Noah is not a film for those who like their belief systems challenged. People who have all the answers -- who know for sure how God thinks and will be happy to correct any assumptions on your part -- will likely find it infuriating. We've seen signs of it already in the apoplectic fits of the hateful and intolerant, so-called godly people who cloak their cowardice in the mantle of the very victims they seek to oppress. But it also applies to the other side of the coin: the smug seculars who think of faith as a fairy tale for the yokels. There were plenty of those at the screening I attended last Wednesday: self-absorbed Hollywood elites who giggled periodically lest they be forced to actually grapple with the questions pouring forth onscreen.
Noah is a movie for those who grapple with questions, who don't know what the Heavens hold for us, who aren't even sure there are any Heavens. It looks into the night sky and voices the same fears and doubts that we do: wondering if there's anyone up there and screaming "Why?" even though we know a "Because..." will probably never come. In short, it's a movie for those who ponder our place in the universe rather than those who think they have it all figured out.
And oh yeah, it's brilliant. Not just as a meditation on theology or a fascinating way to tell an ancient tale more thoroughly, but as an old-fashioned ass-kicker of an action film. Director Darren Aronofsky adopts the larger-than-life blockbuster formula as dressing for his religious cocktail, and it works just fine on those terms alone. Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family thus endure attacks from a rampaging army, earn the aid of Nephilim made of living rock and witness the raw power of God’s wrath firsthand. Set it to 11 boys and girls, because this one earns its spurs on spectacle alone.
Of course, it’s not just spectacle, and as a serious meditation on life, the universe and everything, Noah acquits itself equally well. Like Aronofsky’s other films, it focuses on obsession; in this case Noah’s, who hears the word of God and is convinced he’s going to screw it all up somehow. As the last descendants of Seth, he and his family carry humanity’s final traces of goodness. The rest of the species, led by the quietly barbaric Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), despoil the earth and lay waste to all around them. Aronofsky doesn’t shirk from the realities of this savage world: Noah features a few scenes of near-cannibalism that won’t leave your brain anytime soon, as well as a primitive morality made all the sicker by the twisted logic that governs it.
God, of course, has plans of His own, and sends them to Noah in the form of a vision. The world will drown, it says, and he must save its various critters by building an ark to hold them all. We know how the story goes and Noah doesn’t abandon any of it. But Aronofsky finds ways to posit one brilliant theological conceit after another in the midst of it all. For instance, there’s a good chance that none of Noah’s children will be able to breed. Is that a part of God’s plan – is Noah just tidying up for final curtain? – or does He intend for the race to go on? The same thing happens with its other notions, such as when strength becomes harshness and whether humanity’s love sometimes enables its hate. Noah has its own answers, but it expresses them with the intent of fostering debate, not silencing it. Aronofsky always gives us the room to chew on these ideas without getting in the way.
And yet that tendency never leaves the movie feeling slow or repetitive. At times Noah becomes utterly terrifying, with miracles that can destroy as often as they create and moments when the preordained outcome truly feels in doubt. Other times, it seeks to fill us with awe, as in the arrival of the animals to the ark, or a stunning shot of the entire globe covered in hundreds of hurricanes. These images speak to an unparalleled visual mind, one married to the perfect medium to properly express itself.
Even when it appears to succumb to mainstream cliché, Noah finds a way to turn it around on us: to come at it from an angle we’d never considered before and show us the familiar in an entirely new light. The Right is dumping on it for its pro-environmental message, which is kind of like condemning the story of Christ for being too sympathetic to the poor. (Seriously people: what part of “we were fucking everything up” is hard to understand?!) Similar criticisms tend to say more about the critic than they do the film. Dispute its philosophy if you wish, but do so from its level: with an eye on understanding rather than winning.
The rest, it appears, is up to us: a concept that all of the best religious films cherish and which Noah presents to us in a way no other film has before. It approaches theology from the highest levels, asking us to reexamine our relationship with the universe through the prism of a well-known fable. Strip that away and you still have a profound study on the timeless themes of death and renewal. Strip that away, and you still have a gritty portrayal of a family battling adversity. Strip that away and you still have one of the two best straight-up action films of the year. Strip that away and… you get the picture. Noah has just that much going on. Take what you like and leave the rest; hopefully we’ll be returning to it for a long time to come.