So I haven’t done a movie review in a while (mostly because the horror angle dries up considerably in the spring season), but I feel compelled to write something about Noah.
I’m not sure it’s really to convince anyone of anything, but it’s a movie that stuck in my mind after seeing it, and I feel compelled to write about it. And, as usual, if you haven’t seen it, my reviews try to get at the themes and heart of the movie, so there are spoilers if you haven’t seen it.
I went into Noah open minded, but worried. I knew a few things: 1) I love Darren Aronofsky. Black Swan and The Fountain are in my top five all-time favorite movies. 2) This was a big-budget feature that needed to make its money back. 3) When I saw this movie being advertised in the commercials for Nascar, I began to grow concerned. Nothing against Nascar audiences, but generally speaking, I saw this as an emphasis on reaching the Biblical audiences rather than the Aronofsky audiences. Knowing what I do about marketing, I wasn’t prepared to assume one thing over another about the movie by the marketing, but I was a bit wary. I also knew, 4) that the movie was drawing generally favorable reviews while also bothering Christian fundamentalists alongside atheists alike.
This final point was perhaps the most encouraging, because that’s exactly where I tend to fall. Generally, I am not a religious person. I grew up Methodist until my folks grew unhappy with the more modern slant that our church was moving, and they’ve spent the last fifteen years or so “searching for a new church”. Needless to say, that never really went anywhere. But I’d always enjoyed the security of — at least hoping — that there were greater forces in the universe. My drive toward paranormal research manifested in college, where I took courses in Religious Studies (examining mythological texts and their religious aspects) and Philosophy of Religion (in which arguments for and against religious propositions are considered). These classes have come to define my religious outlook. Because of my research into the paranormal, I am inclined to believe that there’s a possibly-spiritual component to our world largely unrecognized, and that through very similar pursuits into mysticism, there seems that these boundaries overlap, and suggest there to be a kind of divinity beyond the physical world we make up.
And for the most part, it stops there. I’d like to pursue a more personal mysticism more in the future. Mysticism is the practice and attempts to have a direct and personal spiritual experience, possibly of divinity, where much of our western religions (read: Christianity) tend to minimize the mystical component in favor of a dogmatic component. Many people tend to connote “dogma” with something negative, and it can be. But functionally, dogma is when you’re told to take a certain belief as true rather than learn it for yourself. Science has dogmas. Religions have dogmas. Christianity puts weight on them specifically because they believe that faith is their biggest point of salvation, and that the act of having faith is far more important than a path to knowledge, given that it tests you in different ways. I’m a bit Gnostic in the sense that I think knowledge is very important, and a bit Zen in the sense that I’d rather be put in a position to experience something than being told about it, especially given how fallible interpretations of spiritual experiences tend to be.
What this boils down to is that I’m very much a religious pluralist. I do think it’s very important for religious practitioners to select one religion and follow it because, if left to their own devices, people tend to pick and choose the easiest elements of each religion, where it’s often the hardest components that can be the most revelatory. My leanings toward pluralism come in that I think spiritual experiences are inherently ineffable. I think that they come from a realm outside of our physical construction, and so can’t be encompassed by language. Therefore I think that when people try to distill such an experience so far beyond them, they inherently build an explanation that’s heavily weighed by their culture and their limited language. In this way, I’ve always loved the metaphor of the three blind men touching the elephant, where the one who touches the tail believes it’s a rope, the one touching the legs believes it’s a tree, and the one touching the trunk believes it’s a snake. Taking these experiences back to their homes, each man is going to construct a wildly different interpretation of the same thing.
That being said, I fall into a strange blend where I love science (I think that there are avenues toward spiritual experience that can be explored scientifically), I have a deep respect for the spiritual and components of the religious (as I explored above), but where I’m also very heretical to some religious folks (in that I challenge many religions assertions that there is only one “right” way).
But it’s this blend between perspectives that put me in a very unique position to watch Noah.
The Theater Experience
A lot of reviewers are talking about what a spectacle this movie was, and how you should really go see it in theaters. I’m in between. I think that it’s an experience demanded to be seen in theaters. It’s larger than life and it’s a movie about the destruction of the world. That’s big. You should see it big. But there are many moments where, because the CGI is so extensive through the whole movie, that the graphics are a bit disappointing, even ripping me from the immersive experience. Aronofsky also tends to direct his movies in very specific and beautiful ways, with shots that are often lost if you’re gazing up at the screen. Black Swan for instance, is a very different experience at home than it was in the theaters. Not that one is necessarily better over another, but there’s reasons to see it in theaters and to wait.
This movie was excellently filmed (other than the CGI hiccups), and excellently acted. Russell Crowe was an excellent Noah, playing the blend between warm and fatherly with just the right amount of rugged, hardcore, batshit crazy. The other actors I think did their jobs well, but I wasn’t ever all that blown away.
So. With all that front-matter out of the way, I want to dig around inside the film a bit on a thematic level, which is where movies do their truest work for me.
This movie, while clunky at times, especially in the pacing, was very much a movie that built upon itself. We begin with this predilugian world that’s different from our own. This may well be a part that turns off many atheists, as it very quickly plunges you into a world that echoes, again and again, the “Creator” (read: Old Testament God). The bad guys are the ones who live in excess and violence and arrogance, and the good guys are the pious and the environmentally-minded who maintain a reverence for the Creator.
You can see how this is quickly divisive. Many more right-leaning Christians are immediately turned off by the very Granola-feeling “save the environment from the polluters” theme, and many Atheists are turned off by the overt God-centric world the characters are living in.
But the mindset you have to put yourself in, for the more Atheistic thinkers, is that this movie is in a fantasy world, where there is magic and rock-creature-transformer-angels and spark-rocks that make epic fire, and seeds that can grow an entire forest overnight. For the more Christian thinkers: if you make it through the movie, you understand that the tree-hugging theme is really one of respect, and sets more a tone for the premise than it does the conclusion. It returns a perspective to the Edenic perspective, of the innocence that many Christians idolize, in which a kind of harmony with nature was idolized, in that sense that we were unaware of good and evil, and very much just another animal ourselves.
Later in the movie, there was another potential turnoff for fundamentalists, in one of the most gorgeous and Aronofsky-esque sequences in the film, where the creation myth was told overlaying a very evolutionary sequence of the creation of the earth, a perspective I’ve always loved. Of course, I come from a religious-studies background, in that I have a very heavy respect for the cultural myths that were told about creation as purely that: stories. But, as an English Major, stories that talk of a deeper truth, and consider rich meaning.
Just like this one, in fact. This movie is art. It’s a fictional illustration of deeper meanings. And if you’re so literal that you can’t appreciate the dialogue happening underneath a sequence that suggests a non-literal interpretation of Genesis, well, that’s unfortunate. I’m not sure this review will mean much to you if you made it this far anyway.
But I loved that sequence, because it reflects an important blend of different beliefs (a theme Aronofsky explored extensively in The Fountain).
The deepest heart of the movie though, once we move beyond the places where believers and non-believers alike would be turned off, is in the emotional and ethical struggle DEEPLY RUNNING through this entire story.
Most of us know the story of Noah, whether we were taught in Sunday school or just through the society we live in, where such mythos are common. God wants to destroy the wicked. He entrusts Noah to build an ark to save the innocent. Noah builds it. Floods come. Everyone dies. Bird comes back with a sign of land. Noah and family repopulate the earth.
It’s a story I’ve shrugged off dozens of times. But I mean, holy shit. That’s HEAVY. God, the Creator (in hindsight, the God who’s supposed to be all-loving and benevolent and all that) is going to WIPE OUT THE EARTH, women, children, innocent, good, evil, wicked, WHOLE CULTURES in one go, because we’ve become so bloodthirsty and wicked.
People are dying. People who it’s VERY much up to debate may indeed be good-hearted and innocent. How much good is in a person to require their salvation? How much evil for their damnation? When is it decided that a person is so evil they’re not worth saving? That they can’t be rehabilitated? Are human beings inherently evil? Should any be saved?
I mean, if you’ve seen the movie, you know that these are the big questions and themes that really become driven home by the second act. But they’re themes that are very much at the heart of many Old Testament stories, but left for discussion and inference, as the Bible isn’t really big on fleshing out these ideas, but as illustrative and conversation-inspiring.
Anyone who can appreciate being placed in the context of this magical, God-structured world, and who can appreciate the severity of the ethics in the story itself (these questions are implicit right there in the Bible, they’re just less dramatized), should absolutely see and chew on this movie (yes, I’m saying you Atheists, and you Christians).
Because these are great questions. Weighing the amount of goodness or evil in a human being, and then discussing how seriously we should take a punishment for such evil… that’s fucking huge.
And Aronofsky handled this very deftly.
I said on Twitter after seeing the movie that I wasn’t sure it was great or just really goooood. I’m still leaning toward not-great. I was worried the movie wouldn’t be very deep as it started. I wasn’t seeing the themes or a real dramatic manifestation of these themes at first, but they came on like the deluge by the end, and that much I loved.
Watching Noah buckle under his ethical dilemmas was wonderful. Watching him get drunk in a cave by himself because the weight of whether he’d failed his god and/or failed humanity was extremely powerful. He did it because of Love. And whether that decision was a wrong decision was very challenging, because, I mean… what does that say about God?
My perspective on God is that, if there is such a being, he’s a kind of consciousness and energy. I feel that many interpretations of him are a personification. We’ve made him into a character, a kind of manifestation of themes and ideas, and in so doing, we’ve created an idea that can be interpreted and critiqued. I don’t feel that God is a bearded old man on a cloud, but to consider him as such, a human-esque character, we can weigh these ethics and themes in a more tangible discussion.
I understand that that’s very heretical for many religious types, but I feel that it’s important to discuss these things.
And here’s where I loved the subtlety of the movie. And perhaps where some sharp Christians may have started to falter. Because the movie asked some hard questions about God. They were subtle. They were respectful. God was a presence in the movie, but was never overtly a character, and this was a really wonderful choice by Aronofsky.
I, for one, really love critiquing the character of the Christian God. Because it’s a very complicated one. We have so many different visions of God, even in this one religion, and many are at odds with each other, and for such an encompassing figure, these are really big discussions.
The problem of evil, for example: How could an Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent (read: all knowing, all good, all powerful) allow evil? If he knows of it and doesn’t do anything about it, he’s evil. If he knows of it and is all good, he’s impotent, and if he is all powerful and good, then perhaps he doesn’t know about it. It’s an important problem, and one that’s been discussed for hundreds of years, with excellent arguments on both sides. So here I don’t mean to suggest it in any way antagonistically toward Christianity, but in Religious Philosophy, it’s a big and important issue.
And it comes to manifest frequently in the Old Testament. We have a very wrathful, vengeful, emotional God who dishes out punishment right and left. Some of these for SERIOUSLY NO REASON. The psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung has a fascinating breakdown of this God Character, in which he blends very Eastern ideas (who see good and evil as halves of a whole, rather than polarized the way we see them in the west), and he makes a very interesting argument toward God being a totality of good and evil seeking to balance the two.
If you’re a deeply Christian person, much of what he says comes across as very blasphemous, but I for one love it, if not simply for the interpretation of how such a god could do the things done in the Old Testament. He continues his analysis by suggesting that Christ was a manifestation of himself as human so that he could understand human suffering, as well as understand himself by having a second perspective. Christ dying on the cross was then, in Jung’s vision, a sacrifice to not save humanity from our sins, but to save God from his own.
Radical, challenging stuff. I know.
Now, I’m not trying to convince anyone or offend anyone with this. But I wanted to illustrate how challenging this Old Testament God-Figure can be in ethical terms, and how this movie very much explores that. What makes it brilliant is that it’s exploring it in a very subtle and dramatic way. It’s easy to watch the movie as a story about Noah’s own personal struggles with both faith, as well as ethics.
But the brilliance lies in the parallels between humanity and God. I don’t believe it’s in error that it was mentioned so many times that humanity was created in God’s Image. And that if we’re to be destroyed for being too inherently evil, that’s a very focused dialogue about the nature of God himself then. After all, who created the snake in the garden? (I’ve always been fascinated by the proposition that if God knowingly created the tempter, then obedience to him was more important than utopia).
But I digress. Consider though too, where Noah’s ethical dilemma of killing his grandchildren falls. It’s very much a parallel to the later Christ story. Noah is in a position of whether or not to kill his grandchildren for the sake of ALL CREATION. God himself had, it would seem, a similar dilemma all those years later with his own son on earth, dying for the sake of ALL HUMANITY. Less genocide, different stakes, but a similar ethical choice.
Look at the temptation of the middle son, Ham, to kill his father in order to save all of humanity.
Though we never really see a positive side of his tempter, Tubal-Cain, he isn’t in an obviously evil situation when he convinces Ham to kill his father in order to let humanity continue to flourish.
How different is a son killing his father to save all of humanity from the later story, in which a father sacrifices his son in order to save all of humanity?
These are delicate dialogues and parallels happening below and within this movie. I would argue (and not just because I’m more open minded to Gotteskritik than most) that they’re not blasphemous, but posing ethical questions on a archetypal Old Testament story, one loaded with ethical and moral dilemmas. The dilemma of punishment, of genocide, of elimination of evil, of the nature of evil and the human being, of the nature of God himself.
Part of me wishes there was a bit more exploration of these themes than really the second half of the movie, but I understand that there was a certain amount of buildup to these themes that was important. The construction of this predilugian world, and the audience’s acceptance of it, was a very important narrative construction that needed to be ensured before we could be challenged in the second act.
And, while upon first viewing, the movie seemed almost disappointingly straightforward (humanity tries to get on the ark, Noah wonders if he must kill his family off too, and Ham must decide whether to kill his father), these things, upon analysis, were very BIG situations that were VERY thematically loaded, particularly as they extended to God.
Maybe this final element, the criticism of God — or, even less severe sounding: the questioning of God — will turn off many religious folks from the movie, but I hope it doesn’t. This is what made the movie for me, because it went BIG, but it did so very subtly. Noah’s story has always demanded an ethical illustration and discussion of one man’s handling of the need for genocide, but what’s always been there (more overtly in the story of Job) is God’s same handling of such a need. Any religious Christian has studied the story of Job and had discussions around why God would punish a man for no reason. And the story of Noah is very much a less challenging but no less BIG story of why God would punish man for GOOD reason. Asking questions about whether God was right, why he made his decisions, and the significance of the implications of such decisions is important for any religious follower, and certainly does not imply a path to rejecting God.
It’s cause for this movie staying very carefully to the Biblical story. It’s posing the questions that have always been there in dramatic fashion. Questions that make us FEEL, questions that make us cry, questions that make us scared. That’s art. Those are questions that need to be asked. And, I think, why Noah was really brilliant.
Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the book Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and worked briefly with the Ghost Hunters International team. He now leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, lectures about the paranormal and religion across the nation, and shoots portrait photography in Northern Colorado.