The funny thing about religious texts, including the Bible, is how much of human nature they take for granted. When Abraham is told to kill his son, the text doesn’t say that he was wracked with indecision for days. There aren’t really any characters in the Bible. The people spoken of are always conduits for God’s word or will and not much else in terms of personality. In fact, the most complex Biblical characters are the ones who don’t obey the word of God. Consider Cain, who is driven by greed and jealousy towards his more successful brother. Is he evil? No doubt. But his motives are more relatable than, say, Moses’, because I’m guessing most people reading this haven’t literally been contacted by God for a personal mission.
What I’m saying is that it’s difficult to make a Biblical movie about a Biblical hero without diving a little deeper and, yes, taking some liberties with the source material. Noah is told that everyone on the planet is going to die in a flood, and it’s his job to let them drown. When you think of Noah not as a character but as a person, you realize how damaging that must have been to his psyche. Most retellings of this story focus on the building of the ark, the herding of the animals, and the finding of dry land at the end. In Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, all of that takes a backseat to the human drama that surely must have happened if the story is to be believed. What must have been going through the minds of the people on that ark, the last members of a species apparently so sinful that they are worthy of mass extinction?
Well, actually, the movie takes a little while to get to that question. Noah is really two films, both of them in modes that Aronofsky is comfortable in. For its first half, Noah is an epic adventure of the Lord of the Rings variety, with the cosmic flavor of fantasy rather than the medieval one. There are breathtaking wide shots of desolate landscapes, ferocious sword battles fought in the rain and mud, and even mythical monsters in the form of fallen angels who are imprisoned in earthly bodies made of stone. Aronofsky displayed this genre previously in The Fountain, which in my opinion is his best film to date. That’s all while the ark is being built, but you can’t have a movie about Noah’s Ark without spending some time on that titular vessel. The second half of the film switches gears completely, and turns into the kind of intimate family melodrama that might remind you of his previous film, Black Swan. The movie pivots on a beautiful montage retelling the Biblical story of Creation, which takes place halfway through. The sins of the first humans weigh heavily over Noah, and they factor heavily into his actions in the film’s second half.
The rock monster angels of the first half are interesting theologically, but they really need a whole movie to themselves because Noah spends barely any time establishing them. That’s true of a lot in Noah, in fact. For a movie that’s nearly two-and-a-half hours long, multiple characters feel underdeveloped. It’s the rare long movie that actually needs to be longer to be more successful. It’s a shame, because there’s a lot of untapped potential in some of these undercooked characters and subplots. Noah’s son Ham (Logan Lerman) ostensibly has a major role in the climax, but the movie puts more focus on the things influencing him than how he reacts to those influences. The same goes for Noah’s oldest son Shem (Douglas Booth), who is a complete non-presence despite being one of only a handful of characters in the second half. The villainous Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) lays out his motivations pretty clearly early on, so we don’t need to delve into him that much, but even he is occasionally forgotten by the film.
To be fair, the film is called Noah, and at heart it’s a character study of him. Russell Crowe is a huge asset to the film, and he handles Noah’s slow slide into fanaticism with equal parts grace and intensity. The only other characters who are given real complexity are the female ones. Noah’s wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) struggles with her complicity in her husband’s actions, and is not afraid to fight him when she knows what he’s doing is wrong. Because Noah is so set in his ways, Crowe can’t give Connelly a lot to work with when they come into conflict, but Connelly is still very good. Surprisingly (to me at least), the co-lead of this film turns out to be Ila (Emma Watson), a girl taken in by Noah when she was a child who grows up to be Shem’s wife. Ila is found injured in the burning wreckage of her family’s camp, with a wound which renders her infertile. This aspect of her character is vital to the events of the second half of the film, and to its overall themes.
Many have taken a message of environmentalism from Noah, and while that’s certainly present, it’s really just one piece of a larger them. Noah is about man’s power over his surroundings, and whether or not humans have the right to do with those surroundings as they please. Noah starts out believing that man has no right to kill other animals for food or destroy the Earth for personal gain. He sees nothing special in humanity, at least nothing that makes them more important than any other animal. Tubal-Cain disagrees, stating that the lack of recent communication by God (or “The Creator,” as the characters say) means that humans have free reign to do whatever they want, and that The Creator created them to have dominion over all. Is either side necessarily right or wrong? Biblically, no, which is what makes their conflict interesting on an ethical level. When Noah reveals why he decided not to let any innocent people on board the ark, Tubal-Cain starts to seem like a more reasonable guy. Then again, his camp is an awful place where people trade women for meat, so it’s not exactly black-and-white.
These moral questions form the meat of Noah, even though they don’t really appear in the narrative until the ark starts floating away. There’s a ton of setup in this movie, and while it pays off everything that it promises to, there’s a lot more potential that it leaves untapped. For me, the things I liked about Noah outweigh the thinner areas of the script, but I can see why some people might be annoyed that there’s not quite as much depth to the material as they might have expected.
So maybe now you can see why many fundamentalist and literalist Christians are opposed to Noah. Not only is it a violent film, but its ideas about faith can easily be taken as an affront to religion itself. Do I even need to argue that this is a narrow-minded way of looking at both art and the world? Hopefully that’s obvious to you. Any outrage from religious viewers really comes from the fact that Noah doesn’t reinforce what they already believe and challenges them to more carefully consider the role that faith has in their life. On top of that, Noah really isn’t a movie about religion at all. It’s a movie about humanity, and how people should live their lives. It’s not pro- or anti-religion in any way, but it does act as a rebuke to the idea that morality can only come from religious faith. Aronofsky may have a penchant for grim films, but Noah‘s message is ultimately a positive one: Love is more important than faith. And no matter what your beliefs are, surely that’s something all good people can get behind.