As a young child, one of my favorite things to watch was Father Noah’s Ark, one of Disney’s many shorts produced from 1929-1939 known as Silly Symphonies. It’s a goofy little film in which the animals help Noah build the ark, set, in part, to Beethoven. There’s a melodramatic scene where Noah and his family sing, hands raised, and I used to my raise my hands with them, singing along. And while I loved it as a child, as an adult, this interpretation of the story makes me cringe.
The problem with this account of the Noah story is that it doesn’t give the flood any context. In The Bible, God tells Noah to build an ark to save the animals and Noah’s family, but Father Noah’s Ark fail to establish that the flood was a judgment upon man due to his great wickedness.Therefore, the Disney version is silly, innocuous and safe. God’s wrath is conveyed by the intensity of the storm, but the only people shown in the story are those God saves, making God a dog whose bark is worse than his bite. When the storm abates, everyone is happy, singing and cheering.
Years later, I read the Noah account as a young teen and I was shocked with what I found. I heard the Noah story countless times as a kid in Sunday School, but when I read the account again, the scale of God’s wrath and judgement began to sink in for me for the first time. And then there was the bit after the storm that no one talks about, the bit where things get rather dark and depressing (and a bit Noah deals with in the final act). While the story of Noah promises a new beginning and an important promise, it’s not nearly as happy or simple as Sunday School or Disney made it out to be.
Therefore, it’s fitting that Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel’s vision of the iconic Bible story is apocalyptic in tone. This is a story where God wipes out the entire world and this film doesn’t shy away from the implications of how terrible the world must have been for God to make such a decision. It’s a lot closer to the Biblical account in tone and message than the versions of the story implanted into both pop-culture and most churches.
Aronofsky and Handel do takes some creative liberties with the text, but the liberties taken serve important functions. The depictions of angels, Ila (Emma Watson) and the technological progress of humanity are all in service to the film’s themes. Aronofsky isn’t changing the story because he can, or just because he wants there to be a bit more action, but because it is in service to what he explores as the message of the Noah story.
The over-riding lens of the film is God’s judgment against humanity. When Noah (Russell Crowe) receives a vision of the flood, he sees it as God’s judgment against the wicked, later his is granted a vision of how he will be able to save a remnant of creation: two of every animal and his family who represent the only good left in humanity. Amid God’s ultimate judgement, there is a seed of hope and redemption, a promise of restoration, that Noah and his family cling to as they go about their task.
This calling to build the ark ties into the film’s other major theme: stewardship. Noah and his family are the last of the line of Seth and they see it as their duty to preserve and protect creation as God mandated to Adam. Meanwhile, the rest of mankind is from the line of Cain. They seek to exploit creation to satisfy their own appetites. The progress of technology and wanton appetite for meat are pitted against only taking what is needed and the strictly vegetarian diet of Noah’s family.
However, this is the foundation of the film’s exploration of these ideas. As these themes evolve, the film displays both a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of theology as well as a boldness to take the implications of the Noah story to their natural conclusion. In terms of the plot beats, things are different than the biblical account, but Aronofsky and Handel do an adept job at understanding and seeing something larger at work than most people’s understanding of the story. There’s more to the tale than God’s wrath against a wicked people or, as the Disney version conveys, God rescuing of a family. They’re two sides of the same coin, and the film does a magnificent job of exploring that dynamic.
As a piece of filmmaking, Noah falters. While there are some magnificent visualizations of the history of humanity, the creation of the universe, and Noah’s visions, it’s clear that Aronofsky is not an action director. The few battle scenes are cluttered and chaotic without any deliberate sense of tempo or momentum. In terms of artisanship, it might be Aronofsky’s weakest offering, in part because the apocalyptic vision of the story restrains his penchant for the cinematic.
However, as a piece of storytelling, Aronofsky’s interpretation of Noah is his most sophisticated and rewarding film experience. It’s rough, not everything works, but in service to the overarching character arcs and thematic underpinnings, Noah succeeds.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing