Film Review — Noah

It’s been a while since Hollywood’s last Bible-based blockbuster came to the silver screen—long enough to forget just how polarizing the responses can be.

Noah, the latest attempt at biblical storytelling on the big screen, stars Russell Crowe as the title character, and features the likes of Jennifer Connelly (as Naameh, Noah’s wife), Ray Winstone (Tubal-Cain, Noah’s nemesis) Emma Watson (Ila, Noah’s daughter-in-law), and Anthony Hopkins (as Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather). Darren Aronofsky, director of such films as Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Wrestler (2008), and Black Swan (2010), directs the film and also serves as co-writer.

Noah is inarguably a provoking film, one that seeks to pose audiences with some important considerations—but ultimately may not satisfy all the wants of every viewer.

Basic synopsis

As in the biblical narrative, mankind has fallen far from its origins in the Garden of Eden. Noah, patriarch of the earth’s last remaining righteous family, receives a vision in which leads him to believe that “The Creator” is fed up with the wickedness of men and wishes to start afresh by means of a cleansing flood. After a consultation with his grandfather Methuselah and with the help of the “Watchers,” (a race of fallen angels assuming the form of rock giants), Noah builds an ark in which the last decent remnants of humanity, and two of every animal, are to be preserved. As Noah’s family prepares for the flood, they are met with stiff opposition from Tubal-Cain, and his band of wicked men. Noah wrestles with not only the depravity of fallen mankind, but with his own interpretation of what is to become of humanity, and whether he and his family are to have any place in the new world.

For the most part, Aronofsky’s Noah follows the biblical account, but it’s still definitely a loose adaptation. This is due mainly to the fact that it’s difficult to create a two-hour, shot-for-shot adaptation of a story that can be read in less time than it takes to watch an episode of “Veggie Tales,” which sometimes means taking something that’s only mentioned in passing (e.g. the Nephilities in Genesis 6) and turning it into something bigger.

Whether this is to the detriment of the film or not, I’ll attempt to assess later. But first, let’s go through some advisories.

Disclaimers

Noah contains no coarse language and only one implied instance of sexuality. There’s no graphic nudity, although audiences do catch a glimpse of Russell Crowe’s bare back end near the film’s conclusion, wherein Noah drinks too much wine and manages to misplace all his clothes.

Besides that, the film does contain a number of violent and frightening scenes, which younger viewers may find beyond their comfort zone.

Besides the usual set of disclaimers, there exists a plethora of spiritual elements which some may find troubling, depending on their specific interpretation of the film, which we’ll address below.

The review

Noah is a very beautiful film visually, but it’s also very bleak. In seeking to create an atmosphere that shows the world in a state of decay, Aronofsky and company manage to capture one of the most desolate-looking impressions of earth I’ve ever seen, much of which was filmed in the wilderness of south Iceland. From a filmmaking perspective, Noah cannot be faulted for its set creation.

In terms of the acting, I found the performances of the cast not particularly remarkable in any regard; save for perhaps Anthony Hopkins. This is not to say that Crowe, Connelly and the rest turn in bad performances, but merely that the melancholia resonating throughout the film runs pretty much unabated, except for Methuselah who injects some of the only distinguishable flavour in an otherwise sombre ensemble.

In the last biblical instance of Noah’s life, we see him drunk in a tent without any clothes on. Personally, I always found that passage to be a strange one, which is maybe why it didn’t show up in any of those Sunday school classes, at my church at least.

For a lot of Bible readers, it’s easier just to shrug off that aspect of the Noah story, or ignore it entirely. But in the case of this film, I actually appreciated that someone took a crack at connecting the dots between “build me an arky, arky” and “Noah naked in a tent”—and in a way that, to me, seemed plausible. I really liked that the filmmakers didn’t simply cut that part out because it was difficult to explain alongside Noah’s more heroic actions. In this case, we see the aftermath of a conflicted protagonist who appears to struggle with what is to become of him in the new world. The drunken aftermath is portrayed as a sort of post-trauma expression of that conflict, which to me, was a decent guess at why it might have happened.

One aspect of the film that has raised several eyebrows among viewers is that God is not named as “God” but rather, simply, “The Creator.” Some might view this as Hollywood’s way of secularizing our Bible stories in order to make them more marketable. I’m not convinced.

One of the tendencies of 21st Century audiences is to project our present understandings into stories of the past, which is not always appropriate. Keep in mind that even in Bible times (specifically: prior to Abraham), Noah’s understanding of God would be limited to all that had come before him—which basically leaves just the creation story. In that context, it makes sense that Noah’s understanding of God is much more simplistic than our own, given the breadth of theological development we’ve enjoyed in the past several millennia.

While Noah says much about the goodness of creation, it doesn’t strike me as being overly environmentalist in its messaging as some have suggested. While it might imply that mankind ought to show more reverence for creation, at no point did I get the impression that humans were meant to be subservient to plants and animals—just that we ought to be a little more thoughtful as the caretakers of creation. The criticism that Noah can be seen as a sort of ‘green propaganda’ just doesn’t seem to be rooted in anything substantial—pun intended.

One might get the impression that Aronofsky’s Noah could be taken as a statement on the wrath of God, given that Noah receives no explicit directive as to whether the Ark is a vessel for mankind’s salvation or if the lineage of man is indeed cursed all the way through. Since we all know how the story ends, it’s safe to tell you that Noah and loved ones are still alive when the credits roll. However, in a key scene, Noah calls out to God asking for a sign of rebuke, distressed at his belief that humanity is to die off with his family—to which he gets no reply. Some have taken this as Aronofsky implying that Noah was right to believe humanity was not to be saved, and that it’s only through his disobedience that humanity continues to perpetuate itself after the flood.

I don’t totally buy that reading. While it’s true that the Creator doesn’t give Noah any explicit sign, as is the common interpretation of Genesis, I think it’s a bit of a jump in logic to conclude no sign equals an affirmation in what we already believed to be true. Such an assumption seems to dismiss the testimony of Noah’s family entirely, all of whom can’t seem to figure out just why he’s suddenly gone off the deep end in his convictions. The idea that Noah was right when everyone else around him says otherwise seems to subvert the role of community in the process of discernment, something that many Christians see as very important for speaking truth into the lives of those around us and knowing God’s will. We sympathize with Noah's family, and it's for that reason that I don't think the film is promoting Noah's actions as right understanding.

To me, Noah illustrates how difficult it can be to discern God’s plan without a convenient audible instruction. While the text in Genesis is typically read to assume that God spoke to Noah directly, Aronofsky’s interpretation of the Creator ‘speaking’ to Noah in a dream is actually not so inconsistent with how God instructs his followers at other points in Scripture. It might be also more typical of how we experience God in our day-to-day lives, something that helped me identify with Noah as a modern believer.

At the end of the day, the key message I took away from Noah was one of love—love for family, and for the created world, all of which comes from God, our loving Creator. Our God is a God of love and, in this case, second chances. While the justice of God might continue to strike us as mysterious and beyond our own understanding, it’s something we ought to wrestle with on an individual and communal level.

Conclusion

Any work of criticism can, in some ways, say more about the critic than about the work he/she intends to criticize. In my mind, Noah is the case in point of that theory.

From a pure cinematic perspective, Noah is well made. From a biblical accuracy perspective, I wonder if maybe some have gotten their expectations too high in hoping that the film would ‘stick to the Scripture.’ It does strike me as odd that in a story that speaks to the goodness of creation, audiences seem to be looking for something a lot less creative.

While Aronofsky may have let his imagination run a bit wild in filling in some of the gaps of the story, I didn’t find anything about Noah to be particularly troubing or detrimental to my faith. Maybe that’s because I’m not an easily-swayed person, but in my mind there’s nothing in Noah that should cause Christians to stumble or challenge their beliefs in any significant ways. It’s a creative retelling for sure, but keep that in mind and you should come out no worse for wear.

Maybe it’s a cop-out to put it this way, but I’m not going to tell you whether or not you should to see Noah, because I think you probably already know the answer to that. Depending on what you’re looking for, be it a conversation starter, or another movie that isn’t as good as the Book that inspired it, ‘seek and ye shall find.’

Did you think Noah went too far in its reinterpretation of the biblical account? For those who have seen it, what other concerns do you have with the film? Leave us a comment below and the author will be glad to discuss! Be advised that comments may contain more detailed spoilers, so read at your own risk.

Thanks for reading and for keeping the discussion respectful! 

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About the author

Rob Horsley is the former Managing Editor of ChristianWeek.

  • R2D3
  • rick t

    Up to this point in Scripture, God had only spoken audibly to men. Dreams come later in Genesis and in God’s interaction with men.

    Also Noah knew quite a bit about God and His law. He knew the difference between clean and unclean animals, something not in writing until Leviticus. This shows that God’s communication with men before Sinai was just add detailed as that given at Sinai. Noah’s faith was in a Messiah, Jesus or else he cannot be saved. This indicates that his understanding of God and grace would need to be as complete as any believer saved by faith.

    • Rob Horsley

      Hi Rick, thanks for reading! And thanks especially for commenting!

      Regarding your first point: I’d say it’s difficult to know for sure. There’s a lot of personal interpretation that needs to be applied to an English understanding of “God said to Noah.” That is, unless you know something from the original Hebrew or Greek Septuagint that I’m not aware of. 🙂 How did God say it? Was it indeed audible, or in a dream as the film (and other instances in Scripture) would indicate? On this, the biblical text (as I read it in English) offers only minimal detail.

      Regarding your second graf: That’s a good point, and a detail I’ve often glossed over; Genesis 7 does seem to indicate an understanding of clean/unclean animals. However, as part of the Pentateuch, it’s typically thought (though there is little in the way of scholarly consensus) that Genesis was recorded at Sinai, which means that the concept of clean/unclean animals perhaps wouldn’t predate the nation of Israel, but merely be a way of applying then-modern classifications on an ancient origin story. Sort of how we put “40 days/40 nights” into literal terms as 21st Century audiences, when in ancient times it was more commonly just an expression meaning “a substantial period of time.”

      Admittedly, I am not a biblical scholar, so further study is needed! Thanks for your comments again though; good things to consider. If you want to keep the discussion going, feel free to fire me back a reply! Thanks again, Rick!

  • Rick T

    Hi Rob
    The normal means of interpretation and rule in hermeneutics is to take God’s word at its literal meaning unless something in the context would cause you to understand it symbolically. When God speaks it should be taken literally except at those time when He specifies when He has spoken to someone through a dream. When God spoke to Joseph, He specified that it was through a dream. When God spoke to Abimelech, He specified that it was through a dream, so what in the context of God’s speaking to Noah would cause you to understand it as God speaking through a dream?

    • Rob Horsley

      Hi again Rick, thanks for your response! 🙂

      I don’t know if I would say I think it was definitively a dream, but only that in SOME cases, the English text might not tell the whole story, and in some cases in Scripture, something like “having a vision” can be very properly translated as “came to in a dream,” if my college New Testament professors are to be believed. 🙂

      If I were to tell you my wife said to me “make sure to pick up milk and eggs on your way home today,” you might not know if she did so before I left for work this morning, over the phone, in a text message…etc. For that reason, I was willing to brush off the film’s seeming deviation from the biblical text because there’s just not enough detail for me to have a really strong opinion one way or the other. Overall though, it really makes no personal difference to me HOW God might have said what He said to Noah, I’m just glad He did. 😀

      Again, thanks for your comments Rick. Keep ’em coming!