Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and the Image of God
Perhaps all you have heard about Noah, the latest film from Darren Aronofsky, is the storm of controversy that has greeted its arrival in America, with accusations levelled against it that it is anti-Biblical, trying to push an environmentalist agenda and that generally Christians should avoid seeing it at all costs. On the surface, the claims against Noah make some sense. Aronofsky draws on the Book of Enoch heavily – Nephilim feature as ‘the watchers,’ fallen angels here rendered as rock giants (??); the renovation of the earth is a major theme in both – as well as Jewish tradition alongside the account as described in Genesis. The most egregious reinterpretation is that instead of Noah receiving direct instructions from God to build the ark, Methuselah gives him a hallucinogen which gives him the idea. Scattered throughout the film are lines and ideas like this that are bound to make a Christian shift uncomfortably in their chair. Look beyond this, however, and the controversy is, for the most part, misplaced.
Aronofsky (whose stunning, strange film The Fountain shows a similar preoccupation with eternal life, paradise and death) has crafted an impressive fantasy epic that takes a heavily imaginative approach to interpreting one of the Bible’s most baffling stories. Archaeological and biblical information about antediluvian life is scant to say the least, so the director shoots it as an almost alien world, full of barren landscapes and vivid, colourful night skies. With very little in the way of fact to go on, Aronofsky lets his imagination rip – look out for the armadillo-dog hybrid – and the result forces us to look at a well-worn story totally differently. That’s his approach to the whole film: there is so much we don’t know about this era of primeval history that it’s OK to take some creative license with the world-building and narrative. As such, it’s a constantly inventive, expertly made film with creative flourishes that may well leave you breathless. Just don’t expect something that cleaves particularly closely to four chapters in Genesis.
Yet for all its creative license and claims by the director that this is ‘the least biblical film ever made,’ Noah subtly expresses some beautiful, divine truths beneath all the aspects likely to annoy large amounts of viewers. If you would rather go into the film without knowing in detail how it pans out, skip ahead, as the next two paragraphs contain spoilers for this millennia-old story. One of the boldest decisions that Aronofsky and screenwriter Ari Handel make is to take the eponymous hero down a dark path in which Noah becomes convinced that God’s plan is to wipe out all humanity, himself and his family included. He sees the utter brokenness of humanity and recognises the sin of others within himself, but in his fervour he extends this theology to believing that the new, post-flood Eden will only contain animals as humans will only ruin it again. Once on the boat this conviction escalates to almost unbearable levels of tension and culminates in a shocking, difficult scene – performed with power by an on-form Russell Crowe and Emma Watson – that is sure to raise the hackles of many viewers.
Noah’s belief that only animals deserve to be saved has led to accusations that the film is anti-gospel, but it misses the point of his arc as well as his ark. The conclusion of Noah’s ideological journey shows a shift in this view; ultimately he comes to the realisation that people are made in God’s image and are, therefore, worth saving. God gives humanity, not animals, a second chance – we get another shot at subduing, having dominion, and going forth and multiplying. Humans as the image of God set aside for relationship with Him, second chances, and God as a sovereign creator, are all themes that course throughout the film, belying the facile accusations of heresy levelled against it. Noah is a film that doesn’t shy away from Genesis’ claim that ‘the wickedness of man was great in the earth,’ (6:5) and it does involve God wiping out the entirety of humanity save for a few people, but it also shows through the inherent sinfulness of man – heroes included – that they need to be saved. It wrestles with wrath, judgement, forgiveness, justice and mercy, and not always in ways that you expect.
The villain of the piece, a local ‘king’ named Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) also believes in The Creator (never referred to as “God”, as arguably they had no name for Him before Moses) but the stark difference between his ideology and Noah’s highlights another profound truth hidden beneath some of the more dubious elements of the narrative, namely, the propensity of man to commit idolatry. Tubal-Cain believes that he was made in God’s image, but deduces from this that he is a god himself. As Winstone growls out lines championing the individual and claiming that a man’s will is important above all else, many audience members will likely sympathise with him, especially as Noah is pushed to darker places as a character. Yet the overarching message, and an unpalatable one to individualistic Western audiences, is that Tubal-Cain is wrong, that humans are actually accountable to a higher being, sometimes to the point of destruction.
Perhaps the most impressive, moving element of Noah is that God is present throughout the whole film. Like the book of Esther, he never speaks explicitly to Noah – occasionally to points as frustrating as the aforementioned hallucinogen – but His existence is never questioned, and it is often there in seen and unseen ways, whether it is from the supernatural growth of forests or in a crucial moment of mercy. From the outset, God is presented as sovereign, in control and, in the jaw-dropping standout scene of the year so far, the creator of everything we see.
Noah won’t be for everyone, not least for its sprawling structure and attention-demanding 138 minute running time. Some of the artistic and narrative decisions made here could well prove to be a liberty too far, particularly the interpretation of Noah himself, changed for dramatic and thematic purposes to the point where he no longer looks like ‘a righteous man, blameless in his generation.’ However, the occasionally dubious details should not put you off the bigger picture of a film that openly acknowledges a creator God, discusses the nature of sin and justice, and presents a story that has been made twee by Sunday School as a tense, shocking, violent, beautiful and thought-provoking drama. Go and see it. Just don’t ask me about the Nephilim.