This is the first post in a series we’re going to call “Movie Club”. We watch a movie that neither of us have seen (which will usually one on Netflix or Hulu), write a short piece pertaining to the film, and then say if we recommend it or not. This week I’ll be the only one writing an essay, as thedude has a con to go to/is a terrible person. Anyway, yeah, here is the thing!
If you’ve heard anything about Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah, it was probably something about rock monsters. Many people, primarily those who went to the theaters expecting a one for one retelling of the flood story from the Bible, were disappointed and upset by some of the artistic liberties that were taken, with the rock monsters being the most often cited example. While you could say that gaps have to be filled when adapting such sparse source material, that the rock monsters are nephilim or golems, or any number of arguments that are either pro or anti rock monster, I feel like the source of much of the film’s negative reception comes from elsewhere.
Before we get into the source of Noah’s negative reception, lets looks at the review scores for other films with either a Christian message or that are based around a Biblical story. The Ten Commandments is probably the all around best reviewed Christian film, with a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and a similarly high audience score. But when you look at Noah, which has a certified fresh score of 77%, its audience score is less than half of The Ten Commandment‘s with a 43%. Comparing it to critically panned “faith based films” (films with a religious message not based directly on the Bible), films like God’s Not Dead have a 16% critic score but a 78% user score, with similar numbers from recent films such as War Room.
Now, there could be tons written about the disparity between the critic and audience scores for faith based films, but the trend that is being focused on here is that nearly every Christian film is either well liked by audiences and critics or critically panned and liked by audiences. That is, nearly every Christian film besides Noah. Aronofsky’s film has the feel of a classic Hollywood religious epic like Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments, strong religious themes or faith and sin, and even flatout says that God is real in the universe of the film. Shouldn’t a well reviewed, big budget blockbuster based around a well loved Biblical story with strong religious themes be a rousing success with Christians? No. And it isn’t because of rock monsters, either. I feel that it is because of the film’s moral ambiguity.
The story of Noah is pretty clean cut (spoiler alert); Noah gets a message from God that the Earth is going to be flooded, he is tasked with building an ark and saving the creatures of the world, so he builds an ark and saves the creatures of the world. Bam. Noah is the good guy, right? He follows God’s orders, never wavers from his convictions, and ends up saving the world. For the first half of Aronofsky’s film, Russel Crowe’s Noah fits that bill. But that all changes in a scene right before the flood. Noah’s son Ham finds a girl in a nearby camp (the bad guy camp, since they are the descendants of Cain who want a place on the Ark, which Noah isn’t too keen on) and wants to take her back to the ark to be his wife. They flee the camp, but her foot gets caught in a bear trap. Noah finds the two, but chooses to save Ham and leaves the girl to be trampled by a stampede of people. That doesn’t sound like a clean cut hero. From this point on, it is called into question whether Noah is truly right. Wasn’t he called upon to preserve life? If he is to save all of the creatures of the world, why didn’t he allow the girl to live so she could father Ham’s children and perpetuate the human race? This is where Noah’s motivations get really gray.
Once on the ark, after the floods have destroyed all of humanity, Noah makes a proclamation; the human race ends with them. It was the humans who destroyed the world and forced God to flood it and start life anew, so if God truly wants the new world to be a paradise for the animals of the world then humanity should not have a place there. Now, this is fine and dandy because aside from he and his wife, the only people on the ark are his three sons and their adopted daughter Ila, who is infertile. One small problem; Ila is no longer infertile. She is healed before the flood and impregnated by Noah’s son Shem. Noah finds out about this and sees it as a test of his faith. If the child is boy it can live, but if it is a girl then it must die. Noah feels that God wants him to test just how far he will go to save the world. The difference now is that, unlike when Noah was told to build the ark, we don’t see a divine message. Was Noah really told by God to kill this child and end the human race? Has the immense burden that has been placed on him warped his perception of right and wrong? Is ending a life to save the lives of others truly justified? This sort of grayness of motive is what many people have issue with.
That is where Noah truly differs from other religious films. The Ten Commandments, The Passion of the Christ, and most faith based films have a pretty unambiguous moral message. A character follows God’s will, they do the right thing, and are the hero of the story. The Noah of this film is far from a clear cut hero. Now, I wasn’t raised Christian, so stories like Noah’s Ark and Exodus weren’t a huge part of my childhood (although I’m familiar with most stories from the Bible). That being said, I found that Aronofsky’s exploration of the Noah character as flawed, misguided, and probably insane was interesting and refreshing. That sort of character study doesn’t often happen with millenia old mythological and religious characters such as these. But what if I was raised Christian? If, for most of my formulative years, I was taught these stories every Sunday morning to use as a moral guideline for how to live my life and treat others, I probably wouldn’t be too enthused by Aronofsky’s Noah either. To most people, the film takes a timeless character from a story that they are intimately familiar with and tampers with the moral foundation of it. That probably has a larger effect on people’s opinion of the film than the rock monsters or any of the number of changes made to the plot of the source material.
Personally, I would like to see more films like this. Although Noah performed fairly well at the box office, I can’t see more films like it being made any time soon. The sub-par box office return of Exodus: Gods and Kings shows that there isn’t much of a market at this time for big budget religious epics, as more and more production companies are focusing on creating smaller budget faith based films such as God’s Not Dead and War Room which have comparatively massive returns. That being said, Noah is a unique, beautifully directed film with strong performances from its entire cast that views a classic story from an interesting, and until now untapped perspective. I recommend giving it a try regardless of any negative things you have heard about it.