Darkness, Action, and Noah

This past week I managed to catch a showing of Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Russell Crowe. Since the movie is still new, I will try to avoid major spoilers, though some minor ones may be contained below.

For the most part I had managed to avoid a lot of the marketing for this movie. I didn’t go out of my way to do so, but I didn’t try to read up on it or watch any trailers. All I had to go on was the poster and word of mouth.

To cite the Red Letter Media series Half in the Bag, there has been a trend in cinema over the past several years of making darker versions of fairy tales, and “big dumb action movies” based on literature or just on title recognition. Notable examples of these types of movies are Snow White & the Huntsman, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Alice in Wonderland, and the Sherlock Holmes films. While I have seen some of these movies and enjoyed them, I could not help but adopt a slight cynical attitude toward Noah. The reason is that this film incorporates all of the aspects of the trend described above.

The shadowy image of Noah standing in the rain against a black backdrop with an axe in hand appeared to be evidence enough that this film would be following the same formula, and in many ways it did. Other than reading the story in the King James Bible my only experience with it had been its interpretations in children’s books, often focusing much more on Noah gathering the animals in the Ark than the massive loss of human life involved in the story. As for the text in the Bible itself, I recall the telling being very matter-of-fact.

In the case of old fables, the complaint of movies based on them being “darker versions” lately seems to me a little trivial, since a lot of these stories were originally very dark and violent anyway, before the Grimm brothers and the like collected and retold them with more friendly versions — old tales of Red Riding Hood can be particularly gruesome. The Flood myth — whether the protagonist is Noah, Deucalion, or Utnapishtim — is older than recorded time and involves the nigh extinction of the human race, so I believe it is more justified in portraying the story as rather dark. If you’re going to handle death on that scale maturely, I’d argue there has to be some darkness to it.

The name Noah is one most people would recognize, and the Bible is certainly literature as far as I am concerned, so the film meets the criteria of the mentioned trend almost perfectly. The final question I had to confront then was; is it a “big dumb action” film? My answer is simply no.

There was more action than one might normally expect — a large scale battle, no less — but I thought they managed to make it fit appropriately in context. It helped to address a realistic conflict that might arise during a crisis like this: if you’re building an enormous Ark and gathering all the animals, people are going to notice. What happens when the people that are meant to die in the Flood realize that this Ark is their only hope? The battle itself felt especially well-placed in roughly the mid-point of the movie, emphasizing that there is more to this movie than simply getting to a climactic battle.

The central concern of the film was a very environmental one: should humanity be allowed to continue again after the Flood, or would they just desolate the world once more? This deeper conflict felt very tangible to me and I found myself both sympathizing with Noah and being terrified of him at the same time as he struggled being the arbitrator of this dilemma.

One aspect of the film that caught me off guard was the presence of the Watchers; fallen angels trapped in twisted bodies of earth and stone as punishment for going against the Creator to aid and guide humanity after the fall. Visually, they are essentially giant rock monsters. At first their presence made me wary, not knowing how they were going to be utilized, but I found they were implemented into the plot quite well. It is through their help that Noah and his family are able to build the Ark, and eventually defend it, both being feats that would otherwise be impractical for Noah and his family to do alone.

I found the world Aronofsky depicted to be very captivating in how little he actually showed us. In the Bible there is little we know about how the world was at that time (from what I recall) except that most of mankind is wicked. The film’s depiction of the remnants of a heavily industrialized society that has consumed to the point of desolation made the idea of wiping them out in the deluge both justifiable and tragic.

Humanity has effectively ruined much of the world, contrary to the Creator’s intent for humanity to look after it, yet they are also sympathetic. While the antagonist Tubal-cain is very abhorrent he isn’t depicted as particularly vile, and the masses of people desperate to get onto the Ark certainly aren’t either. They are human beings in a desperate situation, struggling to survive in the face of utter annihilation — I wouldn’t expect any other large mass of people in such a situation to behave much differently.

Easily my favourite scene in the film was Noah’s retelling of Genesis 1, which I found to be mesmerizing. There is something about little snippets of storytelling that really gets to me, and this was a very well done example of that.

Noah has a lot of heart, and an affecting conflict that was more contemplative than two sides merely fighting each other. It is a great retelling of one of the great old stories.


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