Warning this review contains spoilers of the sort that go beyond a basic knowledge of the bible story.
All good myths require imagination and the power to suspend disbelief, and the Noah story is no different to that. In its original Biblical form its a retelling of some kind of universal near eastern story of a time when a great flood came. You find different versions of the same story in other texts too.
But the Hebrews used this story to not just deal with some half forgotten history, but to add to the conversation around two questions – who is God? And is humanity worth saving from itself?
That is what this new version of the old story does too.
Using plenty of imagination, as befits the telling of a myth director Darren Aronofsky conjures up an antediluvian world of almost surreal proportions. He gives the drama a dreamlike quality, in the same way that a memory highlights certain colours and textures, and fades other detail into obscurity.
He deals cleverly and subtly with the notion of how God speaks to Noah, using a combination of dream and psychotropic experiences to reveal the creator’s plans. This will surely disappoint those who prefer the Sunday school idea of such communication. However, despite its grotesque proportions, it is all the more real for that.
Another piece of re imagining comes in the casting of the Nephilim as rock bound creatures, difficult for those of us who prefer to imagine them as models of muscle bound masculinity. However, the really wonderful thing about his re imagining of these ‘Watchers’ (a term taken directly from the extra/non/orthodox canonical) text of Enoch is the way he uses them to tell their own story of love and redemption.
The great problem for those of us who read the story through an understanding of a God who is love, is the prevalence of the myth of redemptive violence. I thought that this would be a problem in the film too, that we would still have to deal with a vengeful God who wants to visit death and destruction on evil humans.
But actually the story overcomes this, and this is the great ‘arc’ of this myth, it’s Noah’s great realisation that his mission is not to see humans wiped out for their sin, and thereby to recreate the garden in its virginal purity. Instead his mission is fulfilled when he realises that the love he has in his heart is what God wants.
Aronofsky uses some license to get there, the device of the babies is his key interjection into the story, should Noah kill the children to fulfill his mission from God? When he finds he cant do so, he feels that he has failed, he becomes deeply depressed, he fears the the love he has in his heart for his grandchildren makes him weak, and of no use to God.
His epiphany comes as he realises eventually that love is his mission, his broken, loving and weak heart is what God wants. It is then that the new covenant comes into place.
Another clever addition to the story is the incorporation of Tubal Cain into the tale, he is recast not as Naameh’s brother as in the original text, but as the king, or ‘chief of the baddies’.
What he wants is to seize equality with God by force, he wants to take it – this is the fall story still in place. That man can be equal with God by eating the fruit. Tubal Cain is the antithesis to the eventual ideal type Noah.
Tubal Cain wants to recreate paradise too, but another sort of paradise, he wants to see the power of humanity dominant over nature – and this is the other great arc, the environmental theme of stewardship over dominance. Aronofsky seems to play on this heavily, and he’s right to do so, it’s a contemporary addition to the story, but one which has all the more relevance for that.
The way this works out is in Noah’s killing of Tubal Cain, another part of his supposed ‘duty’.
One final addition to the story is that of Methuselah, played as a wise ancient Shaman who has a fascination with finding berries before he dies. For all his powers, he cannot find the berry he wants, until his last moment, when God in a gift of small amounts but epic proportions reveals a berry to him, just before he meets his death.
So yes, this is a meditation on the nature of God, revealing eventually a God who is loving, who doesn’t command death and destruction, but who is misunderstood and disobeyed (obey comes from the Latin and has a close association with the word listen) by all but a few. It’s a God who grants small kindnesses, who sees into the hearts of humanity, and loves them.
And it’s a meditation on the nature of humanity, for from earth (humus) they came. It recognises humans as capable of great wickedness and of great love.
Acting wise I was impressed by everyone, except perhaps Emma Watson, who I found unconvincing. I didn’t desperately like the fight scenes, but I don’t like them usually anyway – they were however a necessary dramatic device.
It was both massively divergent from the original text, and simultaneously totally faithful to the spirit of it, and that is what makes it very very Biblical. Those who want more Biblical literalism will hate it no doubt. I thought it was excellent.