Director Darren Aronofsky’s new biblical epic, Noah, is wild – think of it as the 300 of Bible stories, an exaggeratedly Aronofskyan Silent Spring, or simply Kon-Tiki 6.0. It’s the director at his most ambitious yet, no longer content with harrowing tales of addiction or dark meditations on doppelgängers. His reach is as high as the firmament, and his grasp only slightly behind. The movie’s received a good deal of the wrong kind of attention from Christian viewers, who cite its (admittedly generous) artistic license, veering away from the original Bible story. Unfortunately, the biblical version contains few details, so some amount of improvisation on Aronofsky’s part was necessary. And regardless of how much violence may (or may not) have been done to the original story, at a time when bedrock stories of Western literature are on the decline for mainly religious reasons, any bringing-to-life of the primal images, fears, and clouded hopes of the original story seems welcome.
The movie constantly cuts to the disturbing image of an arm poised clenching a rock, in silhouette, Cain on the cusp of bashing his brother’s head in. The children of Cain, we learn, multiplied over the earth; Abel of course died; and Seth, Adam’s and Eve’s third child, bore a line of mostly good people, caring for the earth and worshiping the Creator, of whom Noah is the last. There is darkness ‘out there’, in the Victorian-futuristic steampunk industrial world of Cain, while Noah’s family is righteous. A crucial turning-point comes when Noah recognizes that his family, too, is unrighteous; all deserve God’s judgment. In other words, while Noah may be from Seth’s line and the bloodthirsty proto-industrialists from Cain’s, all are sons of Adam – all sin.
Noah looks into humanity and sees evil, self-preservation, and a Hobbesian world of brutality. Noah thinks that he was chosen by God because he can stare into the darkness of human nature and not look away. As a friend remarked after the movie, that’s also something of a mission statement for Aronofsky himself; all of his movies confront the darkness within us in unflinching gesticulations of horror. Noah gazes into the abyss, and he teeters on the brink of madness. All must die, he decides; if his son’s pregnant daughter has a girl (who would be the only female to survive the flood), Noah will kill her. All must die; humans have wrecked creation and dashed God’s will against the rocks of our own pathetic cravings for life and legacy.
This is the one point where Aronofsky falters. Since he cannot examine the horror of human darkness in a universal way – even big-screen IMAX is too small for his vision – he tends to narrow his focus to one part of that fallenness, be it addiction or insanity or whatever else. For Noah, Aronofsky drills down to the destructive impact of human beings upon our environment, the world God created for us. The exploitative civilization of Cain’s son clearly parallels our own, and the gorgeous photography, which oscillates between lush wilderness and post-industrial/apocalyptic wasteland, almost approaches doxology. The Creator must be worshiped through creation, he implies. Yet environmental exploitation limits the scope of human fallenness. It would have been tremendously effective as a symbol of humanity’s self-obsessed self-perpetuation, but the eco-friendly message occupies too much of the film’s scope. We are told that Noah’s family itself lives in the darkness of human ambition, but we see few signs of it. Noah’s eldest and youngest sons seem rather perfect, Methuselah plays the role of a wizened Gandalf, and Ila, Shem’s wife, is close to morally flawless herself. From a Christian perspective, Aronofsky should have gone beyond environmental exploitation and given a broader sense of human sin in general.
Noah’s ability to look into the darkness – even if we as viewers aren’t given quite as broad a vision of it as he – makes him decide that all humans must die, even his family. The conflict becomes a war between Tubal-Cain’s overly-anthropocentric, high-anthropology view of the world and Noah’s misanthropic self-hatred. After a hardcore Crowe character decides to kill his son’s children to extirpate the human race, Noah’s child pleads with him that God chose him because he is good. With passionate intensity, Noah replies, “The Creator chose me because he knew that I would complete the task.” For most of the film, he is every bit as merciless as the silent God of Aronofsky’s film.
Towards the end, Noah holds a knife over his granddaughter’s face, prepared to strike. The shot recalls that of Cain’s rock, poised above his brother’s head. Unintentionally, Noah is walking the path of Cain by murdering another human. In the hard calculus of judgment, no one may be left alive, and yet this hardline zealotry itself constitutes Noah’s sin, his own interior darkness. In a moment of spontaneity, he kisses the child. He cannot follow through with his perceived role as God’s agent of justice. He had asked God what he should do about the baby girl, and God was silent. The human race will perpetuate, in Aronofsky’s view, to the exploitative civilization of Cain we live in today. Whether Noah’s act of mercy was the Creator’s will or not – whether mercy does anything besides enable more human destruction – is ambiguous. But at the movie’s close, our visionary finally does the one thing most difficult for him: he chooses his family, forgives himself for his weakness (read: love), and settles in to the day-to-day, good and bad, sinful and (perhaps someday) justified world of everyday existence.
This stepping down into daily life is something Noah struggles with and perhaps, too, a place where Aronofsky comes up short. Apart from Noah’s wife’s preservation of esoteric garden herbs, we don’t see much of what life after the flood looks like. The characters are all well-rendered; despite Aronofsky’s artistic license with some of the events, all of his characters are plausible, filled-out versions of the biblical characters. But how do people live apart from life-and-death situations? Noah cannot settle into the world; his sense of purpose is so cosmic that once deliverance does happen, he can only sit in a cave and drink. It’s reminiscent of Walker Percy’s observation that people are happiest in disasters because they feel a strong sense of purpose, or Adam Phillips on the same theme:
Winnicott says somewhere that health is much more difficult to deal with than disease. And he’s right, I think, in the sense that everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.
The scenes of judgment are harrowing, but they are exactly commensurate to the human darkness which Aronofsky plumbs. After disease, however, health is too much for Noah to bear. It’s too much for Ham to bear, who leaves, and Aronofsky can’t quite settle down, either. It’s this mundane shade of life, a quietly morose and gnawing feeling of emptiness, which drives us to subduing the earth with world-defacing violence, Babels of industry or of narrow morality, as in Noah’s temptation to kill the children. And yet this difficulty of living in the everyday also makes directors feel compelled to write moralizing messages of their own, accompanied by booming music and stunning CGI. And this reckoning with that gnawing mundaneness entails, first of all, recognizing human sin. Aronofsky goes far with the environmental component of that reckoning, but he stops short of a full view of fallenness. Noah tells his children to “fill the earth and replenish it”. It’s a worthy calling, but it’s one in which Noah’s children will ultimately fail. Something more is needed – not human improvement, but divine compassion. The image of the rainbow is a fitting close: it’s a sign of God’s promise not to destroy the world again.
Why won’t God destroy the world again? We’re tempted (and perhaps Aronofsky falls prey to this, too) to think that God will not destroy the world again because the sinners, the steampunk sons of Cain, were destroyed. In fact, it’s the opposite:
I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. (Gen 8:21)
God will not curse the ground again because “the human heart is evil from youth.” Given this evil, humanity cannot be remade by judgment; Noah’s sons cannot carry out his final mandate in the film. As the rainbow implies, a more drastic solution than judgment is required.
While we’re on the subject, check out our newest publication, our own Mockingbird guide to Genesis!