Over the past couple weeks, the film Noah has been getting a lot of attention in the press and stirring up controversy among the class of people who seem to be professionally angry. I went in with high hopes and left deeply conflicted, both about humanity (which is a good thing) and the film itself (which is not a good thing). I thought it warranted some discussion, so here goes, with all due spoiler alerts in place.
Much of the controversy surrounding the film has been about supposed divergences from the biblical narrative, such as the importance of mythological creatures known as “the Watchers” or Noah’s anti-industry, vegetarian agenda. Yet, these are to my mind at worst sensible elaborations of the source material (which is definitely primarily Genesis, but also includes the Gilgamesh Cycle and a number of post-exilic Jewish writings). The Watchers in the film are based on a common ancient interpretation of the nephilim from Genesis as a race of angelic beings; while I would likely have pursued a simpler interpretation, as the nephilim are somehow connected to the sinfulness that leads to the flood, the writers of the film clearly had to interpret them in some way. My only real complaint about them is that they resembled in spirit, voice, and movement, the ents from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. The ecological thrust of the film is certainly far more about our own civilization than Noah’s, but to me it reads true to the story, providing an ideal icon for a defilement of Creation severe enough to warrant the Creator’s extreme justice. Humanity’s rapacious attitude and hubris in this destruction is also reminiscent of the Babel story from later in Genesis and therefore is also not out of place here. And, anyone who has a problem with Noah being vegan has clearly not read Genesis lately: animals are not given as food until after the flood. (Sidebar: The strength of Noah’s convictions here will mean that this change in diet (not shown in the film) will not be welcomed by him as a gift and will be seen as a complete destruction of his purpose in building the ark — a very interesting choice that hints that the renewed creation will not be the renewed pacifist Paradise Noah seems to expect it to be. It also brings to mind Peter’s vision in Acts in which he is commanded to break the dietary laws, much to his sorrow. Perhaps an unspoken theme of the movie is that God always confounds our expectations.)
All this is to say that much of the criticism I’ve seen of this film by people of faith is simply knee-jerk reaction with no real substance. The far more important digression from the biblical narrative — one with sweeping consequences — is that in this adaptation, Noah is not given clear direction from the Creator. He must figure out for himself what the Creator intends in building the ark, and in particular, whether or not humanity has any place at all in the renewed creation. Noah decides that humanity must be destroyed and takes great pains to ensure his line — and therefore all humanity — does not continue beyond his sons. This is a bold decision by the filmmakers, and makes Noah into a highly ambivalent figure. The things he does to complete his task alienate him from his wife and children, and his ultimate failure leaves him feeling he has failed before God — all of which has all too human consequences for him after the flood. While I know this departure from the biblical narrative could legitimately be a bridge too far for some viewers of faith, I thought even this was successful. This is not Sunday School; it is midrash, designed to ask questions rather than answer them. And as midrash, it works very well.
Perhaps the greatest way the film succeeds, however, is in its tone. Everything — from the colour palette to the shaky and unfocused cinematography to the bare landscape where much of the film is set — serves to unsettle and disturb the viewer, which is appropriate for the deeply unsettling and disturbing story being told. We are never tempted to mistake it as a cute childhood story about oversized pastel animals in a perky little pastel ark instead of being about destruction, obsession, and genocide.
How then, if Noah works on all these counts — if the filmmakers have made bold and thought-provoking choices, if the film is beautifully made, if the source material has been adequately explored — does the film itself not work?
For me, it fails because it doesn’t know when to stop. The people who will die in the flood are for the most part cartoons; their king actually has interesting things to say about humanity and its place in Creation and I wish the filmmakers had explored that aspect of his character more than his power-madness. The battle scenes go on far too long and are largely unnecessary to begin with. And, worst of all, pretty much everything that happens between the onset of the flood and their emergence onto dry land is superfluous. Both major plot lines on the Ark — one involving Noah’s daughter-in-law and the other a stow-away — deal with themes that have already been covered with nuance, and these further scenes only serve to take away from what has been done well already. They add only length and conflict, and undercut much of the ambiguity and ambivalence the film has worked so hard to build into its characters in the process (the characters of Noah and Ham in particular are harmed beyond repair in this part of the film). In this film, in many ways, less would have been more.
All this said, I would still recommend people see it, to provoke thought and discussion, and to provide an interesting new take on an old and familiar story. I only wish the film had exercised more restraint so I could give a more stirring and enthusiastic recommendation.