Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone
Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler, Pi) co-wrote and directs this Bible inspired film, the basics of whose plot you already know. The creator God, disappointed with what Human Beings have become, decides to annihilate everything with a flood and start over. Of course, like many especially early Bible stories, there’s not much there. A good chunk of the Genesis account is instructions for the boat. The Bible authors, in other words, lack the intricacy of detail of someone like Tolkien or J.K. Rowling, making film adaptations necessarily creative.
This is a really smart, well-crafted film, but the long and the short of it is, if you’re going to see this film because you want a by the book depiction of Genesis, then you’ll be disappointed and a little angry. Of course, if you want a by the book adaptation of the Noah story, then you’re basically asking for a 2 hour film depicting someone building a boat without any dramatic tension or dialogue. Such a film would star Bob Villa, I suspect, and would have about 2 minutes of cool CGI depicting the animals. With all due respect for Bob Villa, I’m not paying $10 dollars for that. Let’s face it: the book would make a bad movie as is, if you want the Genesis’s account, you should read Genesis.
Still, what Aronofsky does with the story is questionable, but to a purpose. The descendants of Cain are pitted against the descendants of Seth. The former have ravaged the earth, claiming everything for selfish purposes while the latter have been entrusted with care for the Earth. Noah (Russell Crowe) is given the message about the coming destruction and with the help of his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), and some fallen angels turned Rock creatures a `la The Never Ending Story, builds an Ark to save the innocent animals. (Biblically, Methuselah does die the same year as the Flood, and there are angels, the Nephalim who interact with humans)
So, a big part of this film is an environmental message about the difference between stewardship and domination of the Earth and its animals. Some commentators point out that the film presents the exact opposite idea as the Bible story it’s based on. So much time has been spent talking about this, I’m not going to get into it, except to say that, if Genesis really doesn’t support the environmental message of the Aronofsky film, then so much the worse for Genesis.
I suspect a creator God worthy of worship would in fact want those made in His image to actually care for creation and not ruin it by exploiting it to the point of exhaustion. If you want to say, “No wait, God is totally cool with pollution and deforestation and animal abuse,” then it’s not Aronofsky that has the problem, but your faith. Does that mean we should be vegetarians? Well, we should probably at least think about that, but not cutting down all of the trees and not dumping garbage into the water and air would be good starts.
The environmental message certainly is front and center, but for me, the bigger issue that comes to the fore is Aronofsky’s attempt to wrestle with the duality of human beings, something common to his other films. The Bible story is a bit odd, after all. God, who creates and declares us good, decides that, as a result of choices, everyone needs to die. As a philosopher I have to point out that there’s little that makes sense about this decision. Biblically, God waits a long time to come to this decision, despite people screwing up from the beginning. No final straw is given in Genesis or the film, either. In both cases the decision seems to be awfully capricious.
A further intellectual problem with the Noah story as it appears in the Bible is, why save anyone at all? Now there are a bunch of different theologies potentially at play, but from a Christian perspective where salvation comes from Grace through Jesus Christ, then the whole flood story doesn’t make sense. If God wanted us saved in the time of Noah, He could have sent a redeemer. Absent that, killing everyone but Noah isn’t going to help because of the stain of Original Sin, which Aronofsky builds quite successfully into his story.
Theologians have answers to these questions, but they tend to be unsatisfying. If human beings are fallen then any world in which they live is in danger. Aronofsky’s Noah understands this. We are all fallen because of sin. This means that to make a fresh start for Creation we all must perish as a result of the flood, including Noah and his family. The tension that animates my own interest in the film is precisely this: why save anyone at all?
Noah interprets the message of God to be exactly that, that everyone will die; thus, he refuses to provide wives for his sons. Now, of course, we know how the story ends, more or less, so the real question is, how does humanity become saved? When does Noah realize that his understanding of the divine message is wrong? To be honest, I’m not sure he ever does in this film.
The film suggests that humanity’s survival is Noah’s failure. He certainly thinks so. But maybe not. His daughter (in-law) Ila (Emma Watson) attempts to make him realize that by putting the choice in Noah’s hands his choice was divinely wished. This, however, is a foolish thing to say given that the entire problem is the result of Adam and Eve who God also entrusted with a choice. In other words, God choosing Noah to make a choice is no sign that his choice was correct because God did the same with Adam and Eve.
More than this, the film forces me to consider that, given the current state of the Earth, Noah made the wrong choice. With oil spills a weekly occurrence, species on the verge of extinction, plastic contaminating our water and pollution choking our air, it’s difficult to not think, “Here we go again,” when Noah stays his hand toward the end.
Then again, we must remember (given the perspective of the film) we are divinely created, capable of good as well as evil. The choice, like the Bible story itself, is ongoing. There is always another chance to do right, to do good. I suspect this is why I ultimately liked Aronofsky’s epic, because it understands and conveys what scholars from the historical Midrash to the present have been saying about the Flood story. It is a way of conveying that it’s not too late to start again.
It’s not too late to make better choices. That no matter what has come before, we can do better, we can be better. We need only recognize the good in human beings along with the evil and selfishness. The ambiguity of Aronofsky’s ending is the ambiguity about our own future. The question is not, “Can we do better?” the question is “Will we do better?” As such the film is not especially Christian, I don’t think, in its understanding. It is up to us to save ourselves.
So, will we? I hope so, but, like Noah, if I think about this too long, I end up just wanting to get drunk and pass out in a cave. Ultimately I like what Winston Churchill said, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”