I have heard the story of Noah’s ark since I was a very young child, but it was only as an adult that I realized it’s a story about the end of the world. One family was given a reprieve, and even they are forced to watch all the world drown. But for such a dark story, it is almost never treated that way. Most kids grow up viewing Noah as something of a zookeeper, and I swear every illustration I’ve ever seen of him makes him look like Santa. Darren Aronofsky saw something in the story at a young age that made it his lifelong dream to film it, and after the success of Black Swan he was finally able to make it happen. It’s not the story of Noah I grew up with, but it’s definitely the one I needed to see at this point in my life.
Anyone who has ever attended a Sunday school class knows this story. God reveals to Noah that mankind has fallen so far that all of creation must be wiped out in a vast flood. Noah and his family are instructed to build an enormous ark to house two of every animal, so that the world can start anew after the waters recede. That much you know going in, but since the story takes up a scant three chapters in the book of Genesis, Aronofsky changes a couple of elements and fills in the margins with world-building, insane visuals, and secondary characters never mentioned in the biblical account. These alterations have already raised the ire of a lot of people, but if they choose to not watch it they are missing out. What Aronofsky has created is absolutely boggling. It’s a movie of deep devotion, completely committed to its insane vision even when it doesn’t totally work. There have been many biblical epics set to film, but few feel this personal, and none of them feel so bold and imaginative.
Aronofsky digs his fingers into this story, and wrestles with all of its challenging elements. This includes trying to make sense of how a single family could build what amounts to a floating warehouse, or how those animals could live on the arc without killing each other. Both of these are given explanations that, while not really scriptural, work within the movie’s context. But that drive to dig deep also forces the movie to take a hard look at the more challenging aspects of the story. How can Noah allow so many people to perish outside the ark? What kind of man does that? Noah attacks these character questions with gusto, though not always with the resolution that many will expect or desire. It’s a story of humanity as much as anything, and a major theme of the movie is that humans are broken. Noah is the protagonist, but he is not perfect. Indeed, he’s not even always likable. Russell Crowe is able to handle this role with aplomb, and I think the result is some of his finest work.
Thematically, it is one of the richest movies I have seen in a long time. Much ink has been spilled about the environmental overtones, and they are indeed quite overt. But they also arise organically. Noah is fewer than ten generations removed from Adam, and God’s charge to Adam to watch over creation is one Noah takes very seriously, though the film implies (and demonstrates) that he has not always done so in the best way. It’s impossible to miss the connections with our own world and with the world we are in today, and not just from an environmental standpoint. I grew up thinking that mankind’s sin was against each other and God, but here it’s all part of a general fallen nature. The evil that cause Cain to kill Abel causes the earth to be stripped bare, a far cry from the Eden that Noah relates to his family. There are times when we all sense that broken nature in our world today, and you don’t have to believe in God to see it. Are we already setting our own course for disaster? And if that disaster comes, is humanity worth saving in the first place? Noah ultimately declares that it is, but not without some moments where it looks like the darkness of mankind will swallow everyone.
Noah is a work of passion, and it shows. It looks like Aronofsky has been thinking his whole life about how he would portray this. Some of the visuals are mind-blowing and some are insane, but they all are done with the same ridiculous conviction. The visual that sticks in my mind is a wide shot of the earth covered in hurricanes, like smallpox. Some elements work less well, like the Watchers, Aronofsky’s interpretation of the “giants” mentioned at the beginning of chapter 6 of Genesis. The antediluvian nature of the story means he can take a lot of liberties with what the world might have looked like, but the Watchers bring to mind nothing so much as a combination of the Ents from Lord of the Rings, and the Rock-biter from The Neverending Story. Once you accept them and move on its fine, but some might find that first hurdle a bit much. The movie also begins to run out of gas after the flood comes, resorting to a disappointingly pedestrian plot twist that felt a little contrived. However the visceral thrills of the first 90 minutes carry it through, and the quiet ending leaves on a strong note.
Does Noah tell the story exactly as it’s told in the Bible? No, and that was the right choice. This movie is not a Sunday school lesson. Like artists throughout history, Aronofsky saw something here that compelled him to create. It’s kind of messy, a little lopsided, and maybe a little brilliant. As a Christian, I feel like it’s the rare dramatic portrayal of a Bible story that is willing to wrestle with the challenges of its story, rather than soothe away all questions. Those who have dismissed the movie out of hand are doing it a disservice, since it’s about as biblically accurate as something like The Passion of the Christ. And those who aren’t particularly religious will resonate with the themes of humanity and whether we are worth saving. I’ve read about Noah’s ark so many times, but sometimes it takes a work of art to jolt us out of complacency and really consider what the story might mean. Noah did that for me, which is the highest compliment that I can give.