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Review: Noah


From the moment I saw the trailer for Noah, I was immediately interested in seeing the movie.  I know movie trailers can be misleading, but this one appeared to be right on track. “How else could they change such a simple, straightforward story?” I mused. I thought that even with the occasional artistic license, Noah could offer enough interest for a believer like me. So it was that I sat down in a theater packed with college students from the nearby university to watch Noah.

Now, I’m usually tolerant of liberties in cinematographic portrayals of biblical characters. After all, the writing style of biblical writers is quite laconic. Avid readers are often left desiring more details and some of these movie adaptations do make the biblical characters refreshingly more human, more real and even more likable. But, after reading this review, perhaps you will agree with me that creativity in portraying biblical characters walks a fine line between enhancing the character and disgracing good, ancient reputations. (Attention: Spoilers below!)

Noah is directed by Darren Aronofsky and played by Russell Crowe of Gladiator fame. This is not the first time Crowe is seen promoting “remnant theology” [this link to a young Crowe promoting Avondale College is priceless]. Oh wait, that’s actually not entirely true; Noah has very little good theology, let alone “remnant theology” since no human being was intended to survive Noah’s flood. In fact, the only aspects reminiscent of the Genesis account of the flood are the name Noah and his sons, the name Methuselah, the name Tubal-Cain, the ark and water. What remains of Noah’s story has little if any resemblance with the moral ethos and theological appeal of the biblical account. “The Creator” (“God” is not used in the movie, mind you) is portrayed as a histrionic deity hell-bent on wiping out mankind entirely, even Noah and his family. Animals are the only ones worthy of surviving the catastrophe and repopulating the planet. (But why, then, save Noah and his family at all? Maybe they didn’t think this disconnect through…).

The movie is full of theological bloopers (and some logical goofs as well). I was surprised that the movie incorporated aspects from the Book of Enoch’s (ca. 200 BC) depiction of the antediluvian world, perhaps even closer than it did the biblical account. In the Book of Enoch, the Watchers are fallen angels who had been banished to earth. In a questionable midrash of Genesis 6, the Book of Enoch explains that the Watchers were seduced by women and had children with them. These were the Nephilim mentioned in Genesis 6. (This notion is still espoused by the Jehovah’s Witnesses). The Watchers are led by Azazel and Semjaza (cf. Book of Enoch 6:3; 10:4).

But in Noah, the Watchers had come down to help mankind come back to “the Creator.” He becomes angry with these fallen angels for meddling in human affairs and turns them into gigantic transformer-like rock monsters that rule parts of the earth. One of them, Semjaza, recognizes Noah as a follower of “the Creator” and convinces the other Watchers to help Noah build the ark as an attempt to redeem their own failure. The Creator forgives these fallen angels who are freed from their rock prisons and return to heaven in a burst of light right before the flood.

The movie’s landscape is quite dark. It portrays a primitive (or future?) dystopian world where parts of a sparsely inhabited earth are controlled by hordes of barbarians whom Noah calls “men.” The men had managed to subdue some of the Watchers to help them rule the earth. The bright cosmic bodies that illuminate Noah’s sky by day shine on a mostly barren world, creating an eerie effect.

And it is not only Noah’s landscape that is dark and ominous, the movie is shrouded in the occult. Noahis introduced as a gentle farmer who becomes haunted by strange natural occurrences and nightmares. Flowers sprout and blossom in an instant, animals are made to hibernate with some kind of magical incense, a seed contrabanded out of Eden and passed down to Methuselah creates instantaneous streams and forests, which Noah uses to build the ark. The divine covenant with Noah’s lineage is ratified and perpetuated by a sacred, ancient, glowing snakeskin.

Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather and the longest living human being ever at 969, is portrayed as a witch doctor that lives in a cave. He puts Shem to sleep by touching his forehead and gives Noah a cup of hallucinogen to help him understand the will of God. Shortly before the flood, Methuselah makes the barren Ila (Shem’s wife) fertile with a touch of his hand; she gives birth to twin daughters inside the ark whom Noah is “ordered” by God to murder because humanity is not supposed to continue; it must end with Japheth (Ham and Japheth are not married in Noah).

Like every other action movie where the good guy needs a nemesis, Noah’s is Tubal-Cain (Gen 4:22) the tyrannical leader of the “men.” Tubal-Cain had killed Lamech when Noah was still a child and stole the sacred snakeskin, the sign of God’s covenant. He is a dealer of the zohar, a highly volatile metal abundant in the antediluvian world. Tubal-Cain leads a failed, last-ditch effort to take over the ark but manages to sneak into it. Ham finds out but keeps it a secret. As this act moves painfully along, Tubal-Cain convinces Ham to murder Noah. Ham entices the unsuspecting Noah to the bowels of the ark where he is attacked by Tubal-Cain. As they fight, Ham changes his mind and murders Tubal-Cain instead, who then returns the glowing snakeskin to Ham. It is useless to try to rationalize these aberrant deviations from the traditional story of Noah; at this point in the movie, it no longer matters.

Surprisingly, there are curious parallels with an Adventist view of the events in Noah. He and his family are vegetarians; meat eating is the cause of humanity’s violence against itself and nature. Noah is contemporaneous with extinct species of animals, maybe even dinosaurs (e.g., a dog with an armadillo-like shell in the initial scenes); Adam and Eve are depicted as surrounded by garments of light after Creation; enormous jets of water spring-forth from the ground along with heavy rains. As the waters rise, the “men” try to take over the ark. But these minor (admittedly questionable) parallels will hardly appease Adventists; they’re not statements of belief, to the contrary, they merely complement Noah’s fictitious thrust.

After the rains start and quickly flood the earth (another logical blooper), I was surprised to see Noah’s flood depicted as a universal event. A shot of the earth from space shows the entire planet engulfed by hundreds of menacing, gigantic, tornado-like swirls. But instead of finding Noah’s universal flood satisfying from a biblical point of view, maybe a redeeming feature in an otherwise unsalvageable storyline, I soon realized that this worldwide cataclysm had nothing more than a supporting role to the movie’s perverse fiction. So much for that.

Inside the ark, Noah tells his family the story of “Creation.” Crowe’s rugged voice narrates the events of Creation week accompanied by stunning graphics showing the beginning of the universe and the beginning of life. It describes every “Creation” day as millions of evolutionary years. (I suspect this short, minute-long CGI sequence cost a large chunk of the movie’s budget!). It goes at breakneck speed, mixing Genesis with modern evolutionary theory. This sequence will be quite compelling to theistic evolutionists, even if fails to do justice to the intent of biblical authors. But perhaps Noah’s popular, albeit mistaken, view of “the Creator” in fact provides the background for the movie’s underpinning view of the deity: a distant, tyrannical being who never had much patience to engage with mankind’s shortcomings. He now prefers to call animals his “chosen” ones. Mankind had been doomed by the whims of chemical predestination, survivalist violence and ultimate annihilation from the start anyway. Why bother?

Noah’s naked body lying drunk on a beach is one of the last scenes to grace our eyes in this bizarre story. This slip in an otherwise stellar career is no “accident” as in the Bible; Noah has become depressive and erratic, haunted by new demons, it appears. The young Ham, unable to forgive his father for failing to provide a wife for him, abandons his family. The movie ends with Noah’s family atop a mountain, the patriarch having the ancient, glowing snakeskin wrapped around his arm. “The covenant continues!” is the last word from the movie, but not because “the Creator” wanted it so; he had to change his mind about letting mankind die off with Japheth because Noah was not brave enough to kill his newborn granddaughters. Mankind will survive, not as an act of divine favor, but because old cunning Methuselah played a final trick on God by making Ila conceive. 

I didn’t know what to feel as the credits rolled on, whether frustration or relief. I confess I went in with high, yea, naïvely unrealistic expectations. I was just hoping Noah would at least do some justice to the noble character we find in the ancient Hebrew account, even as it capitalized on primeval visions of a worldwide cataclysm as blockbusters often do. But Noah failed miserably. In the words of Aronosfky himself, Noah is the “least biblical biblical movie.”

Despite my willingness to cut Hollywood some slack, there’s really nothing to commend Noah. It is a strange piece of movie making. I just hope that the thousands who’ll see the movie will take it for what it is, a failed attempt at entertainment. Noah has a 6/10 rating with IMDb and a basket full of rotten tomatoes. In the words of one IMDb reviewer, Noah “doesn’t know whether it wants to be a biblical epic or a sci-fi movie, an [sic] deeply human journey or a cautionary tale, but manages to fail in all categories.” I agree.

Since the release of Noah, YouVersion reports a 300% increase in reading of Genesis’ flood account.But it’s hard to tell who has been reading what, if skeptics or believers. I, for one, went back and read the story once again. Maybe I missed something in the Genesis story? So, while it is undeniable that the movie may cause people to talk about the biblical Noah, many will be misled by the movie because it simply does not provide the correct framework for exploring God’s reasons for destroying that wicked world and giving mankind another chance. “The Creator” is a worse villain than Tubal-Cain.

Noah has also stirred up a lot of controversy in the Christian world. The outrage in the American evangelical world about Noah’s reckless portrayal of this beloved patriarch can be seen in the release of Noah and the Last Days, a documentary put out by Ray Comfort on the same day Noah was released. The 30-min film features the Australian director interviewing scores of street people about Noah, atheism, vice, sexual immorality and the end of the world. Comfort’s Noah presents “ten undeniable signs that we are living in what the Bible calls the last days.” The simple, very low-budget evangelistic documentary is being promoted by modern ark-building creationist Ken Ham and other evangelical leaders across America as a worthy push back to Aronofsky’s reprehensible Noah. The contrast between the two Noahs couldn’t be starker, but I suspect Comfort’s documentary will have little of its intended impact, except, perhaps for those who already believe. Post-moderns tend to be drawn to more subtle attempts at theological conversations than the hell and brimstone characteristic of American evangelicalism.

As I finish writing this review, I’m in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean en route to our island-hopping, family vacation. I’ve been having Noah-like dejà vu’s every time I look out my balcony into the endless water world around us. I try to imagine Noah’s shock when he first looked out that small window of the ark millennia ago to see the beautiful, former earth covered in water. Maybe Noah longed, as did my six year-old daughter: “Daddy, when are we going back to ‘earth’ again?” It must have been a scary view. On the high seas, one is vividly reminded of the explanatory power of the universal flood. (It should be no coincidence that the world is covered by 70% of water, with more underground and enough atmospheric water vapor to wreak havoc of Noahic proportions on the land).

Noah and the flood have provided fodder for our family’s dinner conversation while on this ship. While most around us on this ship are busy trying to eat as much ‘free’ food as they can and rush to the next show, I try to keep my family focused and humbled by the existential statements made by the inscrutable depths of the vast ocean around us. “We need to be different as Noah was!” I exhort them, even as I feel a bit guilty for bringing them on a lavish cruise. I animatedly retold the story to my pre-teen daughter’s new friend who has stopped going to church because it’s just too boring. We talk about how the billion-dollar, state-of-the-art ship we’re in is a far cry from Noah’s ark. The turbid, prehistoric seas, which carried the ark, were much rougher than the minor rocking I feel (which makes my wife miss part of the fun). Restless, stinking animals surrounded Noah and his family, I haven’t seen any on this ship except on the menu. He was escaping the temptations of a lost race; most walk onto a ship these days to enjoy them.

As the waves crash on the ship’s hull below me, I hear Noah’s waters still speaking. How unfortunate that so few are listening; and how ironic that the same waters that buried a pleasure-seeking, violent world now lull people into the same self-indulgence that doomed that forgotten race. The contrasts and similarities make me appreciate Noah’s story even more. “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be…” said Jesus in that timeless, eschatological warning.

But perhaps there is one, solitary but all-important lesson I take away from having watched Noah after all: a renewed respect and appreciation for the real Noah. His fortitude of character, faith, patience and persistence in the midst of universal condemnation and destruction and his unwavering trust in the God of second chances make Aronofsky’s wild Noah a figure best forgotten.

André Reis has degrees in Theology and Music and is currently a candidate for a PhD in New Testament.

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