Darren Aronofsky's Noah is a good movie, but not great. It moves slow at times, and barely manages to round out one of the flattest characters in the whole of the Bible (no matter what canon you're using).
I've seen a lot of complaints in the last week from Christians of certain political leanings about the non-Biblical nature of the film, but Aronofsky, in a self-professed mission to write his own midrash of the tale, manages to craft a more deeply Biblical film than I've seen in some time. It is a film that wrestles with a question as old as humanity that frequently rears its head in the Biblical narrative: whether God is a God of justice or mercy. Noah believes in justice, and that God would not steer him wrong on this path. That is true of Noah in both his portrayal here and in the good book. In fact Noah is markedly different from Abraham in this regard. Abraham demands mercy from God for Sodom and Gomorra, and wins a modicum of it for Lot and his family. Jacob literally wrestles with God and gets renamed for it. Noah just accepts that everyone's going to die, and he'd best protect the animals like God says.
We've liked to neuter the tale of Noah: it becomes either a children's tale about cute animals or a scientific proof about the veracity of scripture. Both interpretations serve the same purpose: we don't have to engage the morality of the tale on an adult level. That's probably why so many "reviews" of the film -- from Creationism stalwarts Ray Comfort and Ken Ham, as well as various conservative talking heads - claim the movie is non-Biblical. They're not looking at the text anymore, just their own twistings of it. Let's run down some complaints I've read this week:
1. The characters in the movie are flat.
No, the characters in the Bible are flat. Noah and Ham are the only ones who get any sort of characterization, and they're both one-tricks. Noah is on a mission from God and Ham is destined to be cursed. Noah's wife having a name already makes her more well rounded than she is in the canonical Bible (her name in the film, as well as that of Shem's wife, is drawn from The Book of Jubilees). Noah is as dedicated to his mission in the movie as he is in the Bible, the film justifiably portrays that as homicidal misanthropy. I can't argue with the interpretation, considering Noah never argued with God in the text.
2. Noah is a vegetarian. (And this is bad.)
I'm not entirely sure why this gets mentioned so often. Matt Walsh dedicates multiple paragraphs to complaining about this one. Folks, if you're going to claim Biblical literalism you've got to actually read the thing. Noah, like all of Creation, is vegetarian until after the flood. At least that's what God decreed, so a righteous man like Noah ought to be following the rule. It's in there. I promise. Now this is compounded by the fact that the evil-doers are city-builders and industrialists. But that's the cursed sons of Cain for you. And that's Biblical, too.
Now's as good a time as any to also mention that those complaining about Noah being portrayed as getting drunk would do well to read a bit more as well. I shouldn't be seeing complaints like this.
3. Noah is an environmentalist. (And this is bad.)
In the movie Noah is portrayed as inheriting a mantle from Adam through Seth as the keeper of dominion over the animals. Dominion here, as it does for many Christians, means caretaker, protector. Tubal-Cain, the movie's antagonist (and a bit player Biblically from a different generation), takes the opposite view: that dominion is subjugation. Now we can argue either way on this one, and we have for years (check out Jonathan Dudley's Broken Words for more on that). As such I'm not going to come down hard on this one, though the venom with which environmentalism is condemned in these reviews is terrible. Ray Comfort (of banana hands fame) goes so far as to condescendingly claim Aronofsky thinks "that the biblical narrative is about saving innocent animals." Ray needs to go back to the Bible on this one, too. Genesis 6 makes it pretty clear that the animals are saved because, unlike humanity, they're not violent, evil, and corrupt. The story of Noah may be one of God's justice and grace, but it's also one about saving innocent animals.
4. The rock creatures.
Ok, so this I'm really playing Aronofsky's advocate here, because the rock guys are pretty silly. But! They are not as wholly non-Biblical as some folks would like you to believe. Mr. Aronofsky might have avoided some trouble if instead of calling them "The Watchers" he went ahead and named them Nephilim, a name given at the start of the Noah story in Genesis. Modern Christians like to ignore the Nephilim because no one has any idea what they were, but The Book of Enoch equates them with a class of angels explicitly called The Watchers (a term that gets a canonical shout out in the Book of Daniel) who are tasked with watching over humans, but fall for human women (drawing on "the sons of God and daughters of men" from the Nephilim's brief canonical mention). The Nephilim get left out of our normal tellings of Noah because they do little but confuse adults, let alone children, and they add nothing if you believe the first 11 chapters of Genesis are scientific hypotheses. Most reviews are quick to point out that the portrayal of these creatures is rather Tolkien-esque. Most reviewers don't go on to point out that Tolkien's Christianity was also one that valued environmentalism over industrialization, as well.
5. God isn't even mentioned.
This is probably the stupidest complaint. God is mentioned. A lot. He's frequently referred to as "The Creator". Oh? What's that? Not mentioned "by name"? God's not his name, guys. The name of God isn't just not mentioned in Noah, it's not mentioned in the whole of the Bible, it's not mentioned in any church you've ever been in. When God's asked his name he doesn't give it, but says to just tell them "I am". That's what we started calling him, unless we went generic (el, god, elohim) or called him by honorifics (el Shaddai, my Comforter, my Protector). Point is, it's a mystery, and even the one thing he said (usually given as YHWH) doesn't get pulled out all that often (since the Jews consider it a big no-no to say.)
Now of course when you're expanding three pages of text without acknowledged conflict into a 2.5 hour film, you've got some editing to do, so it should come as no surprise that there's some added stuff, but that added stuff serves to fill some gaps quite well. My favorite? Ham's curse isn't just from seeing his dad drunk and naked and not helping, he also (symbolically) inherits the curse of Cain by being the one who kills Tubal-Cain, the original murderer's last living descendant. Second favorite? Even Tubal-Cain believes in God, and his principal motivation seems to be jealousy that God is talking to someone and it's not him.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the time-lapse sequences. They're pretty amazingly put together, and the one recounting creation is particularly beautiful.
I'd be more remiss if I didn't mention that the whole cast is white. Adam and Eve are lily-white and cloaked in light. Story goes (and must go) that Noah's sons father every nation on earth. Might have been a good idea to at least put a little non-Europeanness in there, Darren. Of course then we'd be hearing needless and mindless arguments about "diversity" from the usual sources.
As a Biblical adaptation, Noah may leave something to want, particularly if you have political or financial capital resting in a particular interpretation of the passage. As a modern day midrash displaying the eternal conflicts of the nature of God and the existence of evil it hits a lot of the right notes.
But never write off any film without seeing it yourself, ok?
Except Salo. Never see Salo.