NOTE: When writing about film I usually go to extremes to avoid spoilers of any kind. However, this piece isn’t my normal review and delving into a discussion of this film without looking at some of the major plot points would be near impossible. I will try to give out a SPOILER ALERT warning for anything worthy of such a label for any of you who haven’t seen the film and wish to go in with fresh eyes. SECOND NOTE: What I’m about to write is not likely to be popular with many of you. So be it.
It’s 3 am on a work night and I’m wide awake. Usually if I’m awake this late, it’s because I’m working or I’ve gotten sucked into a marathon of 24 or, more likely, my son is refusing the sleep and is taking me down with him. But tonight I’m awake because the gears in my head won’t stop turning, my heart is a little heavy, and I feel compelled to write something about Noah and more importantly, the outpouring of criticism Christians, my people, have heaped upon it. I’ve been trying to put my thoughts into succinct, concise words for two days now to no avail. This happens sometimes. I get a great idea or I feel like I need to write about a particular topic and it just never takes the proper shape. But suddenly it’s the middle of the night and I know that I can’t sleep without taking another crack at this. So here goes.
When it was announced that Darren Aronofsky would be writing and directing a big-budget adaptation of the Biblical story of Noah, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. In fact, it’s safe to say I was filled with a moderate sense of dread. This feeling came about not because I have some sort of aversion to Aronofsky or his films or because I could not see the cinematic value of the source material (I can) but because I immediately began envisioning the firestorm that would undoubtedly become my social media feeds leading up to this film’s release. I knew that, of course, this would not be an exact, literal interpretation of the scripture and when that divergence came to light, Christians (again, my people, whom I truly love) would tear it to pieces, whether warranted or not. It started just hours after Noah was released on Friday; Facebook friends and family began ranting about the film’s lack of Biblicality (a word I just made up but which should absolutely exist) and the inevitable Matt Walsh blog started getting passed around like a pack of gum.
It isn’t fun to have an unpopular opinion. At least, it’s not fun when you’re trying to fit in with a given group that holds the opposing opinion. When it comes to the hot button issue of the day, whether gay marriage or universal health care or, in this case, a stinking movie, I tend to keep my head down and my mouth shut as my personal views often find that sweet spot in between the two sides of a given argument; usually, I end up too conservative in the eyes of “the world” and too liberal in the eyes of “the church.” (Quotation marks used in recognition of my extreme generalizations of both parties that I know not everyone falls into.) But in this case, perhaps because I am known as a movie guy amongst my family and friends, I feel like I cannot keep my thoughts to myself in spite of their potentially controversial nature. So let me ask my Christian readers three questions:
#1: What did you really expect? I’m a big believer that, in 2014, no one should ever go into a movie without some level of expectation of what they are about to see. Trailers for movies come out a year before a movie ever hits theaters and play ad nauseum in the weeks leading up to a film’s release. There are literally thousands of professional and amateur critics out there who can and will tell you as much about a movie as you could possibly want to know. And then there’s just good old fashioned intuition. Unless you lock yourself in a bunker with no access to the outside world and only come out once a week to go to a movie (weirdest idea for a screenplay ever but I’m claiming it), you shouldn’t be COMPLETELY surprised by the general concept of a film.
That is to say, if you saw any of the trailers for Noah, which were readily available at every turn, or if you caught even a glimpse of one of the articles about the movie that made the rounds on social media in the last few months, you HAD to know, at least on some level, that this was not going to play like a live action Veggietales movie. Even in the three minute trailer, you get a look at a super buff Noah, an armed horde attacking the ark, and brief glimpses of the rock monsters/”Watchers”/Nephilim. What about those images suggested that this movie was going to play out exactly like it is written in the Bible?
Let’s take it a step further, though. If you saw the trailer for Noah and were intrigued, a quick perusal of IMDB would alert you to the fact that the director has made some truly dark, at times disturbing, films over the last decade. Maybe you’ve never seen or heard of Requiem for a Dream but I’m willing to bet you know a bit about Black Swan since it stirred up quite a bit of controversy only a couple of years ago. I’m also willing to bet that at some point the articles about “an atheist directing a Biblical epic!” crossed your Facebook timeline. I know I saw it a dozen times over in the weeks leading up to the film’s release. (By the way, every interview I read with Aronofsky made it clear that he is not, in fact, an atheist. He’s certainly not a Christian and I can’t tell you exactly what it is that he believes. But I think it's clear that he believes in something and labeling him as an atheist was at best lazy and at worst shameful.)
My point is this: If you saw any of the advance press for this film (and it would have been very difficult to miss), you have to have known that this wasn’t the movie for you. And in that instance, what good is it doing for you to go in with a closed mind and come out and rant against it? Let me turn that around on myself for a second. I cannot stand the sort of low-budget Christian drama that makes its way into theaters every six months or so. Fireproof, Facing the Giants, and the like drive me crazy for a lot of reasons that I won’t go into here but basically, I find them to be nearly offensive because of their lack of quality. It would be incredibly disingenuous, then, for me to go into God’s Not Dead, knowing that it is not a movie I can appreciate, and come out spouting anger over something that I knew would bother me in the first place. So again I ask, if you went to see Noah and came out angry, what did you expect?
#2: What changes within the film were REALLY un-Biblical? This question plays in a little with the first question and a little with the last question. In the Bible, the story of Noah is, by my count, 89 verses long. That’s about a page and a half, maybe two pages, of content. The film Noah is 138 minutes long. That’s about 130 pages of script. So obviously there were going to be a great many additions and expansions upon the text. And I understand these additions are the main source of angst for most Christian viewers but I’m having trouble working up much anger of my own, mostly because, despite the numerous liberties taken with the source material, I’m not so sure there’s anything done that actually takes away from the story. And moreover, 89 verses are not enough to get the WHOLE story. We’re getting the broad strokes, what God deemed important when He inspired the writing of Genesis, but there’s plenty of detail that we don’t actually know.
Now, of course, my interpretation of the events that took place through the building of the ark, the flood, and the subsequent drifting on the waters would be much different than Aronofsky but the truth is, I’m just speculating as much as he did. Do I think the Nephilim took on the form of rock monsters? No. But there are plenty of people, people much more learned and sophisticated than I am, who take the translation of Nephilim to be “giants.” So that’s not way off from what actual Bible scholars speculate. Do I think there was some sort of great battle between Noah and those that would be left behind for control of the ark? Not really, but is it too much to guess that at some point there might have been some people who saw what Noah was doing and wanted a piece of the action? I don’t think it is. Do I think Noah flirted with madness on the ark and nearly executed his newly born granddaughters? No, not to that degree, but I do know that ten months on a floating zoo could very easily threaten one’s sanity.
Again, my point is, we don’t know everything that happened during these events. I absolutely, one hundred percent believe in the truth of scripture. But to bury our heads in the sand and pretend like anything not written in the Bible didn’t happen. At one point the story skips forward 100 years from one verse to the next. What happened during that 100 years? I don’t know and neither does Aronofsky but this was his vision, inspired or not, of what took place. My church did the same thing (obviously to a MUCH lesser extent) two years ago when we turned the story of Noah into a Super Spectacular performance, which is basically a three night VBS on steroids. We had an entire night devoted to life on the ark during the flood of which there is not a single verse of scripture to build upon.
In all of these additions, subtractions, and adaptations, there are only two plot points I can find (and I’m willing to admit that A.) I am no Bible scholar and B.) My memory of every single scene of the movie may not be perfect) that are explicitly un-Biblical: the lack of wives for Noah’s sons, Ham and Japeth, and Tubal-Cain stowing away aboard the ark. And even that last one…there are ways that you could interpret the text to make that a possibility. Please understand that I don’t personally hold to any of the stuff Aronofsky added in order to turn this story into a movie but I can’t get up in arms about two changes that undoubtedly drive the narrative of the movie and ultimately have little to no impact on the overall integrity of the source material. And maybe more importantly, to suggest that anyone who doesn’t buy into an established, rigidly literal interpretation of the Bible shouldn’t have a voice is to set up a tremendous stumbling block for many, many people who are actively seeking understanding.
#3: What harm is Noah doing? The short answer is, “none.” In fact, it is my belief that Noah has the potential to do a great deal of good for our faith. People are going to see this movie, you guys. It made $45 million dollars in its first weekend of release and another $50 million overseas. Contrast that with a movie like God’s Not Dead which has made $21 million, much (and honestly, we could probably say “almost all”) of which was contributed by church groups who bought up mass quantities of tickets for their parishioners. I ask you to consider, which is doing more to bring people to the Kingdom of God:
Option A.) A big-budget Hollywood movie that has the potential to appeal to all demographics, some devout Christian, some devotedly against Christianity, and some who might come away with questions that they’ll find answers to in the Bible or in a church; or Option B.) A small-scale, probably poorly acted movie designed specifically to “reach out” to people who already believe the message it has to preach.
I contend it is the former and it’s not even close. And that's not taking into account the impact that it'll have on Christians who will now dig into the text while wrestling with the world presented in the film. I have been in the church my entire life and I read the Noah text with more vigor and focus in the last two days than I ever have before and I know I'm not alone in that sentiment.
I understand the fear that non-believers, whether actively seeking or not, will take what they see in Noah as Biblical fact and go off believing something (or rebelling against something) that doesn’t jive with our own beliefs. My counter to that would be that I would do just about anything I could to convince a non-believer to take on even a small portion of the Bible, of God’s love, even in some subconscious, underlying way. You cannot go through the entirety of Noah without getting an insight, however shrouded, into the Bible and a glimpse of God’s Word. I’m not saying that was Aronofsky’s plan but I believe in a God who is powerful enough to work through any medium, even one that seems on its surface to be an attack. And at one point there is ACTUAL, LITERAL SCRIPTURE being preached by an actor, in a major motion picture, written and directed by a man we’ve labeled as an atheist! WHAT MORE COULD YOU POSSIBLY ASK FOR IN THIS SETTING?!
I can’t tell you that I loved Noah. As a film, there’s a lot left to be desired. I think it tries way too hard to straddle the line between appeasing Christians and appealing to a wide, sophisticated audience. There are moments of greatness surrounded by muddled fence riding that ultimately leaves it feeling uneven. But attacking the film based on its ideas, and maybe more so on its lack of a “Christian” pedigree, rather than its merits is, in my book at least, a disappointing misstep and one that I fear only furthers the distance between ourselves and the people we’re supposed to be reaching out to.
Now maybe I can sleep, Brian