Let’s start here: Darren Aronofsky, as a filmmaker, is not just a gorgeous visual stylist, he is the one major director I know of who is genuinely immersed in the power of myth and in the power of tragedy. Lots of directors today appropriate myth as material for otherwise conventional Hollywood melodramatic narratives: The 300, Clash of the Titans, Thor, the upcoming Hercules. But the mythical trappings of these films are essentially just production design, and we leave them essentially unmoved. We think ‘that was awesome’, without ever having experienced awe. Aronofsky explores myth creatively, even uses contemporary subjects matter to reimagine myth. In Black Swan, he uses backstage ballet company squabbling to retell the myth of Odette and Odile; in The Wrestler, the wreckage of a life spent professionally wrestling is given the weight and depth of tragedy; Mickie Rourke’s Randy the Ram becomes a Hector, an Achilles, an Agamemnon. The seeds of Aronofsky’s new Noah film are found in his 2006 film The Fountain, an extraordinary, complex multi-layered meditation on the Tree of Life, and (possibly), the redemptive power of love. Ignore critics who scoff about the ‘Biblical accuracy’ of this Noah; this is not a Sunday School lesson, it’s a Darren Aronofsky film, and a great one.
There were giants in the earth in those days. . . . (Genesis 6: 4)
The operative OT word is Nephilim; ‘giants’ is a common translation. Aronofsky calls them ‘Watchers’, and imagines them as fallen angels, sent to earth to help mankind, but cursed with bodies of stone. They’re ponderous creatures, and move as though every step is agony. But they’re huge and powerful, and now, having helped mankind accomplish the ruination of the planet, they help Noah build (and they later defend) the Ark. When they die (and they can die, humans can kill them), they again become creatures of light, and are released, gloriously, to heaven.
And Zillah, she also bare Tubal-cain, an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron. . . (Genesis 4: 22)
Tubal-cain is a central character in the film, superbly played by Ray Winstone. After the slaughter of Abel, Cain’s offspring multiplied. There are essentially two branches of humanity; the children of Cain and the children of Seth. The Cainites have destroyed the planet; Sethites have been reduced to one family, Noah’s. After a vision, Noah takes his family on a journey to find his grandfather, Methusaleh, and we see a ruined world; sludge ponds, tree stump deserts, abandoned mines and factories. Having instilled in humankind an insensate greed for tools, Tubal-cain is king of what’s left.
Russell Crowe creates an essentially kind and loving Noah. He knows The Creator (the word ‘God’ is never used) intends to drown the world, and that he’s to build an ark so that ‘the innocent’ (by which he means animals) can survive it, and initially, he believes that The Creator also intends his family to be spared, and his family to mark a new beginning for humanity. The difficulty is that he has three sons, and only one daughter-in-law. And she, Ila (the magnificent Emma Watson) is barren; married to Seth, but unable to conceive. His wife, Naameh (the equally magnificent Jennifer Connelly), is also past the years of child-bearing. So how can mankind survive?
And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me, for the earth is filled with violence. . . . (Genesis 6: 11-13).
Noah goes to Tubal-cain’s encampment to look for wives for his sons. And what he sees is a nightmare world, a world of brutality and sexual violence, a world of cruelty to animals, a world of murder, and above all, a world of rape. We hear it more than see it; hear the cries of women subjected to violence, echoing everywhere in the camp. And Noah feels, in his heart, his own capacity for violence. He has killed in the past, defending his family. He is a gentle man, and a kind hearted man, but he is a man, and he is shaken by the camp, but not just by its reality. He’s also devastated by self-knowledge; by his own capacity to become that evil. He is, perhaps, titillated by it. And that realization drives him mad.
And he kills, again he kills, not by design or intent, but by neglect and cowardice, he kills. He kills a young woman that his son Ham has saved, a woman who is, in Ham’s words, ‘innocent.’ And Ham (Logan Lerman, also magnificent) cannot forgive it.
I will cause it to rain upon the earth . . . and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth. (Genesis 7: 4)
And we see it. And again, more than what we can see, we can also hear, and we see Noah’s family, in agony as they hear human beings, clinging to their Ark, drowning in despair, beating on the wood with their hands, shrieking in desperation. And it goes on and on. And they are devastated.
And, so, on the Ark, Noah gathers his family, and he tells them the story, of Adam and Eve and Creation. Innocence and joy, purity and the love of the Creator. And the serpent, and Cain’s violence to his brother. And he tells his family that humankind must end with them. They will save the animals, they will make possible re-Creation. And then, one at a time, they will die. And the youngest son, Japheth, will bury the last of his brothers, and then he too will die. That is the vision the Creator has shown him.
Here’s what Aronofsky has done with the myth of Noah; he has imagined for us a prophet who is wrong. He has created a titanic figure in Noah, but also a madman, a good man driven insane by visions of violence and death. And the heart of the movie is there, on the ark, as a three-way debate takes shape and defines the intellectual contours of the movie.
In fairness, let me urge you to stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie and want to. Spoilers to follow; and I think they can’t be avoided. Because this film is also a moral argument, and an argument that is worth describing fully and honestly.
What Noah does not know is that Ila, his daughter-in-law, is no longer barren. Naameh, in compassion and love, has taken her to Methusalah for a blessing, and she is now with child. Shem is to be a father, and Noah, a grandfather. And when Noah finds out, his madness intensifies, and he declares that if the child is female (and if, therefore, she represents a possible future for humanity), he will kill her. And Naameh pleads with him, and their children avoid him. He has gone insane.
Or has he? Because the film is now defined by an argument, and one side of that argument is that mankind does not deserve to live. I’m reminded of Matthew McConnaughey’s character in True Detective, arguing that human consciousness was an evolutionary error, and that at some point, nature will simply fix the mistake. Eradicate us. And we’ve seen a world defined by violence. We see in Tubal-cain’s camp; we see it today, in the Congo, or North Korea, or Darfur.
What Noah does not know is that his Ark has a stowaway; that Tubal-cain was able to climb aboard. And Ham knows it too, and is angry enough at his father to keep Tubal-cain’s secret. And the king is a tough old bird, but he’s not stupid and he has something else going for him; he loves mankind. He thinks we’re supposed to rule, we’re supposed to exercise dominion over the earth. Maybe at times we exercise dominion foolishly, but we can fix that too; we’re smart enough to shape our environment, to use tools to manipulate our world, and incidentally benefit ourselves. Violence is our heritage and our legacy. We were meant for power.
But there’s a third point of view. And it does not come from divine revelation, as both Noah and Tubal-cain (both of whom pray, and to the same Creator), think their philosophies come from. It comes from the human heart, from what we Mormons would call the ‘light of Christ within.’ It’s Naameh’s opinion, and it’s based on love. She believes in, and forcefully articulates, the power of human love. She believes that we can choose good over evil, that we can choose to serve something greater than ourselves, because she’s done it; she’s given her life for her family.
So: obvious. Except it isn’t. As Noah points out to her; she’d kill for her family. Her love has an undercurrent of violence, or at least the capacity for violence, the possibility of it. We love, and perhaps that does ennoble us, but we’re tribal beings, and we can and will kill for those we most care for. And maybe love is a powerful force, but those words, ‘power’ and ‘force’ are rooted in a capacity for violence, are they not? And yes, Tubal-cain is disgusting as he kills for food, and when he tells Noah that he intends to take from him his women. But don’t human beings share with other creatures an innate instinct for survival? And isn’t the world of ‘innocence’, the world of nature, a violent one?
And when Tubal-cain is finally defeated (by Ham, the son whose filial devotion is most equivocal, the boy who has cause to hate his father), Ila goes into labor, and is delivered of twins. Twin girls. And Noah, as promised, takes up his knife to kill. And Ila begs of him one last favor. The babies are crying. Can’t she, at least, calm them, quiet them, allow them to die while peaceful? And he allows it. And when he realizes that he can’t do it, he can’t obey his Creator to that final extremity, he cannot, finally, kill again, that realization does not heal his madness.
And Noah . . . planted a vineyard:
And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. (Genesis 9: 2o-21).
And he drinks, and it’s not comic; it feels like a punch in the guts, because we see it as more madness, as PTSD made manifest on the earth. It’s only when Ham ‘uncovers his father’s nakedness’ (in the film, it’s translated as ‘leaves on a self-imposed exile, rather than cope with his father’s insanity’), that Noah begins to heal. And the family begins to heal, and his marriage begins to heal, and we see, in the heavens, an image of hope.
I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.
I am a believing, practicing Mormon, which means a believing and practicing Christian. A Bible reader and a Bible lover. And this painful and tragic and wonderful film does the Bible the courtesy of taking it seriously. It honors the text by creatively re-imagining it, by giving myth a personal gloss. It’s not a slavishly literal retelling of the story, and it does not provide comforting platitudes. It honors the horror of the Flood, or of all floods, it honors the painful reality of God’s plan; that we’ve been sent here to a world of volcanoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis. And war. And murder. And with an innate human capacity for violence. I left the theater edified, discomfited, uplifted, disturbed. Shaken. Moved. It’s a great film.