From the advertisements you might think Darren Aronofsky's Noah is all fantasy-action spectacle. You'd only be half right.
While, yes, Aronofsky does stage an impressive battle pitting the people who are destined not to make it onto the arc against giant Watchers, fallen angels made out of stone, once everyone is one the ark the movie turns into a story about a family dealing in an apocalyptic scenario.
In Genesis it reads: "Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood." As one might expect, that's not how it goes down in the film, which Paul Brandieis Raushenbush, the executive religion editor of the Huffington Post, described as "midrash on the Genesis story in the Hebrew Bible." Midrash are stories told in the Jewish tradition that examine biblical back stories.
Aronofsky arranges it so that two of Noah's sons—Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japeth (Leo McHugh Carroll)—are without wives, while his son Shem (Douglas Booth) is attached to Ila (Emma Watson), a girl the family rescues at the beginning of the movie and treats like an adopted daughter. Ila is barren until Noah's grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), blesses her. She and Shem immediately have sex, and she becomes pregnant, setting up the central conflict in the latter half of the movie. Aronofsky's Noah believes that God does not intend any humans to survive, and tells his children that they will be the last of their kind. When he learns that Ila will have a child he vows to kill it if it is a girl, and is vicious in his intent. He burns the boat she and Shem are going to use to escape and nearly kills the children (she had twins!). As one might expect, he cannot bring himself to do so, perhaps moved by the tune she sung to relax the children, one he sang to her as a girl. (Yes, Russell Crowe sings in this movie, so all you Les Mis fans can buy your tickets now.) At the end of the movie he tells his family to "be fruitful and multiply and replenish the Earth," using the words that God does in the biblical text.
Co-writer Ari Handel said in an interview with Cathleen Falsani of Sojourners that Ila was a way to explore Noah's love. "Obviously the notion of barrenness and infertility is a very biblical concept and it fits right in with the Noah story because it’s all about the death of life and the birth of new life; it’s all about second chances and next generations," he explained. "So I think she came out of those places. She ends up also becoming, as you see, in some ways a different kind of a voice — a humanizing voice — that is able to bring Noah back from his despair."
Ila is a device in the movie, catalyzing not only Noah's decision to let humanity survive, but also the conflict between him and his son Ham. In the film, Ham is mad about not being paired off with a woman as Shem is. Before the flood, he leaves his family to find a woman, only to see that woman die when Noah refuses to help her. That leads to anger and betrayal on the parts of Noah and Ham, a more dramatic scenario to modern-day audiences than Ham seeing his father's naked body as he does in the Genesis passage.
Once the big battle is over, to make sure all the other humans are kept out of the ark—there is one later tussle that we won't reveal for the sake of spoilers—the real theatrics come from the the familial conflict. Noah argues that The Creator, God, chose him not because he is good, but because he would "complete the task." Jennifer Connelly, as Noah's wife Naameh, fights with her husband to protect her brood, tears streaming from her face and snot streaming from her nose. Watson howls as Ila. Ham conspires against his father, only to ultimately save him.
Of course, this is a big-budget Hollywood movie, so it's not all meditation on a family in crisis. There are CGI animals, sequences that look like something out of Planet Earth, and a battle that critics are likening to The Lord of the Rings. But in its latter half, take away the ark and the fact that there's no one else left on Earth, and it could simply be a story about a how a family copes with a man who doesn't know how far to take his beliefs.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.