Monday, March 31, 2014

Darren Aronofsky's NOAH

When the guys in my Men's Sunday School class go around the table taking turns reading from Genesis 6-9, each of us is "picturing" the Noah narrative in our own mind. The fellas can't see what I'm seeing and vice-versa. But when a Hollywood director makes a movie based on those chapters, we'll all see what he sees, which will inevitably differ from the movie in our heads. When he's a Jewish Atheist that picture could be a LOT different.

Russell Crowe as Noah . . . tryin' to figure it all out.
And yet we've been seeing trailers and clips for months now, with images that actually look quite familiar to us: there's a man named Noah, with a wife and sons Shem, Ham and Japheth. There are cities filled with violence, an ark, a bunch of animals lining up to enter, a lot of rain, waters bursting up from the ground and a planet-wide flood. Yep, he's telling the same story.

The first thing Aronofsky's movie is about is a ruined world. There are striking images reminiscent of some recent post-apocalyptic movies (Book of Eli, Oblivion). Then we meet Noah's idyllic family living off the land. He witnesses a small miracle, and starts having these dreams . . . which are not pretty. He is confused and decides to take his family on a pilgrimage to consult with his grandfather Methuselah. Enroute their attempt to avoid humans almost succeeds, but they manage a narrow escape into a nether-zone where they encounter Nephilim (whom Aronofsky calls Watchers), who first kidnap, then assist the family.

In rapid succession the plans for the ark become clear to Noah, trees for construction miraculously appear. Soon humans notice the project and come a-calling. Conflict rises to a crescendo as storm clouds gather. And yet the central drama of the film turns out to be Noah's unexpected conclusion about why all this is happening. He thinks it's only about saving the plants and animals, reasoning that his family is no less evil than those who are about to drown. He believes they ought not reproduce, and the earth must be kept pristine for all living things except humans. This turn of events feels authentic, thanks to Crowe's soulful performance, and forces changes in Aronofsky's narrative involving wives for Noah's sons. But old Methuselah has a surprise up his sleeve, which provides gut-wrenching suspense during the months onboard the ark.

This dramatic mainspring keeps the story tightly wound. While miracles were happening to facilitate building and filling up the ark, Noah was confident and serene. But when the door closes and the screams of dying humans are heard outside, his dreams stop and he fabricates a grand finale that sounds almost logical, but is horrific to his family. He autocratically contends that his new notion was part of God's intention all along. By this time even a life-affirming miracle can't take him off his tangent.

Noah's internal struggle, which divides him from his own family, is a fascinating study in religious conviction versus self-delusion. It is a theological rumination on the nature of good and evil, complete with vivid, detailed and recurring flashbacks to the Garden of Eden. This movie contains many references to the Mark of Cain, and shows that even the wicked city-dwellers understood their descent from the heights of intimacy with the Creator to the depths of their current depravity. In short, this is no spin-off allegory, but a layered and earnest retelling of the earthy, ugly, tragic story of a world destroyed by God.

Those Christians with checklists will find some boxes to mark in the column labeled "Diverges from Genesis." The Nephilim play a bigger role here than in the text. Aronofsky doesn't play out 120 years of ark-building, making Japheth still a teen when the deluge comes . . . leaving the human headcount aboard the ark a few short of the Biblical passenger manifest. Genesis compacts Noah's 950 year lifespan into four short chapters that can be read in about fifteen minutes. Aronofsky has spent $115 million making a two-and-a-half hour movie, whose investors insist must conform to cinematic structure (ie: 3-Act Drama). It is a truism that the book is better than the movie . . . except that a novel is over 40,000 words, while Genesis 6-9 barely adds up to 2,000 words (a short story is supposed to be 4,000 - 7,500). Two thousand words? That's an article or an outline. Filmmakers always take liberties with the text of their source material, and couldn't make a good movie doing otherwise.

Darren Aronofsky's NOAH may not be a great movie, but it is an important movie. It is an ambitious movie that takes scripture and God and sin and morality seriously. It is a visually and aurally impressive film that will give your home theatre system a real workout. It is a well-written, directed and acted motion picture that does what it must do: transport us into another world for over two hours. But only if we are willing to suspend our disbelief.