himself being trapped outside the Ark and desperately trying to enter. He ends up haunted by the screaming of the people caught in the Flood, though why the movie gives all of them less emotional emphasis than it gave one girl, I have no good idea. Ila and Shem want to save lives, and Noah’s decision of whether to kill them all is, for him, a difficult and remarkable dilemma. As the waves rise, many people cling to rocks and mountains, which does them no good–they simply fall into the water, nameless, and the film essentially forgets about them.
At the film’s halfway point, it sheds its fantasy trappings and becomes a compelling if sometimes macabre character drama. The story’s namesake is telling the story of God’s creation, and it’s beautiful, even as the lightning and fire could potentially set off sensitivities to rapidly flashing lights. Noah reminisces on the initially perfect state of the heavens and the earth before the first man and woman are shown in their sin, which then manifests as Cain killing Abel, followed by armies against armies. Noah’s demeanor becomes more pessimistic, leading him to ponder some very negative decisions for the sake of creation. Said family has other ideas.
(Minor spoilers ahead.)
Despite his uncertainties, when Noah calls to God, the Lord remains just as silent as He was when Tubal-cain tried doing the same thing. This causes many problems, since (as more sensitive Bible-minded viewers may want to know) Noah, despite his faith, doesn’t hold himself morally accountable to anyone except himself and his confident but often inconclusive beliefs of what God wants. He and Tubal-cain feel like self-dependent character mirrors who each make up a lot of their ideas as they go, except that the latter doesn’t even bother claiming his beliefs are from God. I’m just going to say it–Noah starts the movie a likable character but develops backward into an out-and-out jerk. His abrupt change of heart toward the end of the film feels less like a logical decision, in light of everything else he’s done and believed throughout the story, and more like the movie trying desperately to give its two hours of madness a happy and cathartic ending.
(Spoilers end here.)
In fairness the film’s second half is quite hard to elaborate on without spoiling everything, and yet that half isn’t so integral to the story as to make explanation unavoidable like it was for Last Temptation. Even if Noah’s character development doesn’t always make a lot of sense, however, the interactions of everyone around him are stellar, particularly as some of Noah’s intentions threaten the love and trust of his entire family and make parts of the drama that much more scarily plausible. That being stated, I did find the film’s ending satisfying even if the events leading up to it could be rather uneven at times. Ham’s ending is more bittersweet, which in this telling makes its own sad kind of “sense” after all that he put his father and family through. And that really only leaves one question.
Conclusion: Was it worth it?
Ultimately I really liked the story, minus a considerable portion of its lead’s behavior. Noah’s family, his world, and even his nemesis are all particularly interesting to witness, and for the most part I went along with the changes this movie made to the Biblical narrative, since those changes usually kept the story fun to watch. (People familiar with the original story may remember its unpleasant epilogue, and on that note there is a shot of rear male nudity some viewers will want to be aware of.) This leads me to a narrative dilemma that to this day I haven’t resolved.
Let us assume for the simple sake of discussion that the Bible is a reliable account of history, therefore making the moments where God steps in to directly intervene less “convenient” and more “it just happened that way.” That being stated, Noah is meant to entertain, not to be a historical recording, and yet it still has its moments where God provides a conflict resolution just in the nick of time. Is a deus ex machina still only that when in the context of a historical story that’s been rewritten for the sake of drama?
Beyond all of this, the film in the end is a genre-shifting apocalyptic epic-fantasy character drama whose experiments are usually successful, and I would say its biggest obstacles will be the inordinate variety of content issues (intense violence including the Watchers’ bodies being ripped apart, scenes of rapid flashing lights, emotional trauma, some nudity) that I expect to divide audiences looking for “clean” Biblical entertainment just as much as would the story’s own decisions. I was able to enjoy the film despite all of these issues, but I can speak for no one else and have personally known several people for whom one or more of these issues was a deal-breaker. Noah is quite a lot of things, not all of them good or consistent (the environmentalist message seems to get largely dropped after the first third of the movie), but it is never boring, and if all these things will not be a problem for you, I really do believe this movie is worth your time.
Image credits (property of Paramount Pictures)
– Movie poster – source
– Noah’s family – source
– The burning hordes – source
– Ila and her mate Shem – source
– Tubal-cain’s ‘society’ – source
– The Flood – source
– Ark interior – as previous
– Animals – source
– Rainbow – source