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A fairly elemental movie.

Noah is not a religious movie. It treats Christian/Jewish myth in the same way that we typically treat Norse or Greek. Unlike say, Clash of the Titans or Immortals, Noah is a serious engagement with the cosmic awe, divine command morality, and metaphysical majesty of those myths. I say myths because, as an atheist, I do not believe that the Abrahamic God exists or ever existed. I engage with a story like Noah‘s as a fantastical reflection of very human need and imagination. To its credit, Noah walks a fine line between dealing honestly with the magic (there is no better word) of the Noah fable and deriving from it a narrative which bears philosophical weight to contemporary audiences.

Though it would be fair to call Noah a Biblical Fantasy Epic, and it has a little action and adventure thrown in, the heart of the film is really in the study of character. Like all the other films in Darren Aronofsky’s career, Noah deals with the price of idealism and the temptation of obsession, but here recontextualized in an account of existential choice and powers so far beyond a simple man or woman that it takes a truly ambitious and unique clarity of vision to make it all work.

Noah is simultaneously the most conventionally constructed and possibly least accessible of all Aronofsky’s recent films. He hit the mainstream running with The Wrestler and Black Swan, but Noah more closely recalls the cerebral and mystical explorations of Pi and The Fountain. The latter is a film that he has apparently not quite shaken off. He utilizes some of the same visual flourishes and Clint Mansell’s (again with the Kronos Quartet) score occasionally recalls his seminal work on The Fountain as well.

Writing with Ari Handel, Aronofsky crafts a pre-apocalyptic world that feels at once alien and familiar to our own. It’s a world before time as we know it, earth as we know it, and life as we know it. It’s construction is tinged with awe, sadness, and haunting tendrils of connective tissue to our own. Noah is an ecological fable that equates the destruction of the planet’s life with the murder of a sibling.

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Note the sky: a thinner atmosphere, stars in daylight.

Noah (Russel Crowe) lives in a world on the verge of annihilation. After the ejection of Adam and Eve from Eden, eight generations of humans have spread across the world (a single supercontinent). Forming a proto-industrial society, the descendents of the murderous Cain have acted as a plague, destroying the environment and eating the animals. What’s left is a barren wasteland of rusted out cities, “zohar” mines, and barren deserts.

Noah is the descendent of the line of Seth, the third brother. Seth’s descendants respect the Creator (God is never referred to as God) and his creation. They don’t eat animals, they take only what they need, and they are down to one last family. Prompted by prophetic dreams, Noah seeks out his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), an old mystical hermit and one-time warrior champion of the Watchers, a band of fallen angels cursed by God after descending to earth to help humans survive outside Paradise.

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This movie has tons of beautiful, cosmic imagery.

With Methuselah’s guidance, Noah interpets the dreams to mean that the Creator will destroy the world in a flood. His job is to save the innocents, namely animals, in a giant ark. To do this work, the Creator surrounds Noah with miracles that win him the help of the Watchers. Embittered by their punishment and their treatment at human hands, the Watchers are one of my favorite parts of the film. They are alien beings, angels trapped in misshapen, rocky bodies. They can’t sit or stand comfortably, their features are muted, and they have an asymmetry that belies the seeming order of the rest of Creation. They are filmed with a combination of practical and CG effects, giving them a surreal feel that sometimes looks like stop-motion.

Samyaza (Nick Nolte) is the gentle Watcher that first sees the Creator’s plan in Noah. Together with his family and the other Watchers, they build the ark in a forest grown specially for them by God. Noah’s children age, animals flock to be saved, and the last remnants of the cursed descendants of Cain descend on the site of the ark for their own chance at salvation. Led by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), the very man who killed Noah’s father years ago, they are a mad horde of depravity. As a whole, they’d be right at home in a film like The Road. But at the same time, they are sad and desperate and alone, outside of God’s grace.

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These guys opposite each other is growling awesome.

And this is about where the film starts getting tricky. Along the way, Noah has decided that God’s true purpose is to eradicate all human life. To that effect, he refuses to believe that anyone outside his family are meant to be even temporarily saved on the ark. Only the descendants of Seth will be there to see the rebirth of Paradise. And so on. This bears directly down on the exceptionalism so common in religious culture. Aronofsky wisely approaches it with a bird’s (or God’s?) eye view. We’re meant to see and understand that perhaps Noah is wrong, until finally it is clear that he believes that himself.

But until then, there’s a war brewing between Tubal-Cain’s followers, who are given voice by the man himself. He speaks for the rhetoric of might is right, of a kind of destructive anthrocentrism that some have mistakenly likened to secular humanism. Tubal-Cain sees it this way: God doesn’t want us? Fuck God. This feels about as wrong to the modern, secular viewer as does Noah’s insistence on his sketchy interpretation of the Will. Especially when we spend some time with Ham (Logan Lerman, giving the film’s most subtle and MVP performance). Ham wrestles with his nature, unable to fully get over envy or wrath, he finds himself tempted by the power of Tubal-Cain’s worldview. His argument with Noah is a tale of Two Fathers, in some ways, but also really of only one.

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Ham’s struggle is the human struggle of doubt, of internal morality.

Ham is perhaps the most interesting character in the film. He doesn’t necessarily agree with the Divine Command, and he sees the merit in Tubal-Cain’s self-determination (in spite of how destructive and narcissistic he expresses it). His sense of goodness comes from inside him, not from his father or from the God his father speaks to. He is the one who calls Na’el (Madison Davenport) innocent and good, after his father leaves her to die. This is, in the end, good enough for him. It’s sad that Ham goes his own way even as Noah realizes how wrongly he’s looked at his deeds.

But I am getting a bit ahead of myself.

The first two thirds of the film are adventurous, cosmic, bold, and speculative. There’s world-building in there that is full of wonder and a kind of rare, gutsy cool that recalls David Lynch’s Dune or the way Star Wars used to feel. Eventually, after a giant battle when the Watchers defend the ark from Cain’s descendants as they madly rush it to try and save themselves, the film settles into an introspective period where Noah becomes the antagonist in his own tale.

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The Genesis Montage is one of the greatest such sequences I’ve ever seen.

Noah’s revelation that all humans must die puts him at odds with his own father, with his own family. This is an echo of the Cain and Abel imagery that the film often returns to. It seems that narcissism and self-servingness are what pits brother against brother, or father against son. Though Methuselah’s answer to Noah’s certainty is to simply allow Ila (Emma Watson) to be fertile when an old wound had made her barren, it disrupts the clarity of Noah’s vision, the certainty that he is right and that the Creator does not want people to survive. As long as he believes this, Noah can accept the grave responsibility of letting hundreds of people die, of letting all possible futures of human lives die. Crowe acts out that weight with a paradoxical mix of subtlety and broadness that confirms him as the only person who could have or would have done this role.

Ila’s pregnancy means that Noah will have to kill the progeny if they are girls. This is because, presumably, Ham and his youngest son, Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) would marry the daughters of Ila and Shem (Douglas Booth) to renew the human race. In the days of floating in the sea God has called down on the world, there’s a feverish tension between Noah and his family. Unbeknownst to him, Ham has helped rescue one survivor from Cain’s people: Tubal-Cain himself. Ol’ TC again reiterates the countering position to Noah’s submission, which again tempts Ham to plot against his own father.

It’s only later, when everything is over, that the weight breaks Noah. Alone in a cave, he drinks wine and regrets until Ila explains to him that his duty wasn’t to end the human race, but to decide its fate. This, on its surface, plays into the troubling trope of a single destined man deciding everyone’s fate, but on a symbolic level it’s all about how each of us makes a choice between powerful forces in our lives. Noah, in the end, chooses love and mercy over oblivion or destruction. That is a significant thing, and a symbol not only of the basic ability of humans to be moral without the word of God, but that it’s vitally important that we do this whether there’s a God or not. That’s a message I think a lot of religious people would do well to hear.

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Remind anyone of The Fountain?

At the end of the day, this movie can hang it’s hat on the complexity of the combination it crafts between its humane rendering of a fantastical myth. If viewers are reluctant to accept that, it’s still got both a morally complex message that engages thorny issues of metaphysical morality on an adult, responsible level. Then again, it’s also got the giant rock angels, crazy world-building, and the kind of utilization of Christian myth that feels at least tentatively post-religious.

And that’s a valid way to view stories like this, even as an atheist. I mean, what do I take out of the idea that God plays a direct part in these character’s lives? It’s more interesting to speculate about the scenario, or to map out its connective tissue with the existential nature of our actual lives, as we experience and understand them. Noah meets you more than halfway on this stuff, and deserves much credit for being in the small but proud tradition of movies like The Last Temptation of Christ. Movies that go there, wiggle their toes a bit, and ask you to make up your own damn mind.

Moreover, Noah can be seen as an ecological fable, like I mentioned. It’s not just the corruption of human morality that causes God to wash them away. It’s actually never really attributed to that at all. It’s the way they use and abuse their environment, wantonly consuming and destroying and dominating. As per Tubal-Cain’s admonition: it’s all there to serve us. If our planet’s natural rhythms take the place of the Creator in this story, will they likewise punish us for how we’ve used what it’s provided us? I believe we’re meant to see it that way, and to understand Noah as a pre-apocalyptic fantasy allegory of exactly that. Even as we take in everything else it is.

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Perhaps the most incredible and haunting bit of the film is a stop-motion sequence of equation: the violence of Cain and Abel played out in all eras, with all costumes, with all means of betrayal, envy, and murder.

I think Noah‘s complexity (there is really a lot going on in this movie, especially in the second half) will cohere more for me when I watch it again. My major takeaway at this point is that it has this complexity, but also that it’s just an amazingly large scale work of imagination. I mean, I think back to images and ideas in this film that will probably stay with me forever. Especially the stuff that is most mystical, most inexplicable. Aronofsky shows a natural flair for such things. I hope he eventually does a full-on science fiction or fantasy film so that his instincts can just run away with him.

I’m saddened at the notion that more militant atheists than I will ignore or dismiss this film because it does indulge the mysticism of Christianity (while still allowing for evolution, humanism, etc). I think it’s as important that atheists see this film as it is for Christians. It’s not going to convert anyone, or change anyone’s central beliefs. But it may hold up a mirror, or recontextualize certain ideas. If we’re close-minded, it can confirm our biases. If we’re open-minded, it can challenge them.

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