Noah (2014): Opposing Reviews

The divergent opinions among Catholics on the Darren Arnofsky film Noah are mystifying to me. How can faithful Catholics come away with such radically different interpretations of this film? Some, whose views I respect tremendously, are saying it is a horrible movie - an offensive inversion of biblical principles and a failure simply as cinema. Others are saying it was wonderful and praising it to the skies as a deep movie with many valid insights about God and the Flood narrative.

I have not personally seen the film, but I present here two opposing reviews from loyal, traditionalist Catholics. The first review is from a guest author, Fr. Scott Archer of the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, a friend of this blog and website. Fr. Archer found much to commend in the Noah film and believes the criticisms are unjust. Our second reviewer is our regular film critic Throwback, webmaster of Popin' Ain't Easy and author of over fifty reviews on this site. Throwback disliked the movie and thought it failed as an interpretation of the Bible and just as a movie.

As you read these opposing reviews, the core question seems to be that of fidelity to the source material. Both reviewers acknowledge that deviations have been made and artistic license taken. The question we should ask ourselves is what sort of artistic license is acceptable, and how much license can one take before the underlying theme of the story changes? Fr. Archer and Throwback disagree on where this threshold is. We all have our own opinions on it, but it is good to keep this in mind when reading. ~Boniface

"Intensely Pleasing" -Fr. Scott Archer

Noah, with Russell Crowe in the title role, is an exciting, imaginative, and often moving portrayal of the story of Noah from the Old Testament. For the most part, this Darren Aronofsky directed film stays true to the Biblical story, while giving us a movie that is immensely pleasing to watch. Russell Crowe plays a very believable, human Noah, who struggles with understanding the details of what God wills for him to do. Jennifer Connelly is a very passionate and strong Naameh, Noah’s wife. It is a movie I would recommend to anyone who wants to see a Biblical film on a grand scale. Among the evangelical crowd, however, this movie seems to have caused quite a negative stir, and much of this is based on their view that it does not follow the Biblical story closely enough, it is ideologically driven, and they object to the artistic license Aronofsky has taken with the story. It might be helpful to address some of these concerns and objections.

First, it seems as though some people have forgotten that directors have to use artistic license to drive the story along, much in the same way Cecil B. DeMille did with his 1956 The Ten Commandments. Where were the people objecting to the love triangle between Moses, Nefretiri, and Rameses? There is no power struggle with Moses as next in line to be Pharaoh in the book of Exodus, yet DeMille uses it as a plot device to create more tension. Need I even mention Edward G. Robinson as Dathan, or Moses hurling the tablets at the golden calf, followed by fireworks and an earthquake? The latter was a dramatic and memorable scene; however, it never actually happened in the Bible. Noah is a very twenty-first century telling of a Biblical story, meant to speak to a twenty-first century audience, much in the same way The Ten Commandments was intended for a mid-twentieth century one.

Another objection I heard was that Noah never mentions the name God. Remember that the story of Noah (Noe) starts in chapter 6 of Genesis; that is, the first few pages of the entire Old Testament. It records that God speaks to him and Noah obeys, but Noah does not speak to God. It simply states, "And Noe did all things which God commanded him." By the end of chapter 9, he is dead. Even when you look at Exodus, when God reveals Himself to Moses, he asks, "If they should say to me: What is his name? what shall I say to them?' God said to Moses: I AM WHO AM. He said: Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: HE WHO IS, hath sent me to you." Rest assured, every time Noah utters the words “the Creator” in this movie, you know he is referring to the Almighty.

The decision to make the “sons of God,” who appear in chapter 6 of Genesis, into Tolkien-like rock giants, who are in reality angels, was an artistic choice one may or may not appreciate; however, I suspect this was to give us a sense of an ancient time when giants roamed the earth. There is even an exotic dog-like creature that is killed in the movie, a creature obviously now extinct, and this also gives us that sense of being in a world not far removed from the beginning of man. As an aside, these “sons of God” in traditional Catholic commentary are not angels; rather, they are the descendants of Seth and Enos.

As for Noah being a "drunkard," another objection I heard, it occurs exactly how and in the same place as it does in Scripture. "And Noe, a husbandman, began to till the ground, and planted a vineyard, and drinking of the wine was made drunk..." Also, much is made of the fact that he does not eat meat. I am not certain how this is supposed to contradict Scripture, given the fact that he was a husbandman. It does have a Tolkien-like condemnation of industrial society, and I believe this is why some see this Noah as an environmentalist, but it is made perfectly clear that God (the Creator) destroys His creation because of the wickedness of mankind. In this movie, Noah is a flawed man whose only objective is to be obedient to the will of God. He does not always understand perfectly what that will is, but he does end up understanding and carrying out His will to completion.

The acting by all the stars in this movie is superb, and Iceland provides the perfect backdrop to the end of all things, which is also the renewal of all things. The audience views in wonder at how, “all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the flood gates of heaven were opened.” The gorgeous, sweeping score of composer Clint Mansell adds to the splendor that is Noah. There are so many moving, beautiful, and dramatic scenes in this movie, especially the miraculous gathering of the animals to the ark, which may cause even those without faith to go and read the account of Noah’s story in the book of Genesis.

I give it three tiaras. 


"Lackluster Entertainment"

Let me start this review with a statement that should be pretty non-controversial. Darren Aronofsky is a weird, but talented, guy. The former can be seen in works like Pi and The Fountain. The latter is obvious from movies like The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream. Here’s a second statement that should be widely accepted. Aronofsky has a pretty low view of humanity. This shines through in all of the previously listed works. When he was signed up to direct Noah, I was actually kind of excited, though. 

Sure, he’s an atheist, but I’ve never taken that as something that would limit a talented filmmaker in dealing with Biblical material. So let’s take a look at what he came up with, and make sure to recall what we know about Aronofsky along the way.

Everybody knows the basic story. The world is wicked. God is going to destroy it for said wickedness by sending a great flood. He chooses to save Noah and his family, along with animals sufficient to replenish the earth, in an ark that Noah is to construct.

Those are the basics, and there’s plenty of room in there for legitimate artistic license. By “legitimate artistic license,” I mean staying true to the roots and core message of the story without turning them on their heads or completely changing the nature of a character or event. Whether it was Mel Gibson’s interjection of Satan in the Passion or Bill Cosby’s humorous takes on Noah in his older stand-up routines, there is nothing wrong with filling in the gaps of the story while sticking to these basics. Unfortunately, Aronofsky decided not to stay within the very fundamental yet extremely broad parameters set by the Bible.

If you think that this review focuses too much on Aronofsky, consider that he was the producer, director, and co-writer. The casting was well done, with exception of Logan Lerman as Ham, whose skills were limited to constant expressions of confusion and/or astonishment. The visuals, which Aronofsky always excels at regardless of budget, were phenomenal. It didn’t suffer from poor pacing or editing. In fact, if this had been The Epic of Gilgamesh, it would have been awesome. But it isn’t, it’s Noah, and that’s where the failure lies. Since so many things went right, it’s time to focus on what went wrong.

Moderate-major spoilers ahead.

First, don’t believe the hype from a lot of other reviews. The fact that Aronofsky included the Nephilim isn’t a big deal. Nor is it a big deal that they helped build the ark. Making Tubalcain the main bad guy, while somewhat distasteful given we don’t know the real man’s character, isn’t totally out of bounds. Having Noah drug the animals to keep them asleep on the ark, while nonsensical given that they’d all have starved, isn’t enough to tank the movie. 

The problem is that Aronofsky’s aforementioned low view of humanity manifests itself in Noah far, far too much and often in the personality of God. Noah’s God doesn’t like people all that much. He likes animals. Noah flat out says that the ark is to preserve the “innocent,” which is cast entirely as the animals. Man is just a tool for preserving them and initially gets to be along for the ride. The main sin of Noah’s day is apparently eating meat. The main sin of the Nephilim wasn’t taking human wives, as in the Scripture. It was helping man, leading to their Promethean punishment at God’s hands. In fact, God’s distaste for man is so great that Noah eventually decides that his own family must die as well. This goes all the way to the point of deciding to murder his unborn grandchildren.

Some reviewers, such as 
Fr. Barron, in their efforts to praise the film, say that Noah spares the children because he realizes “that God in fact wills for humanity to be renewed.” This is either an inattentive or dishonest viewing since Noah explicitly says that his refusal to kill the children was a failure to obey God’s will. In the (literally) last five minutes of the movie, Noah sort of comes around. I say “sort of” because he’s convinced that the decision to allow man’s survival wasn’t God’s but rather his own. Basically, God left Noah with the choice of whether or not to let humanity continue on. This is all rather monstrous. It is doubly so when you consider that the Scriptures that portray man as significant to God are placed in the mouth of the villain for recitation. Granted, the villain distorts these as well in order to elevate man to God’s level, but at least he is familiar with them. Noah has no use for man at all and presents God as holding similar views.

Is there any value to watching Noah? I’d say yes to the extent that it does show how difficult the job was that God gave him. As Cosby said, this was a heck of a job for a man 600 years old. Moreso than that, I think the strain of knowing the world is going to end and the “survival guilt” (Aronofsky’s words) Noah experienced are legitimate points of exploration and contemplation by Catholics. Even more than that, Catholics should take note of how God saves man. It is in a remnant. I direct you to the article “God Isn’t Impressed by Numbers” on the Unam Sanctam blog for further thoughts here. 

For content purposes, this is not a kid-friendly effort. Even disregarding the Scriptural distortions, the mass death and destruction is not something for children to watch. There are some scenes of almost-sex, but nothing graphic is shown.

I think Noah could be a valuable movie for Catholics to watch in groups for discussion if the purpose is to contrast the God of the film with the True God. There is enough material there to have a deep and meaningful look at why our God is great and Aronofsky’s God is not. It will make people think about God and His justice and His mercy. These are good things, even if we must tease them out in contrast to what we see on the screen. Otherwise, it’s not worth much as a Biblical epic.

Moreover, the underlying film, while well-made in many respects, lacks sufficient entertainment value to stand on its own. The person looking to simply lose themselves in a show for a couple of hours and have fun will find that there isn’t much to like about this Noah guy or his God. Since they aren’t all that likeable, there isn’t much reason to care if they succeed or not. By the end, the viewer is just waiting for Noah to get his comeuppance, one way or the other.

Ultimately, I give it one tiara. There is enough good for discussion both from a theological and movie-making angle. Between the backwards portrayal of our righteous patriarch (not to mention God Himself) and the overall lackluster entertainment factor, that is probably being generous, though.