not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
Let’s get this out of the way immediately: Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of the story of Noah from Genesis takes major liberties with the story, in a way that can be hard to stomach if you’re religious, even if, like me, you’re religious in a way that finds more value in Genesis as a moral guide than a historical document. It’s not just that Aronofsky alters things like the age of Noah’s children, the death of his father, and other non-trivial details in the text: it’s how he alters them, making the characters’ choices more cruel, and their decisions more horrifying, than anything we find in the text. It’s almost as if Aronofsky, who grew up in a Jewish tradition before losing any serious religious convictions, has decided that the major flaw of the Old Testament is that its God is insufficiently sadistic for his purposes–which might be a conclusion we could understand the creator of Requiem for a Dream arriving at.
And yet, as the film goes on, you see that these changes are not arbitrary, or cruel without purpose: like a scientist altering some of the parameters of an experiment to find an answer to a specific question, Aronofsky has altered his story in a manner necessary to communicate his message. It’s a strangely pure gesture, as though Aronofsky knows that his concerns are different than those of the biblical text, and alters them accordingly.
The changes and embellishments Aronofsky adds to the story basically have a single large change at their root: God reveals His commands to Noah (played by Russell Crowe) without hinting at their purpose. Noah, therefore, believes that God intends to remove humans from the world and create a new Eden, preserving only those animals who did not fall in the first one. Their task, as he sees it, is to deliver the land-dwelling animals to safety, and then to die, leaving no offspring: “Your mother and I will die, and you will bury us in the ground. Shem and Ila, you will die, and Ham and Japheth will bury you. Then, Ham, you will die, and Japheth will bury you. And you, Japheth, will be the last man, and will die in your turn.”
Of course, in order to sustain this idea, the text must be changed: Noah’s children are younger, so that Ham and Japheth have no wives, and Shem’s wife, Ila (played by Emma Watson), is barren. If Aronofsky wants to plausibly create a Noah who believes humanity’s final end is to shepherd all the world’s creatures into an Eden of which humanity itself is unworthy, he must have a family that seems unlikely to procreate.
The question that naturally follows is, why does Aronofsky want to give Noah this belief? The answer lies in how Aronofsky depicts the great majority of humanity, which in his telling are the descendants of Cain. While Noah and his ancestors “only collect what we can use, and what we need,” the children of Cain spread throughout the earth, consuming, burning, building, until they fill it in massive numbers. They create enormous slaughterhouses of meat, yet millions still starve, and the breathtakingly evil acts they commit are done in such a din of chaos and blood that people hardly seem able to pay attention to them. One of the most horrifying moments in the movie is an extended sequence where Noah walks through the wicked tents of the Cainites and glimpses the perversity and evil born of the constant need to consume and multiply.
You could argue that this is a misanthropic view of humanity. And yet, if you follow environmental causes, if you’ve seen graphs of the exponential growth of the world’s population in just a few short centuries, the conception of humanity Aronofsky creates is probably not something entirely alien to your own thoughts. And it’s easy to see Noah’s disgust with humanity as a larger disgust at the human need to kill, consume, and multiply. With the view of humanity Noah has, it’s no wonder he believes mankind is destined for destruction.
Only Aronofsky doesn’t necessarily think that Noah’s God shares this view of humanity. The second breathtaking moment sequence in the film is when, as they sit within the ark, Noah tells his children the creation story from the first chapter of Genesis, and we see the whole creation unfold: chaos becomes light becomes water becomes land, and animals swim through the ocean and crawl out of the sea and eventually culminate in humans. The beauty of the progression is a counterpoint to the previous sequence of Noah among the Cainites, and suggests a flaw in Noah’s thinking: would God annihilate the final stage of His own creation?
The film is balanced between these two understandings of humanity, and the struggle between them comes across as an environmentalist struggle to consider humanity’s place in the global ecosystem: are we destined to destroy the earth and ourselves with over-consumption and war? Or is there a way we can be the stewards of the earth, protecting its animals and taking only what we need, only what we can use?
Which side does God come down on? You’ll have to see the film. And then, you might have to think for a while. And even then, you might talk with a friend and find out you disagree.
There’s a ton of stuff in Noah that is good: the performances by Crowe, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, and Jennifer Connelly, the last of whom is not given nearly enough to do. There’s crazy rock-embedded angels that seem like an original invention, but actually turn out to be from the Book of Enoch, one of the apocryphal texts in the Bible (one of the really cool things in the film is how Aronofsky weaves a variety of biblical stories and parallel myths together, and it contributes to the idea that this is Aronofsky attempting to tell his own story with biblical materials, not a literal re-telling of the Bible).
However, at the end of Noah, I didn’t feel triumphant, or joyful, or any of the feelings you tend to feel upon seeing an undisputed masterpiece. I felt slightly troubled, like I’d been given something serious to think about, and would need some time to piece it together. And as this article shows, I still haven’t: the stuff I’m talking about here is only a thin slice of the film as a whole, one narrative among many. And as far as conventional storytelling goes, Noah doesn’t provide the same sense of catharsis as Requiem for a Dream or The Wrestler or most of the films Aronofsky has made up to this point.
But maybe that’s appropriate for the film he set out to make here. When you get right down to the troubles that plague humanity, things aren’t as simple as just wiping everyone out and starting over. We’re here, we want to survive, and we want others to survive, and we want the earth to survive. Making all of those things come to pass will require some thought, not to mention a great deal of action.