A theme throughout the Bible: sons learn from their fathers, who learned from their fathers in days before. So Noah (Russell Crowe) learns from Lamech (Marton Csokas) about the Creator, who has tasked Man with protecting that which He has made. Lamech explains that this means caring for nature as well as the beasts which the Creator has made. Then, all goes wrong. The descendants of Cain, the first murderer, ambush them. Noah hides. A young man steps forward: Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone). He murders Lamech.
Now Noah is grown and tries to care for Creation as best he can. He and his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) look after their three children, Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) outside of society, which has been overrun by the wickedness of Men. There, the descendants of Cain pollute the earth and commit vulgarities against the Creator and each other. Noah and his family are content. Then, one night, Noah receives a vision: a great flood is coming. The ground is steeped in blood.
“He is going to destroy the world,” a terrified Noah tells Naameh.
If that sounds less like the Bible story you’ve heard told in Sunday school and woven into quilts, you’d be right. Director Darren Aronofsky (who also shares a writing credit with Ari Handel) wisely treats this as a fantasy story akin to “The Lord of the Rings” or “Dune.” If he did otherwise, this would come off as a kitschy, saccharine attempt at the sort of sentimental crowd-pleasers often cranked out by studios to please Christian audiences. “Noah” does better: it enhances the short account of the Great Flood in Genesis without ever betraying the Biblical themes and timeless attributes to that God which make the story so enduring.
The story of Noah is a dark tale of guilt. Putting yourself into his shoes, you’d quickly forget the images of cute elephants and lions snuggling together in a cramped ark. Your Creator (the film wisely avoids giving Him a name) is displeased with His Creation and wordlessly warns you of a cataclysm. What do you do?
Noah finds hope. He is given another vision: a great ark to survive the storm. With the help of fallen angels cursed with golem-like appearances (more on those in a bit), Noah and his family begin to build this ark. Years pass, and Noah’s sons have matured. Sham has fallen in love with the barren Ila (Emma Watson), whom Noah rescued when her village was attacked. Meanwhile, Tubal-cain has become the leader of his people. He hears of this great undertaking and seeks to understand, only to grow spiteful when Noah claims they will all be destroyed. God has been distant from Tubal-cain, who consistently tries to speak to Him. If only Tubal-cain realized that God was merely waiting for him to listen.
From there, the story proceeds (mostly) according to the Biblical story. There are some side roads taken on the way there, but the film never makes the claim that it is in any way trying to be realistic or true to the text on which it is based.
Frankly, there’s a reason most films based on Biblical tales tend to disappoint – it is because films are entertainment and art, and the Bible is a historical and spiritual document. It was written as the Word of God, not a local paperback bestseller, and as such, its vagueries make for poor storytelling. There is no structure to the story, because it was not written to delight but to educate and enlighten. “Noah” instead asks that the audience follow it into a world where this story can take on new elements, new craft, in order to better understanding the themes at play in the tale as it pertains to both the Bible and the modern landscape it was crafted in.
This is truly an epic film. It is the end of the world, after all, and Aronofsky jam-packs subplots and characters into “Noah,” but no part ever feels overlong or overwrought. It is extremely well-paced. In a lesser film, there are several parts that would bog down the runtime (the construction of the ark comes to mind) but Aronofsky knows that what is important isn’t what’s being done – it’s who is doing it and what it will mean for them.
The main theme of the film, I think, is redemption – an odd choice, one might think, being that Noah is considered a righteous man amongst the wicked. That’s why the Creator chooses him, after all. But Noah quickly comes to believe, through interpreting his visions, that the Creator means for his family to be the last of Mankind. He grows paranoid, bitter, as the screams of those left to the waters echo within the ark’s walls.
Like I said, this isn’t Sunday school. Noah has enlisted the help of fallen angels who took pity on Adam and Eve, and were punished for their sympathy. Cursed by the Creator to live as deformed monsters, these “Watchers” are perhaps the biggest deviation from the Biblical story in the film, despite having origins in Jewish mythology. However, they serve a much larger purpose than upsetting purists – the Watchers are spiteful against the Creator, angry toward Man. They limp like enormous wounded Ents across the wastelands, cursed by the One who made them, and yet they crave His glory still. They seek redemption. When given the chance to help Noah, as the Creator wishes, they do as commanded. And they protect the ark from the onslaught of Tubal-cain and his followers, who swarm it at the first drop of rain.
Noah ends up seeking redemption as well for his actions onboard the ark, as does his son Ham, who suffers a great deal at the thought of being alone for the rest of his life. All throughout, the struggle to interpret just what the Creator means – to take His will and translate it into human purpose – is at the forefront. It is pointless. If God’s ways could be understood by Men, He would no longer be God. This danger of assigning God duties and ethics is dealt with thoughtfully and without resorting to preaching or spelling it out. Aronofsky knows better than to assume anything about the nature of God.
There’s so much to go into with this film that I’ll probably end up writing another piece on it in the future. For now, I’ll close with this: across the board, the performances excel. Crowe delivers another landmark performance and the way he builds Noah from the ground up ought to be applauded. Connelly shares several powerful scenes with him that serve to humanize Noah at his most inhumane. Lerman especially works in a role that in lesser hands would be relegated to a stereotypical angst-ridden teen part. Emma Watson also delivers in an emotional but never overdone part that culminates in one of the most heart-stopping confrontations in recent memory.
See “Noah.” Treasure it – either as a mediation on God, an examination of Man’s interpretation of religion, or as a thrilling fantasy epic. I choose to accept it as all three. Let it wash over you. I can’t promise you’ll enjoy it, but you’ll walk away with food for thought, and a hunger for more, and for many of us, that’s why we go to the movies in the first place.