As Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is released around the world this week, Christians are going to be looking for instant, theological reflections. But for a movie with so many layers and one courted by such controversy, that’s a hard ask. The Gospel Coalition’s Gregory Alan Thornbury, who was graciously given a rare early preview, has written his theological reflection after “several weeks of reflection”.
But I’m just an ordinary pewsitter. I learned about Noah in Sunday School; I think I may have even made a paper boat. In my lifetime I can remember perhaps two sermons that were directly on the story of Noah. If that’s you too, perhaps you’ll find something useful here as an ‘instant reaction’ from last night’s premiere in Sydney that may help you decide whether you, too, should see this film.
Noah opens with an invitation to begin at the beginning. “In the beginning there was nothing”; the first clue we’re not in the Bible anymore. In fact, there is no mention of God at all, instead Aronofsky has opted for ‘The Creator’, an omnipotent force, more palatable as an abstract being in his world of dystopian fantasy.
After the fall of Adam and Eve and the killing of Abel, the earth is overrun by descendants of Cain who exploit the earth until it can give no more. Now scattered and desperate, they believe the Creator has abandoned them; left them to their toil. They believe they must and will survive on their own.
But there are also descendants of Seth, a minority painted as the peaceful, hippy spawn in a world that no longer appreciates beauty. We meet Noah on a mountainside, with two of his sons, Shem and Ham. They collect food from the earth and when one of the boys picks a flower to admire it, he is admonished by Noah: “We only collect what we can use”. Everything has a purpose.
The environmental messages are enforced from the start, indicating Aronofsky is seeing this story as a kind of parable for our times. Noah and his family, who choose to live as separate from the rest of the world, are also vegetarian. Meat, Noah tells his sons, is something men believe will make them stronger, something that makes them kill. This message of excess and gluttony, exploitation and misplaced entitlement carries throughout the story.
The Creator speaks to Noah through dreams and hallucinations, oblique messages that the world sits in judgment and will be destroyed. With the counsel of an extremely old Methuselah (presumably derived from texts outside of the Bible, like the Book of Enoch), Noah decides to build an ark, viewing his purpose from The Creator as one to save creation for a new world, one in which man will have no place, leaving creation in peace.
It seems clear to Noah that The Creator will provide what they need; from steams of living water that refresh the barren soil and spring forth a deep wood from which Noah can build the ark, to sending the animals in perfect order to fill the ark, where they fall asleep for the duration of the flood.
But when Noah catches a glimpse of the true sinfulness of man, and sees himself and his family as men like the rest—sinful, selfish and unworthy of salvation, he concludes that The Creator has intentionally not provided his family with a means to multiply in the new life after the flood. They will die out, and Noah believes it is his duty to see that fulfilled.
Perhaps the most immediately confronting aspect of the film for a Bible-believer are the Watchers. Based on the the Nephilim in Genesis 6:4, Aronofsky has fashioned a species not dissimilar to the Ent (tree people) from Lord Of The Rings, cautious of man and a victim of an exploitative world.
The Watchers are used as a plot device to conveniently answer some of the big questions from the Noah story: how did one small family build an ark that could house the species population of the entire world? And when the rains began, how could they stop the inevitable barrage of poor and desperate souls from mobbing and taking over the ark? The Watchers and Methuselah similarly take on some of God’s attributes in a film that depicts ‘The Creator’ as mostly silent.
There are three clear acts: before the flood, during the flood and after the waters subside. Much of the family drama where Noah is convinced it is his duty to ensure mankind does not survive is carried out on the ark, overshadowing in many respects the devastation happening outside of it.
But for a film about the end of the world, there is a lot of light and shade in its composition. The earth when depicted in darkness and sin feels real and gritty. Methuselah’s mountain hideaway, the great wood that rises from The Creator’s spring, and the brightness of the beach and new land after the flood subsides sits in such stark contrast that it appears the most unnatural of all. The juxtaposition adds more depth to the film’s emphasis on the evil man has done to the earth, its responsibility unmet and its judgment, just.
The surprising message I took from this film was the overwhelming wickedness of man. For a film produced in a world that increasingly seeks to emphasise the good of humanity, this is a bold and confronting emphasis. Noah is not righteous. No one on the ark is worthy. Noah is not a hero, he is fallen but forgiven.
You’ll want to grab a coffee after this one, and talk about the Bible. What other movie can you say will have that reaction? For that reason alone: you should watch this movie. Anything that makes me want to trawl through the Bible to decide what I am to think of what I have seen is something I suspect will help me grow in my faith and help me talk about that faith with others. And it’s my hope and belief that you will also want to do the same.