On Wednesday evening myself and another seminarian went to see “Noah”.
I want to begin with some disclaimers.
First: the film is NOT Gnostic at all. There is some Kaballah influence, but that is different from Gnosticism. This “oh my the movie is secretly gnostic so we must not see it!” movement that is the fad for all of 3 or 4 days is overreaction and, in my sense, unfounded. However, some and others have done the work for me in this regard so I will not repeat hear why the film is NOT Gnostic except for one thing.
During the telling of the creation story, Adam and Eve appear clothed in light. This should not be surprising considering that Aranofsky has fooled around with the image before in films such as The Fountain. But it is actually also quite Patristic. If one would read the Church Fathers, there is a common theme that Adam and Eve existed in “spiritual bodies” and that the fall created “bodies of flesh”. This is not gnostic. This is patristic because it is taking seriously the idea that the fall has an effect on both man and all of creation. Prior to the fall, the soul was in control of the body. After the fall, the body has tended to control the soul. Furthermore, there is precedence for this spiritualized view of the body in something called the RESURRECTION. To talk of spiritualized bodies is not to neglect the body, but to find the body as it was meant to be. The bodies we have are corrupted and must die because they are of the flesh so that we can receive our glorified bodies; so sayeth St Paul. Light therefore becomes the image of this spiritualization of the body. But if you watch the film closely, you see that both Adam and Eve have bodies. Nothing Gnostic about that. It’s purely biblical.
Second: Rock Creatures. Everyone for some reason is lamenting this and I cannot figure it out for the life of me. In the story of the angels, Aranofsky clearly speaks about the fall of angels. They disobeyed God’s will because they saw the frailty of man. Make no mistake, this is a rebellion, just not in the form that we tend to accept – and what we accept is apocryphal at best anyways. But this is besides the point. I think the Rock Watchers make perfect sense. First, it could be a reference to the Nephilim, but it is also an allusion to the watchers of the apocryphal book of Enoch. Aranofsky is borrowing from one tradition that states that these are the fallen angels. Now you might ask “why the heck are fallen angels rock creatures?!” But let us ask ourselves the question: what is the most lifeless, most mundane, most earthy thing you can think of? The fall of the angels means that they take on the weight of the flesh of sin and it is embodied in the symbol of rock. Even their mode of existing is slow, dull, boring. Now, this is not to say I don’t have issues with the redemption of the watchers, but that is beside the point. I think if we can have an open enough mind, we can appreciate the value of these creatures.
Third: this film is not some pseudo-pro-environmentalist propaganda film. Those who think so I think need to re-think their Christian cosmology. When sin happens, it affects the whole world. It brings about destruction to the earth as well as to man and animals too. Aranofsky is simply giving a very real expression to the reality of sin. In fact, I think you could argue that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is far more critical of technicalization and domination than this film is. And if you feel that this is too much, then perhaps one needs to re-think their view of creation. I am no pseudo-environmentalist, but I am also a person who does not see dominion as domination. The film rightly critiques such a view and if we fail to hear the critique then I think the film is making a valid point against us and the Christian West.
With all those preambles, let me get to the brunt of the film. It is semi-spoilery, but it is tough to speak about the film without some of the more essential parts.
The first point I want to make is that I believe that the covering of Noah’s shame is actually the interpretive key to what Aranofsky is trying to do in this film. I think he sees the story of Noah and asks himself “why the heck did he see the need to get drunk after the flood?” That which precedes the scene is the answer to that question. I know that Aranofsky asks himself “what is the world like that God would want to grieve in His heart that He created man”, but I think he is also asking himself “what is it in the heart of Noah that drives him to drink?”
The whole film is quite unique. You can tell that Aranofsky is trying to create something that is both familiar and different at the same time. He is trying to draw you into the myth. But this is perhaps where my biggest issue with the film arises: it is attempting to be mythical while at the same time being post-modern. I feel like there are two worlds at play in the film and it creates a sense of fuzziness when watching the film. You feel like you should be watching either myth or the absurdity of post-modernity. The issue is that neither genre really fits with the other. This is why I left the theater unsure as what to think about the film. It left me dazed and confused, but the more I think about it, I think that this is the real issue. By combining post-modern angst with myth he is actually undermining the power of myth. There are films that are mythic by focusing on that post-modern angst, that tendency to nihilism. The Dark Knight trilogy is such a series of film that becomes myth precisely because it is not myth, precisely because it is the expression of the human understanding about reality, about how things are. But this film cannot allow that separation to exist and so puts them together, but it is like mixing oil with water: you clearly see one from the other. Hence the beginning is definitely more myth oriented, while the scenes on the ark are like any post-modern film that deals with existential crises. It is not to say that biblical figures do not struggle. Of course they do. They are human like us. Even Jesus struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane. But we have to be careful about reading post-modern angst onto mythical figures and stories that can undermine the deeper themes about God and man. Struggle need not be angst. What Aranofsky does with Noah is what Kierkegaard does with Abraham, and I think in both cases it is a bit of a reach. This mixture leads to the ultimate improbability of the magicalness of the world. Post-modernity is like Tubal-Cain: miracles just don’t happen. So to thrust this post-modern vision – which denies mediation – into a world of myth and of connection with God – which accepts mediation tout-court – then what you get is a bit of a philosophical mess on your hands that the film struggles to string together and leaves the viewer wondering what to make of it all. Symbol can only be communicated if the form is appreciable by the viewer, something the film waffles with.
I have struggled to understand why Noah needs to be through such angst in the film and have such pessimism about humanity. But I do not think his pessimism is a far reach. I think Aranofsky is trying to demonstrate the reaches of sin. Even though Noah is righteous he too falls sway to sin and in his case, sin takes advantage of his righteousness. This is why Noah kills in the film (something I think that stretches the biblical narrative a bit too far: how can a man have such care for an animal and yet such disregard for human life?). I also see in Noah a figure of utter obedience – again the Kierkegaardian twinge of the film manifests itself. Even if something seems completely contrary to him, he does it because it is the will of God.
Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah is a waste of time.
I loved the city that descends from Cain. I do wonder if it is perhaps a bit too large for the biblical period, and I wonder about it’s plausibility of being so technologically advanced, but I think the symbol of this civilization is wonderful. You get a sense of sin in its starkest reality, you are horrified by it, and you start to understand why it must end: if this is the way the world is going to be, it is better that the world not-be.
I loved the telling of the stories of creation and the fall. I think it works well and tries very hard to demonstrate visually something that is difficult to demonstrate in any case. In this regard the shedding of the serpents skin took me some time to understand, for the snake’s skin becomes a motif in the film. But I realized that it is a shedding of its glorified form: the devil has left His home with God and has decided to try and take man with him. If there is one thing I think the film does very well, it grasps the oral sense of the Genesis accounts (which is what came before they were written down). We have these stories written because they were first told and handed onto their descendants and the film catches this beautifully. These stories are told because they are the source of their identity as human beings.
The film deals with so many themes. As one friend pointed out to me and I would rightly agree, the film re-introduces the theme of the justice of God. In fact, some people criticize the film for not having God be so merciful. But we do forget God’s justice and that we have a responsibility because we too have a freedom, and freedom demands responsibility for our actions. But mercy does play in this as well, and the film, as the same friend pointed out to me, is incredibly pro-life.
One of the more profounder themes of the film, as expressed by Emma Watson’s character towards the end of the film, is the notion of freedom. How free is the creation? What is under our control? What belongs to God to do? How do these two freedoms relate. These are deep philosophical questions that I think the film deals incredibly well with and resolves quite nicely, especially with regards to seeking out God’s will.
However, and this is my last thought about the scene on the ark, I was troubled by the deterioration of Noah’s character. It did play into the pagan notion that to know the face of God is madness, because Noah devolves into a quasi-psychotic character on the boat and his sense that he has to kill the whole human race. The ark is a place of hopelessness at times, and that is disturbing because the whole thrust of the story is one of hope and covenant. In short, I think Aranofsky does fail in placing the right emphasis on the right elements and thus allows the film to devolve into a typical pessimism about man that is akin to Joss Whedon. However, with that said, I did like the opaque nature of coming to know God’s will in the film. The dream sequences were bang on, but the fact that Noah wasn’t quite sure at all points as to what he was to do was absolutely perfect. This is something that is quite common in the biblical narrative: a sense on uncertainty or doubt about what God’s will is. Perhaps he is putting that post-modern spin on it and I think the struggles of both Noah and Tubal-Cain are struggles we can all find some resemblance to, but the fact that he is demonstrating the struggle is positive for we have a tendency in our piety to presume that because God has asked us of something means that we do no struggle, doubt, question, or even get it wrong.
Finally, I loved how present God is in the film. It is a deeper presence, a more personal presence, a real presence. Here one has to wonder how an atheist could possibly get the interaction between God and the world so right. God is never seen, but He is always there. In fact, the parts of the film in which God is the most hidden are the greatest scenes of His presence. And the use of the name “The Creator” can work and not work. I think they used it because they wanted to express the fact that the more European sounding word – God – was not used back then. However, it should be equally noted that the notion of God as sole creator without the presence of any other gods is something the Jews only come to terms with after the Babylonian exile. To lament them not using the word God is to lament that the Jewish or Greek texts of the Bible don’t use that word either. So we need to get over that and ourselves.
So what is my overall take? Writing this review has been helpful in processing the film and helping me put my thoughts in order. I realize, too, after writing this, how there are more things I want to write on it. When I first left the theater, I was dazed, confused, and frankly didn’t know what to think. But now I feel I have a better grasp on things and I do believe I like it. Is it pessimistic? Yes. Is it misanthropic? Yes. Is it post-modern? Yes. But I think it is a good attempt at trying to tell the story of Noah. I think it could have been done better, but it also could have been a lot worse. It is not the best Bible movie made due to my critique about the intertwining of myth and post-modernity, but I think it attempts to be a reasonably faithful telling of the story as Aranofsky sees it.
If you have an imagination, an open mind, a willing to see themes as they are meant to be portrayed by the author, I think it will bring good fruit to you. At the very least, you will want to go home and read the story of Noah all over again, as I did tonight, with the sense of the story being much more alive to me than it had in times past. Because of this, I think the movie succeeds in making its story heard and is, for that reason, worth seeing. Below are some further critiques that contain spoilers.
I do still struggle with the redemption of the angels. However, I am not going to get too hung up about this because I am asking an atheist director to take a Christian perspective on something and that is not fair to him. I accept what he did, I just don’t agree with it.
I think it odd that only one son would have a wife in entering the ark. I think Aranofsky loses some of the symbolism of the number 8 (Jesus was risen on the 8th day which is the day of a new creation, it is also the first day of the week, which can be seen to connect with the act of creation itself). Furthermore, the whole issue of incest could occur. I think Aranofsky tries to fix that by having the twin girls, but I also don’t understand why Ham walks off into the sunset all by himself with no wife at his side.
The battle scene was stupid. Also: where did the Watchers get their sudden speed? Why does everything have to be a big war?
I don’t like the idea of Noah killing.
Aranofsky’s cosmology of sin is betrayed by the innocence of the animals. Everything is affected negatively by sin…except the animals. Either he is arguing that animals have their own freedom – and I don’t think he is – or it just wasn’t very well thought out in this regard due, perhaps (I am grasping in this regard), to his inability to understand the hierarchy of creation.
I think, again, that Aranofsky is interpreting the figure of Ham by what later happens in Genesis and presumes that there must have been a build up to a falling out between him and his father. I also don’t like how Ham ate meat, but I did love what they intended to show with the eating of meat. It is not a vegetarian propaganda, but it is trying to show that the eating of meat – which was forbidden for a while in Genesis – is connected with our being fleshy bodies. To eat the blood of another has adverse effects and I think the film does a good job at portraying this.