Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Noah" - Surviving the Flood of Expectations

It probably means something that my wife and my 14-year-old daughter disliked “Noah,” while I sort of liked it. The distance between those two impressions – outright hostility and grudging acceptance – might let you know what you will think of it.

(By the way, what follows are spoilers. Now, if you don’t know the story of Noah, you might want to investigate it, as well as the larger story it’s a part of… There are places all over the world to do this. You’ll note the large cross on the roof…)

First of all, the story of Noah is one of the more familiar and popular stories we are told in Sunday School. Take Noah and his family, his sons and their wives, herding the animals by twos into the ark to be preserved against a terrible flood. The image of the bearded, kindly man building the ark and then trusting in God for his preservation warms the young heart.

But one of the most compelling scenes in Darren Aronofsky’s film, and one of the most well-presented, is the moment when the ark is adrift on the water and Noah sits, stoic and grim with his family, listening to the screams of the doomed outside in the rain and the waters. The truth is, the story of Noah, like almost every other story of the Bible, testifies to sin, and this was one of the pleasant(?) surprises of the film. Sin has consequences, and not everyone can – or will, or wants to - escape them.

When I heard Hollywood was attempting a big screen film on the Deluge, I figured there would be some modern retelling of the story giving another reason for the flood that consumes an unrepentant world. I was not surprised when early reports said humanity was being judged for its effect on the environment. 

But this wasn’t the case. Sin is front and center the reason God is judging mankind, and indeed, Noah’s consciousness of God’s displeasure with man is one of the major plot points of the story.

But consider the source material, as translated by Everett Fox:

Now (God) saw
That great was humankind’s evildoing on earth
And every form of their heart’s planning was only evil all the day.
Then (God) was sorry
That he had made humankind on earth,
And it pained his heart.
(God) said:
I will blot out humankind, whom I have created, from the face of the soil
From man to beast, to crawling thing and to the fowl of the heavens,
For I am sorry that I made them.
But Noah found favor in the eyes of (God).

In the passage above, you’ll notice God is in parentheses. That’s because Fox translates the divine name as YHWH, as it is in the original Hebrew. By using the original, Fox decides to preserve the mystery of the divine name. The movie makes a similar decision – God is always referred to as “The Creator.” 

What’s good about “Noah?” It should be remembered that nearly every human civilization has some kind of story about the Deluge – a great flood that a particular man survives along with a host of animals on a boat. But the story recorded in Genesis is different from the other versions – the flood is a decision by God and a direct response to the sinfulness of mankind. Noah and his family survive because he found favor in God’s eyes, and the family that survives will make a fresh start.

This part of the story is preserved. The look of the film is familiar to anyone who has seen a Hollywood movie depicting scenes of great antiquity. At times, “Noah” looks like yet another chapter in “The Lord of the Rings.” Costumes are not the traditional Sunday School bathrobes but wardrobes consistent with, say, the Krypton scenes from “Man of Steel.” The ark is as you would expect – a long, rectangular boat built to house humans and a menagerie.

But this telling of Noah is contemporary – which means it must render God in a contemporary context. Instead of the Lord speaking to Noah and giving him direct commands as to the dimensions of the Ark, Noah receives the impression of the coming flood in a dream, which he must then find help interpreting. He and his family journey to the mountain of his ancestor, Methusaleh, played by Anthony Hopkins with a needed mix of whimsy and ancient wisdom. The picture of the antediluvian man climbing a mountain to seek out the words of a wise man is familiar to anyone, even those unacquainted with the Bible. 

It is there, in another vision, that Noah understands what he must do. Leaving the mountain, he plants a seed from the Garden of Eden given to him by Methusaleh, and a forest sprouts up to provide trees to build the Ark that will preserve his family’s life. 

That’s a miracle, and there are many miracles in “Noah.” But the Creator does not speak. When Noah looks to the sky, the sky is silent. When God moves, His acts are undeniable – to those who have faith. But those waiting to hear perhaps the voice of James Earl Jones speaking the familiar words from Genesis will be disappointed.

One other aspect of “Noah” that was a pleasant surprise – Aronofsky preserves the larger context of the Biblical story in the telling. Inside the Ark, Noah recounts to his family the creation of the world by God, and the fall of man – first in the eating of the forbidden fruit, then in the killing of Abel by Cain. The serpent that tempted them is a snake, viewed in flashback in a series of images. The killing of Abel is crucial, and the movie keeps circling back to it as a symbol of man’s wickedness. Yet Noah also has to kill to preserve his family, so apparently murder is OK in those instances? The movie isn’t clear.

But there are a few other liberties with the story, and this is where those expecting the traditional version will undoubtedly be disappointed. Readers of the Bible will recall that Noah and the Flood comes immediately after one of the more challenging portions of Genesis – the meaning of the first four verses of Genesis’ sixth chapter. Let’s look at the King James translation:

Sons of God? These are sometimes referred to as the Nephilim, and there are several theories as to what the phrase means. One common interpretation is that these were fallen angels, and that their cohabitation with human females is one reason God brings the Deluge. But the screenwriters of “Noah” make these creatures into “The Watchers,” a group of fallen angels who earlier watched over human beings until the creation grew too evil. It is a group of Watchers which help Noah build the Ark, probably for cinematic reasons – in order to quickly construct the craft.

My quibble with this is both theological and cinematic. This conception of the Nephilim make them seem more like Prometheus, guardian of mankind’s acquisition of fire from the Greek gods. (Of course, Prometheus figures in the Greek version of the Deluge stories, so...) But fallen angels wouldn’t necessarily be interested in helping mankind for any reason, would they? My cinematic objection is that the Watchers are a race of rocklike creatures which resemble every other CGI creature you’ve ever seen in a movie.

One other quibble has to do with the animals. The good news is that no animals were harmed in the filming of "Noah." The bad news is that there are no real animals in the picture - they're all computer generated, and many of them are species dreamed up by the filmmakers for the story. That's not my objection - there are many elements in the story that speak to its primitive origins. But the animals miraculously come streaming into the ark, where Noah and his family put them to sleep with the use of a magical kind of incense. What's wrong with that? By doing so, it effectively removes the animals from the story. This is a storytelling decision, obviously - since it allows us to concentrate solely on the human remnant alive in the Ark. But the animals, I would argue, are a vital part of the story - not just in the more familiar Biblical version, but every other retelling in every other culture. Obviously, it would have been a much different movie to have Noah and his family shoveling out the Ark every day, but I missed what effect they might have had on things. The Ark, teeming with life and the needs of life, would have rescued the plot from the very dark turn it takes.

The tension of the final half of “Noah” comes after the Ark is loose on the water. For reasons of conflict, Shem is given a wife, Ila (Emma Watson), who they believe to be barren. Ham, however, has no wife, and Japeth is too young to want one. (Bible readers will easily recall that in Genesis, all of Noah's sons have wives and families.) Noah attempts to find wives for his other sons in the village of Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), but he is so struck by the evil of the place that he flees. His plans are thwarted when the Flood comes. So he decides that they too are to be judged – humankind will die with them.

But Ila – through the work of Noah’s wife and Methusaleh? Or is it God? – soon becomes pregnant, and Noah assumes that God will want him to kill the child. This is further complicated by the fact that Ila bears twins, which enter the world at the moment the Ark comes to rest on the mountains of Ararat. Will Noah kill his own grandchildren? (There’s also a ridiculous subplot involving Tubal-Cain as a stowaway on the Ark, which has an all-too-predictable ending.) At first, I wondered if this was setting up some kind of foreshadowing of Abraham and Isaac’s near-sacrifice. But Noah finds only love in his heart for the two babies, and spares them, believing he has failed at the task God gave him. He survives the Flood, as does his fragile family, though the rainbow halo at the end only promises hope without actually letting it be glimpsed.  

I wondered, as I was watching this, why Noah doesn't see Ila's babies as another one of God's miracles? Surely, if God can wipe out mankind with water and keep his family alive, then he can cause not one but two children to be born. There is one way to look at this - that God is infinitely more forgiving of us than we are of ourselves or each other. One of the Christian interpretations of the story is that the Ark itself is a foreshadowing of the grace we find in Christ. Deep down, we understand punishment. We want it for everyone else - but we expect grace for ourselves. We have no reason to expect it, but God grants it. 

So is “Noah” worth seeing? As cinematic spectacle, yes, though I find myself continually losing patience in theaters with epic battles involving thousands of people fighting giant creatures. Russell Crowe’s Noah is perplexing and inspiring, maddening as we imagine men to be who have heard the voice of God. He struggles with what he believes his faith demands, which makes him recognizable, yet not as we remember him from Sunday School.

And like we continually do in life, we long for him – and us – to hear the overpowering voice of God, and for an ending that wipes away all doubt. Instead, we receive not the miracle we were expecting, but mercy, and grace to go on.  

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1 comment:

  1. I finally got a chance to watch this tonight, on an IMAX screen.

    I'm not sure whether I'd say it's a good movie or a bad movie, which I suppose means that I'd say it's a mediocre movie. Similarly, I'm not sure whether I'd say I liked it or disliked it, which probably means that I'd say I'm mostly indifferent to it.

    It has pros and cons. The cinematography is fabulous. I also really liked the score by Clint Mansell (which culminates in a song by Patti Smith -- !!! -- over the end credits). I thought Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins were good, and Emma Watson; Jennifer Connelly was miscast, but still did a fine job.

    As for the controversial elements . . . well, for my part, I just took it as a movie. Which is not to say it can't have import; it can, and should. But it isn't the Bible. It's a story for our own times, and I would say that it ought to be approached in that way. Because if all a body wants is to read the Bible, well, it ain't hard to find one.

    Which is not to say that this story works 100%. It definitely doesn't. (I could have lived without that Tubal-Cain subplot, to say the least.) But in its best moments, I think it does a pretty good job of summoning up a feeling for what a scourging of the world might feel like. As achievements go, that's not insignificant. I just wish the whole movie had been up to its best moments; if it had been, it would be a masterpiece.

    As it stands, I think this is Aronofsky's most uneven movie. I'll take "The Fountain" any day.