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In Review: Noah

An over-the-top, big budget environmental allegory for our age

Why has Paramount Pictures produced a $135 million, 138-minute blockbuster starring two Oscar winners based on the Biblical fable of Noah at this time?

Cinema can be considered merely escapist mass entertainment. Or, like the Bible itself, film can be viewed as a storytelling vessel containing coded messages – motion picture parables to be deciphered. Movies are emanations of the collective psyche that both reflect and affect reality, even as they do so in a dreamlike medium in which imagery unfolds in the dark.

When you think of it that way, perhaps it’s no coincidence that a major studio production about humanity’s “Ur-myth” of extreme weather is emerging just as climate change is wreaking havoc and threatening to destroy the world as we know it. Director/co-writer Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is an allegory about global warming and other environmental disasters, and while set during the epoch of Genesis, it’s very much a special effects-laden epic for and about the early twenty-first century.

To unravel the inner meanings of this momentous meditation on global devastation, it’s important to note that Aronofsky is, according to the UK’s The Independent, a “self-professed atheist” who has been quoted as saying that Noah is “the most unbiblical, biblical film ever made.” The title character, according to the writer-director, is supposed to represent “the first environmentalist.” In other words, this ain’t a Cecil B. DeMille Old Testament extravaganza like The Ten Commandments or Samson and Delilah. However, like DeMille’s old-fashioned Hollywood hits, Noah is very much a morality play full of encoded ideology.

To prepare to write this review, your humble scribe made the supreme sacrifice and dusted off his “Good News” version of the Holy Book to re-read the brief passages concerning Noah and the flood, which are only about three pages-long in Genesis. As numerous Christian conservatives have pointed out, Aronofsky didn’t have much loyalty to the original text.  “The Noah of the Bible is not the Noah depicted in the film,” say the folks at AnswersinGenesis.org, the website of a “Christianity-defending ministry” that specializes in “providing answers [regarding] Genesis, as it is the most-attacked book of the Bible.”

Indeed, in his interpretation of the deluge Aronofosky takes more poetic license than exists in a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. (It’s worth nothing that there was no such Christian condemnation of Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ, with its sadomasochistic, anti-Semitic, two hour-plus construal of about two paragraphs from the Gospels that put the mental into fundamentalist. Plus, how can a modern moviemaker shoot a literal interpretation of a book stating that Noah lived to be 950?) The “Creator” (as God is always called in Noah) decides to flood the world because of what Genesis 6 refers to as “The Wickedness of Mankind,” which is ascribed to the spreading of “violence” everywhere, although this is not elaborated upon. In the movie, Aronofosky has a montage referring to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden that becomes a recurring leitmotif. It’s important to remember that their fall from grace was precipitated by the primordial couple’s disobedience in eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. The forbidden fruit symbolizes intellect, which enabled humans to develop science and to surpass Earth’s other creatures and a state of nature. This is a recurring theme in ancient theological texts. Greek mythology is similarly anxious about the bestowal of intelligence upon humanity – Prometheus was likewise punished for giving people fire and the ability to create tools.

In Aronofosky’s movie, early man uses this knowledge to create primitive technology that allows him to lay waste to the antediluvian planet. We see ruined, parched landscapes that appear to be the result of strip mining, clear cutting, deforestation, fracking and other environmental despoliation, wrought by what an onscreen title calls an “industrial civilization.” Enter Noah (Russell Crowe), who was favored by the Lord because, according to Genesis, he “had no faults and was the only good man of his time. He lived in fellowship with God,” whereas “everyone else was evil in God’s sight.”

photo of a man standing in the rainphoto courtesty Paramount

Aronofsky and his co-writer, Ari Handel, depict Noah’s righteousness through his condemnation of humans who eat animals and pluck flowers solely for ornamentation’s sake. If the protagonist’s virtue is his cosmic eco-consciousness, mankind’s vice is epitomized by its despoiling of nature, which seems to be what compels the Creator to tell mankind to “Go frack yourselves.” The enraged Creator decides to waterboard the whole wide world, and, famously, orders Noah to gather into a fantabulous ark (which resembles a wooden oil tanker) all land and air creatures, great and small, in male-female pairs so they can reproduce after the deluge.

Here, Aronofsky and Handel diverge wildly from the Biblical text in numerous ways. Although Genesis very clearly states that the only humans aboard the ark were Noah, his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and their three sons and wives, the filmmakers confabulate a subtext that mainly serves the purpose of stressing the theme of religion and sexual repression. There’s a scene completely made out of whole cloth in which Methusaleh, Noah’s grandfather (played by Anthony Hopkins), cures Ila (Emma Watson) of infertility. I believe this scene was supposed to convey a mystical message about fecundity – but I might have missed the point. Just as I might have misunderstood the subplot about Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a descendent of Cain’s and the forger of weapons, who stows away aboard the Ark. The Old Testament is also largely silent about Tubal-cain, so I can only guess that this detour had something to do with the viciousness of war.

The length of the flood is also a-biblical. In Genesis the planet’s submerging starts when Noah is 600 years old “on the seventeenth day of the second month” and by “the seventeenth day of the seventh month the boat came to rest on a mountain in the Ararat range.”  By “the first day of the first month the water was gone,” when Noah was 601. In other words, the entire flood occurred over a 10 and half month period. The onscreen inundation lasts about a decade, as Noah’s sons (two of whom are without wives) emerge into manhood during their nautical ordeal. 

One could continue – for forty days and forty nights, probably – as to how Aronofsky’s fantasy differs from the Biblical version and its original intent. Why, pray tell, should this matter to those of us who are not religious? Just because one doesn’t believe in God and the Old Testament doesn’t necessarily mean one doesn’t believe in literary integrity. Aronofsky’s Noah is about as faithful to its source material as, say, Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr.’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes was to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Twenty-first century mass entertainers think nothing of raping and pillaging classic works, whether they be set in 1890s London or at the beginning of time. They do so largely to take advantage of a pre-existing brand name created by others and then exploit this high name recognition factor to sell tickets. I strongly suspect if Conan Doyle and God (or whoever wrote Genesis) were not dead and therefore unable to defend their books, that their solicitors would be suing the bejesus out these kleptomaniac filmmakers for theft of intellectual property, copyright infringement and plagiarism. Aronofsky is certainly a gifted, imaginative artiste who has every right to make his eco-parable – but why call it “Noah” if his dramatis personae and plot are so egregiously different from those presented in Genesis? Could it be because a $135 million movie called “Ralph” or “Wilbur” is less likely to attract a film flock and do boffo box office?

The single most important difference in the, uh, story arc is in the depiction of Noah, who becomes increasingly unraveled during his trials and tribulations. Consumed by righteousness and visions, Noah turns into an overzealous instrument of the Creator who translates his dreams into what he fancies is God’s will. When the once infertile Ila prepares to give birth, Noah threatens to kill her baby if it’s female. Russell Crowe’s cruel Old Testament seer literally goes off the deep end and is more deranged than the schizophrenic mathematician John Nash he played in A Beautiful Mind.

Noah’s obsession with carrying out what he thinks is the Creator’s scheme for the post-flood world makes him such an environmental extremist that Earth First!, Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front activists seem tame in comparison. The movie’s Noah is like militant Paul Watson – who has proclaimed, “I work for whales and turtles, not people” – on supernatural steroids. Similar to Inspector Javert, the single-minded lawman Crowe played in 2012’s Les Miserables, Noah is unswervingly intent on getting his man (or every man), once and for all, by assisting a vengeful Creator in exterminating the human race. Because, presumably, the bite of that apple in Eden upset the whole applecart of God’s plan for Homo sapiens to live in a state of nature with the rest of the animal kingdom.

The believers behind AnswersinGenesis.org complain that “to intentionally misrepresent a prophet in this way is a form of blasphemy against God and His chosen servant.” Similarly, some ecologists might complain about this cinematic portrayal of Noah as an über-conservationist hell-bent on conserving even as he destroys. So it goes: One man’s prophet is another’s madman.

As Arctic ice melts, sea levels rise, and superstorms and tsunamis swirl from Bourbon Street to Phuket to Brooklyn, Darren Aronofsky’s thought provoking movie-metaphor is doing more to raise awareness about extreme weather and eco-cide than most governmental policies and actions. We can only hope that the special effects aren’t  prophesy.

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic and co-author of The Hawai‘i Movie and Television Book.

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