It’s been a month since the release of Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah, and just this week it fell out of the top 10 for box office sales. Given the sad shape of the competition (The Lego Movie not withstanding), that’s disappointing news, particularly since much of its core audience, professing Christians, didn’t bother to give it a fair shake.
For an art film, I’ve been surprised to see so little critical engagement with the film. Christians reviewers were, for the most part, dismissive (or downright laughable), while others have damned the film with feint praise. The most in-depth discussion of the film, released in early April, turns out to be almost completely wrong, even though its thorough demolition alerted me to the insightful and penetrating critic Peter T. Chattaway, whose reviews and blog posts are well worth reading.
Still, I am left with the feeling that some significant details are still missing from the conversation about the film, several of which would interest the same Christians who may, at first glance, object to the film’s handling of the biblical story. To redress this imbalance, let me collect a few thoughts that have brought me closer to what I regard as the film’s moral and spiritual center.
Noah’s third vision
To date, I haven’t read any description of the film’s narrative structure. It seems to me that Noah’s visions structure the film’s main pivots, and each is carefully marked by flashbacks to Cain’s murder of Abel. I am guessing that most people would say that Noah is only given two visions.
The first vision, revealed in a dream, makes clear God’s intent to destroy the world by water. It grows out of Noah’s restlessness from witnessing the miraculous, rapid growth of a flower out of nothing. The vision is spare, lacking specifics, leading Noah to seek further clarification and insight from his grandfather, Methuselah.
The second vision, induced by Methuselah’s bitter tea, reveals what Noah must do, that he must build an ark. It builds upon the first vision but also undergirds his task with a sense of hope and provision, that Noah and his family will survive. Noah recounts: “Fire consumes all; water cleanses, separates the foul from the pure, the wicked from the innocent, that which sinks and that which rises. He destroys all, only to start again.” It seems important to note here that, at this point, there’s no sense that Noah believes his family must die at the end of their mission. That understanding comes in later. But when and how?
At this point, it seems as if God stops talking to Noah “in a way that he can understand.” The audience sees this rightly, but I suspect that the director also wants us to see that things aren’t that clear to Noah. He must live in the contingency of what he knows, uncertain if God would provide a third vision with further specifics of God’s plan for his family.
On the eve of the flood, Noah visits a nearby encampment of men. What he sees deeply disturbs him. Indeed, it stirs Noah’s wrath against humanity, inflaming his own deeply ingrained sense of injustice, established from the beginning of the film. We, too, are horrified at the scenes of brutality and depravity. But the images give way to a dreamlike vista of the entire encampment engulfed in flames. Then we’re shown, in silhouette, rapid-fire images of men reenacting Cain’s murder of Abel. At the peak of this crescendo of images and sound, Noah awakes up. I suspect we’re meant to ask: Did Noah even visit the encampment, or was it all a dream? The film doesn’t linger in that moment; it moves quickly past it, with signs that the flood is about to break upon the world. It’s so quick that I think most viewers overlook the scene in their efforts to stitch together the movie’s central animating conflicts.
I would argue that it is this third vision that undermines Noah’s sense of provision and hope, and it’s entirely of Noah’s own making. In effect, we’re witnessing Noah exchange God’s sense of justice for his own. Earlier in the film, we are set up to make the connection explicit, when Methuselah tells Noah that his father, Enoch, thought mankind would be “annihilated” by fire. This new vision sets in motion the conflict for the rest of the film, as Noah must labor under his false but overriding vision of God’s justice. This false vision blinds him to God’s mercy and provision, until the last moments of the film.
What this overlooked element of the film underscores for me is the great difficulty we humans have in separating out our own versions of justice from God’s. We don’t know how to discern God’s will—or we claim rather naively that we’re laying out a fleece. What we think we know comes not from a voice from the heavens, like George Burns or Morgan Freeman, but from whispers in our sleep. That metaphor, of a whisper, is used in the lullaby that Noah sings to his adopted daughter. There’s an obvious connection to be made here. The song, the importance of which Aronofsky discusses here, here, and here, serves as a powerful vehicle in the film for parental love and mercy and suggests the ways God speaks to us “so that we can understand,” through the Bible, through tradition, through members of our family or our community.
Many people have complained that God is almost entirely absent in the film; he is so distant, so impersonal, that he is referred to only as “the Creator.” But his fingerprints are carefully placed throughout the film. It’s helpful, I think, simply to point them out. I count twelve, for starters:
- the flower
- the first vision (“death by water”)
- the second vision (“I just didn’t see it: new life” and “build a vessel to survive the storm; we build an ark”)
- the seed from the Garden of Eden that becomes a fountain that yields a forrest from which the wood for the ark would be taken (provision)
- the coming of the birds
- the coming of the snakes
- the coming of the mammals
- closing the door of the ark (yes, it does happen)
- the healing of Ela by Methuselah
- the twin baby girls as serendipitous provision of wives for Noah’s two younger sons
- the timing of striking the rock / to interrupt the drama with Tubal-Cain inside the ark
- the rainbow
While some critics have devoted considerable energy to identifying the non-biblical source material for Noah, from Gilgamesh to 1 Enoch, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the number of explicitly biblical stories are encapsulated in the film. Again, it seems useful simply to spell them out:
- The story of creation. Genesis 1 and 2. This sequence alone is worth the price of admission. I can’t imagine a better way to visualize this story of God’s creation.
- The theme of Adam, a new Adam. Genesis 3. (Romans 5:12-18, anyone?) Og, a Watcher, sees “a glimmer of the man I knew, the man I came to help.”
- The themes of sin and fallenness. Genesis 3-4, passim!
- The stories of rivalrous sons. Adam’s sons (Cain, Abel), Isaac’s sons (Jacob, Esau), David’s sons, etc.
- The themes of adoption and thwarted birthright.
- The theme of barrenness and provision. Sarah, Genesis 18-21.
- The theme of sacrifice and children. Isaac, Genesis 22. For all the complaining about “killer Noah,” I cannot believe that people don’t appreciate how this biblical story is transposed, effectively in my opinion, in the story of Noah.
- The story of kingship. 1 and 2 Samuel. Ham: “My father says there can be no king in the Creator’s garden.”
- The theme of genealogy and, I might add, the primacy of reproduction (and sexual complementarity)
- The use of dreams to communicate God’s will. Brief overview here.
- The theme of forgiveness. Noah’s wife; Og, immediately before he is called home: “Father, forgive me.”
Noah does exactly what great art should do: it gets us talking about things that matter. It sends us back to the primary sources (even 1 Enoch). It takes those texts seriously and allows them to speak to us through the ages and to inspire new tellings—new arrangements of ancient themes. It imagines credible explanations for the obvious lacunae in the biblical source material. And it artfully dramatizes central motifs of the Bible itself—obedience and sin, the nature of mercy, our stewardship of (or dominion over) creation, our inordinate love of our children, and how we know the will of God—exactly the topics that we want to inspire and provoke our friends and neighbors to talk about. Sure, the conversation doesn’t end there. But I think we can still thank God for Darren Aronofsky’s vision and for his profound engagement with the Bible and Jewish tradition.