There hasn’t been a Biblical film quite like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Aronofsky treats the Old Testament story with the sort of sweeping fantasy filmmaking reserved for the likes of Greek myths, but what sets it apart is that at its core are moral and theological debates usually reserved for small budget art-house fare and not FX-laden blockbusters. It’s one of the strangest and most challenging genre films made and it happens to be a profoundly overblown fantasy-esque epic in the best way possible. There are moments where the film struggles to live up to its ambitions but its successes propel the film into a beautiful if imperfect work of art.
Noah only works as a film if the audience would be willing to put aside any beliefs and preconceived notions they have for a moment and buy into at least two of its main premises. One is that the events of the Bible are true, but not in the fact vs. fiction sense. The other is that the world before and during the events of the film was extraordinarily different. Aronofsky paints the sky and landscape of the Old Testament Earth with an almost alien tinge: exotic creatures, magic was real and angels clad in armor of stone are commonplace and even the familiar continents have not yet formed. This world is at its end however, having been judged by the mysterious omnipotent Creator as due for a cleansing and rebirth.
Noah doesn’t shy away from the enormity of the Flood – the sequence has people screaming and clinging on to a mountain peak as the waters smash them away, their death cries echoing within the expanse of the ark – this is the wrath of a Creator, a force who has lost faith in humanity. This isn’t the version of the Flood as seen in cheery Sunday-School books.
The movie’s complex morality is no way in service of a simplistic “God is a jerk,” message. There are no easy answers for any of the characters in the film, the Creator is ultimately revealed as asking and not tasking Noah and his family with proving the value of human life. The true theme of Aronofsky’s Biblical Epic – how can you be a man of conviction and conscience in a world where nothing is black and white, where evil has a good argument and the good guys are behaving in ways that make them indistinguishable from the bad guys? In a complicated world is any hard line belief even possible? Aronofsky’s script (co-written with Ari Handel) doesn’t approach these topics subtly, and in fairness subtlety has never been a concern of his. Beyond all of this talk about moral complexity and theological implications of belief lies a unique and audacious fantasy epic. The visuals are iconic and weirdly experimental yet completely cohesive. It’s like a fusion of video-collage and tone-poetry. For instance, Aronofsky offers an interpretation of the entire story of creation, and he does it using a quick-cutting montage style that ends up looking like a hybrid of stop motion and time lapse. It’s exciting and gorgeous, one of the best such sequences in a film bar none: Aronfsky makes the bold choice to harmonize the six days of Creation with our understanding of cosmology and evolution; science and faith co-exist in his vision of Genesis. He offers us glimpses of the Garden of Eden and he comes back again and again to Cain killing Abel, including one brilliant montage where all of humanity’s murderous impulses throughout history are replayed in that one foundational murder. The Original Sin of the Bible is eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but for Aronofsky the truly troubling moment is when brother killed brother. That’s vital, because while much of the movie plays as an eco-fable where progress is bad for the world, the film eventually moderates that opinion. The true problem isn’t that man attained knowledge (and thus industry), it’s that man has been bad to himself and all around him. It was here that it becomes clear that Aronofsky recognizes that theology and religious mythology and faith is beyond simple terms such as “fact” or “fiction” – it’s the ideas and concepts that are given shape and personified within that are very much “real” in the truest sense of the word.
The last Bible movie that struck me like Noah was Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. They’re vastly different films in scope and aesthetic, but both films use religious text as a way to explore larger issues that are both personal and spiritual. Any believer must walk away from Noah satisfied that it has presented the tribulations and uncertainties of faith in ways that are fair and, in the end, inspirational. Non-believers will also find incredibly complex philosophical issues to take home, the kinds of questions that have occupied the greatest minds in human history.
Art takes people places, creates thoughts and feelings which are not always the most safe and comfortable for anyone. Aronofsky has constructed a film which speaks to the basest and most pure purpose of mythology and art. Regardless of anyone’s beliefs or lack thereof, Noah is a film that demands to be seen, if only to stimulate the kinds of thoughts and feelings only a work of art can produce in a person.