What would happen if one were to take the scant hundred or so verses of Genesis devoted to Noah and the Flood, and expand them into a two-plus-hour Hollywood blockbuster by adding liberal doses of Tolkien, Avatar, Mad Max, and a Roland Emmerich disaster movie?
This is not a question I had contemplated until I was presented with its answer in the form of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Though considerably vaster in scope (and budget) than any of the director’s previous undertakings, it is no less idiosyncratic than his other work, from Pi to Black Swan. The result is an odd and original film, part CGI spectacle and part somber moral meditation. Although occasionally preposterous, it is rarely short of fascinating.
Though not a biblical believer himself, Aronofsky is clearly at pains to adhere to the spirit—and, where possible, the limited details—of his adopted text. Following the fall and the first murder, humankind descended in two lines: the wicked progeny of Cain and the virtuous progeny of Seth. Over the course of eight generations, however, the Cainites have spread across the globe like a cancer, while the Sethians have dwindled until Noah is the last of his line. When the latter comes fully of age (technically when he’s around 600 years old, though as played by Russell Crowe in the film he seems considerably younger), the Creator decides to purge the corrupted world of life, with the exception of Noah, his immediate family, and as many mated animal pairs as they can squeeze into an ark. Here come the birds, spiraling majestically into Noah’s giant box of a boat; then the amphibians and reptiles, hopping and slithering; and finally a rumbling herd of the hooved, toed, and clawed. (The fish, presumably, can fend for themselves.)
Working from these familiar beginnings, Aronofsky begins his extravagant narrative embroidery. After some early mutual suspicion, Noah is befriended by the Watchers, grotesque fallen angels that resemble Peter Jackson’s Ents, except that they’re made out of stone and sport six arms. These powerful creatures (loosely based on references to the Nephilim in Genesis) not only provide the labor to build the massive ark, but also protection from the barbarian hordes, led by King Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), who would very much like to book passage on Noah’s ship when the rains begin to fall.
The Watchers may be Aronofsky’s most peculiar addition, but there are other fantasy elements woven into his tale as well: the glowing energy pellets used to make fire (and primitive firearms); the divine seed with which Noah causes a lush forest to arise from a blighted landscape; the narcotic herbal smoke that he and his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) use to put their zoological passengers into a deep slumber. Adding to the overall air of magic and polytheism are the presences among the cast of an erstwhile Odin (Anthony Hopkins, as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson, as adopted daughter Ila), and Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman, as son Ham).
But despite its flamboyant, and at times goofy, fantasy trappings, Noah is firmly anchored by the fierce moral intensity of Aronofsky’s vision, which is, if anything, more Old Testament than the Old Testament itself. Renditions of the Flood narrative—including the Bible’s—tend to focus on the lucky fate of Noah and his flock rather than that of the millions left behind to die. Aronofsky, by contrast, is unsparing in his portrayal of their agonies. The most striking image of the film is a pinnacle of victims that juts briefly above the waves—a human pyramid of desperate, clawing terror—before being swallowed by them. Even within the ark, the cries of the doomed echo like an infernal whale song.
Aronofsky is likewise quite explicit in his depiction of Noah, however righteous, as a knowing accomplice in an act of global genocide. He is a man who believes that it is God’s will that the human race—all of it, his own family included—not be allowed to further corrupt the Earth with its presence. It’s a role tailor-made for Crowe, whose zealous conviction (evident even in such dubious castings as Les Miserables) is here taken to the brink of madness.
Indeed, arguably the film’s greatest infidelities to its source material involve neither igneous angels nor antediluvian dilithium crystals, but rather two narrative developments I will not disclose, which provide the principal drama and moral tension of the film’s final third. The first involves a life-or-death, faith-or-family ethical dilemma that Aronofsky has invented for Noah (one with powerful echoes of the choice faced by his notable 11th-generation descendant, Abraham). And the second involves Aronofsky’s uses of the character Tubal-Cain, the barbarian king.
On the one hand, Tubal-Cain is a bloodthirsty brute: a killer of men, despoiler of the land, and committed proponent of the ethos that might makes right. On the other hand, he is, in the most literal sense possible, a humanist—particularly in comparison with Noah, for whom he serves as a kind of narrative twin and foil. It is Noah, after all, who believes that “justice” requires the end of the human race, and Tubal-Cain who argues that women and children (and, obviously, he himself) have as much right to a berth on the ark as any python or wildebeest. Moreover, if Tubal-Cain is in rebellion against God, it is at least in part because he believes that God has abandoned humankind. “No one’s heard from the Creator since he marked Cain. We are orphan children,” he laments at one point. At another, he beseeches God, “I am a man, made in Your image. Why will you not converse with me?”
As Aronofsky’s film progresses, it becomes an implicit dialectic between the competing moral visions espoused by Tubal-Cain (on behalf of a sinful human race) and Noah (on behalf of a ruthless God). And to say that neither option is an appealing one—violent chaos versus obedient self-extinction—would be an obvious understatement. A third way between these polar alternatives is of course found, as anyone familiar with the Noah story would presume. (Aronofsky may grant himself the latitude to devise a few additional moral quandaries, but he’s not going to rewrite the ending.)
Noah is a strange and occasionally messy hybrid of a film, and some viewers will be unhappy not only with the liberties it takes but also with the conclusions it draws (in the latter case, perhaps, from both ends of the ideological-theological spectrum). Aronofsky has created an epic melodrama that is at the same time a heartfelt, personal plea for the reconciliation of often-competing moral codes. “A man isn’t ruled by the heavens,” argues Tubal-Cain late in the movie. “He is ruled by his will.” In the end, Aronofsky suggests, neither is sufficient on its own.