When the trailer for Aronofsky’s Noah was first released my initial thought was that this movie would be either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. There were two things that could be known with certainty before seeing the movie: 1) it would not be mediocre, and 2) liberties with the Noah story would be taken. I did have a sincere hope though that the movie would be a milestone among biblical movies. Filmmakers are first and foremost artists. The story of Noah and the Flood provides magnificent material for artists to really sink their teeth into. The story also provides a strong framework, but leaves a lot open to the imagination allowing for a great amount of creative activity while staying faithful to the story. I was also encouraged that Aronofsky has held a certain fascination with Noah since junior high school and his desire to make a movie about Noah began when he was a teenager. I knew nothing about Aronofsky’s religious beliefs (I have since learned that he is an atheist), but I assumed he was some type of secularist. This didn’t bother me in the least. In fact, it was one of the factors that gave me hope for Noah. First, it was guaranteed to avoid any Christian cheese. Second, non-Christians who are inspired by Christian stories (be they biblical, biographical/historical such as the saints, or fictional) often bring them to life with positive insights that one does not typically come across in Christian circles. This is due to the fact that Christian stories have two essential elements that are universal to all: they are human and they are manifestations of the human desire for the divine. There is one thing, however, that is necessary in order for a re-telling to be any good. It must respect the original story. In this Aronofsky utterly failed and consequently the movie was exceptionally bad. Where did Aronofsky go wrong?
Central to the story of Noah and the Flood is the relationship between God, man, and creation. While references to God abound in Noah, He is oddly absent. This is Aronofsky’s fundamental mistake. He took a story that is divine-human and reduced it to human. Throughout the movie God is referred to as “The Creator.” This makes sense; it firmly roots Noah in a time that came long before God revealed Himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai or to Moses as Yahweh. It is also said multiple times that man is made in the image of God. In addition God takes an active role in revealing the coming flood to Noah and in His covenantal symbol at the end of the movie (It is no simple bow in the sky). He is also clearly depicted as being “above” creation instead of some kind of Gaia figure. Despite all of this, God seems aloof. He isn’t relational. Noah is seen as a good man, not because of his relationship with God, but for his living as a man of his time ought. He is a man of peace as shown through his relationship and words to his children. He is only violent when circumstances necessitate that he be, such as defending himself and his family. He properly exercises his dominion over creation rather than abusing it. When God reveals to him in a dream that He will flood the earth, it is to his grandfather, not God that he goes for guidance. He is told to build an ark, not through a dream, but through a drug-induced vision. When Noah calls out to God, he is met with no response. At the climatic point of the movie when Noah chooses not to commit a horribly murderous act, it is not God who intervenes to stop him, but Noah’s own sentimentality. In fact, it is not entirely clear what God wanted from him. This changes the character of the story so much that its similarities to the Noah of Genesis become superficial.
In Scripture, Noah is described the same way as his great-grandfather, Enoch: he is one who “walked with God.” (Gen 5:24; 6:9) This detail is significant because Enoch was not said to have died. Rather when it speaks of the end of Enoch’s life the wording of Seth’s genealogy changes this one time to say that “God took him” (5:24). This tells us that Noah was not merely a just man who paid due honor to the Creator; he was a man who had a unique relationship with God. An intimacy is implied here between God and Noah. God also takes a quite active role in the story. He not only tells Noah of the Flood and instructs him to build an ark, but also gives to him the dimensions for the ark, the type of wood to be used, the necessity of pitch, and the number of both clean and unclean animals that will inhabit the ark. He is also told that in addition to himself, his wife, and his sons, his son’s wives are to join them on the ark. The implication given is that it is an ark for all creation, not just animals but man as well. What results is a hero. Noah is heroic and saves humanity precisely because of his righteousness, his virtuousness. He does not succumb to the wretchedness of a humanity that has abandoned its Creator. It is because of this that the story of Noah is a story of hope. This is what makes it a great story.
Aronofsky, however, deliberately does two things to negate this. First, as detailed above, he dramatically changes the relationship between God and Noah by basically making God inactive as a character. Second, upon entering the ark one of Noah’s sons has a wife, who is barren, and the other two have no wives at all. Without any real relationship with God and no women who are able to conceive and bear children Noah is, of course, left with only one conclusion: the earth is for the animals and all of mankind is meant to die. This, combined with Noah’s exposure to the complete degradation of man, leads to a very dark Noah. Aronofsky’s Noah turns into a murderous hard-hearted man, the very thing he had opposed his whole life. He leaves a young woman who gained the love of one of his sons to be trampled to death. He quite firmly decided that he would kill his grandchildren if they were girls. Through these actions he becomes ever more isolated from his family and in the darkness of his heart stubbornly persists in pushing his family away. Even when he relents in killing his grandchildren he is not reconciled with his family. After the Flood he lives alone, apart from his family, and drowns his sorrow in wine. Noah begins his journey as the just man who is a sign of hope for all humanity to being an unjust man who falls down the long cold dark of despair. His eventual return to his family and return to the traditions of his fathers is like most of the movie a purely human act which is then met with divine approval through the sign of the mother of all rainbows (it was kind of cool). Through all of this Aronofsky abandons the story that so captivated him as a child and young man, and gave us yet another post-modern story of human degradation, angst, and solitude.
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