"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (Gen. 1:27)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Noah (A Spoiler-y, Hope-I'm-Not-Too-Late Reflection)

Finally, I've seen Noah.

Admittedly, the film has only been released for a little over two weeks and it does take time for me to get to a theatre nowadays.  (Having a 3-year-old will do that to you...)

Still, this experience has been entirely different.

Unlike any other major studio faith-based movie that I can recall, Noah has sparked a firestorm of controversy.  Director Darren Aronovsky says "It's the least biblical Biblical film ever made."  This pastor says he's saving his money.  That Christian film site (that I write for) endorses the pic.  This Christian reviewer says it's challenged his faith and left him in tears.  That Christian author calls other Christian teachers who have called it art to be 'liars'.

Noah is gnostic.

Noah's a psychotic environmentalist.

Over the last few weeks, it seems like this movie demands an opinion and, as a result, interest has been extremely high.  I have had literally anywhere between 15-20 people come to me and ask me if I'd seen it and what I thought.  To be fair, given my interests in such things, it's not uncommon for people to ask this question about a film--but the sheer volume and intensity of the issue actually made me feel as though I'd missed the boat.  (Sorry.  Couldn't resist.)

Over the last few weeks, I have been very grateful to the likes of Peter T. Chattaway, Jacob Sahms, and Brian Godawa for their framing of the conversation around a film like this.  Their arguments (both conflicting and challenging) have caused me to reflect on this film more than any other in recent memory--and rightfully so.  A friend of mine that I love and respect told me that he chose to view this film "the same way that he would view any blockbuster like Jurassic Park or Pirates of the Carribbean".  (That's entirely his right and it is only a film, after all.)  However, I do feel that a comment like that is a little overly glib in an instance like this.

I mean, it's Noah.

While Jurassic Park was meant to generate a dinosaur thrill ride, Noah is bringing life to a story that we preach on Sunday mornings.  This is the guy who built the boat that rescued the vestiges of humanity from a worldwide flood.  It's a story that has huge implications as a Christ-metaphor in Scripture.  Really, if it means so much to us, shouldn't we care about it's portrayal on the big screen?

So, with all the controversy surrounding the film, why did I like it?

To begin, I admit that I am certainly one who falls on the side of the fence that this is an artistic interpretation of a very short story.  Some have suggested that Aronovsky had to 'stretch a passage of 5 chapters into a 2 hour movie' so, of course, he had add things, etc.  However, I also do not believe that this film was meant to desecrate a story that we hold dearly.  A confessed 'non-practicing Jew', Aronovsky actually has a strong affinity and passion for this particular story as well, having dreamed of making this film since his days in junior high.  Yes, he has added 'new' elements... but most of them stem from extensive research into Jewish midrashes and historical renderings of the story.  Rather than choose to 'nitpick' on details with which I may or may not be familiar or comfortable, I am much more interested in what Aronovsky's vision seeks to inform us as viewers.

In fact, one of the things that I appreciated the most about the film was Aronovsky's influence.  In many ways, this film was clearly an examination into Noah's psyche and his wrestling match with God.  There is no doubt that this was one of the key reasons that people have found the film disconcerting.  After all, Noah was a good man who loved God in the Scriptures.  The image of him as a madman who feels increasingly abandoned by God as the film progresses is not one that would make people comfortable.  (Though, to anyone that has ever seen an Aronovsky film, this should come as no surprise at all.  Black Swan, anyone?)  Nevertheless, to read Genesis 5-9, one thing that quickly becomes apparent is that it is told from God's perspective.  Noah says nothing throughout the entire narrative.  Despite the fact that Noah found 'favour with God' and 'obeyed all that God commanded him', we never directly hear his voice in the story.  Consequently, our vision of the man is most often one of passive humility.  Now, please bear with me.  This is not to question the value of humility before the Lord--that is not up for debate.  Still, what would an experience such as this have looked like from a human perspective?  Regardless of how one chooses to read the story, Noah would have still witnessed the destruction of the human race, whether it is justified or not.  One can only imagine the damage that this would have caused to his psyche (even resulting in his drunken binge afterwards).  Within the film, Noah is portrayed as a man who humbly serves the Creator and obeys when given a monumental responsibility.  He listens.  He builds.  He obeys.  However, Aronovsky also never allows us to forget that he is human either.

Crushed by the weight of God's decision to judge all of humanity, Aronovsky's Noah slowly descends into madness.  He "realizes" that God's care is only for the animals and that the human race will die out with his family.  (After all, why would God allow him to be spared when the evil rests in his heart as well?)  Many have been concerned by the fact that Noah becomes so obsessed with carrying out God's judgment that he even vows to kill innocent children in order to preserve God's will for His Creation.  Of course, there's only one problem with this assessment.

God never asks him to do anything but build an ark and open the doors.

Noah's impulse to 'destroy the future of the human race' comes entirely of his own understanding.  Traumatized and feeling abandoned, Noah draws his own conclusion of what God wants and attempts to carry out this 'justice' on his own.  As the story plays out, however, we bear witness to the fact that God has journeyed with Noah all along, even when he felt that he was stuck in darkness.  This image should not be lost on us as many of us have experienced periods of brokenness such as these.  Moments in the 'valley of the shadow of death' have been known to create fear and cause mankind to question the goodness of God.  Yet, to find ourselves in a place where we feel abandoned by God does not mean that we have been abandoned by God.  In this film, Noah seems to forget this truth but it does make him seem more... well... human.

Despite the fact that he is listed in the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11, it is important to remember Noah's humanity in that this experience includes times of fear, anger and doubt.  As a result, I believe that a film like this can actually serve as an interesting companion to Scripture.  No, I am not suggesting that it's portrayal is so 'accurate' that it should be held in honour.  (Nothing else should be held in such high esteem as Scripture...)  Though, one must admit that the film does offer flavour and context to a story that has been too often emptied of it's power by childhood Sunday School lessons.  Aronovsky's film portrays Noah as a man called to do extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances but also allows him the freedom to break down under the pressure.  That being said, Noah reminds us of the perils of our own humanity and warns us against ignoring God's commands.

Another piece that I particularly appreciated within the film was the portrayal of Ham.  Forced to grapple with the choice between honouring his father (whom he didn't fully understand) and the appeal of perceived power through Tubal-Cain, there was little doubt in my mind that Ham's journey mirrored the tension experienced in the Garden of Eden.  Whereas Noah seeks to follow the Creator's instruction of beginning anew, Ham cannot foresee how he can receive all that he needs (i.e. a wife).  Instead, he attempts to make plans for himself and fails miserably.  This leaves a void within him as he seeks control over his own life (epitomized in Tubal-Cain's offering of 'being a man') and submitting to his father's submission to God's plan.  Of course, by the end of the film, Noah's humanity has been made extremely apparent--a point which Ham feels the need to remind his father of by throwing the snakeskin at his feet in disgust.  However, despite Noah's 'missteps' along the way, the one who is ultimately 'expelled from the Garden' is Ham insofar as he refuses to be humbled and is forced to strike out on his own.  As such, the journey of Ham becomes symbolic of the human plight and represents the potential for humanities evil to be reborn, even in their new paradise.

That's powerful stuff, man.

Incidentally, the issue that I did take with the film was one that I have not heard from other reviewers thus far.  Of course, much has been made about Noah's theological stance.  After all, 1 Peter refers to him as a 'preacher of righteousness', placing the emphasis on the issue of 'righteousness' itself.  Complaints have targeted Noah's perceived lack of interest in God's holiness and that the people must repent lest judgment cometh.  Instead, Noah speaks about Creation care and God's protection of the 'innocent' animals.  Personally, I take no issue with this.  There's no doubt that this was Aronovsky's intent in making the film and, because he's not an evangelical himself, I don't believe that he can be held accountable to our traditional theological ideologies.  In other words, whether or not I agree with his position, the fact remains that it is his position and moviegoers need to be prepared that his vision may conflict with their traditional Sunday School versions.  What's more, due to Scripture's command to 'work and keep' the Garden, I am also a strong believer that Creation care is part of our mandate as followers of Christ.  With that in mind, how can I take issue with the fact that Noah seeks to honour the Creator by treating the Earth with respect or that he views the desolation that man has caused as sin?

No, ironically, my comparatively small issue with the film is that it does not portray our titular hero effectively as a 'preacher of righteousness'.  I'll explain.  Before I saw the film, I purchased and read the graphic novel, which was also co-written by Aronovsky and screenwriter Ari Handel.  As with any early drafts of a screenplay, there are significant differences between it and the final product.  As expected, I believe that some changes are for the better (in the novel, Noah awakens the animals to help him steal the babies on the ark) and some for the worse (the inclusion of the snakeskin).  Although, one of the changes that I felt the film sorely missed was the inclusion of a scene where Noah proceeds to the city to warn the people of the oncoming flood.  Of course, they do not heed the warnings (Spoiler Alert!), and Noah is promptly ejected from the city.  In the film, however, Noah's portrayal is a little different.  With the inclusion of the death of his father in the opening sequence (and that snakeskin), Noah becomes one who hides himself from humanity out of fear.  As a result, the only time that Noah warns anyone about the oncoming flood comes when he is discovered by the nomadic and violent human race.  Personally, I found this change to the narrative irked me in that Noah's interest in saving the human race became muted.  (Admittedly, he has already stated that he believes the Creator's intent was to save the 'innocent', which the human race clearly was not.)  In short, Noah moves from preacher to passive.  Yes, he earnestly taught his children the value of God's Creation.  (And, make no mistake.  Despite accusations to the contrary, Ham fully understands that "the Creator is God" in this film.) Still, I would have appreciated it greatly if Aronovsky had illustrated the arrogance of man by including a scene pre-flood that demonstrated an opportunity for mankind's redemption, even if it would have been subsequently rejected.  However, I admit that this is a relatively minor quibble.

By the end of Noah, Aronovsky depicts God as a righteous judge that seeks to restore what He established in Eden.  God's original intent for His Creation (nature, animals and humanity) is revealed to be a place of shalom that has been shattered by humanity's fallen nature.  As a result, the only solution was to wipe things out and start over.  (Incidentally, despite what many people believe, however, this was not solely an act of anger but an opportunity to reveal His love for His Creation.  Genesis claims that God's heart is 'grieved'--a word rooted in love.)  What's more, Noah's revelation within the film that the evil still resides in him portrays God as even more merciful by demonstrating that the problem hasn't been 'solved'.  Instead, God simply rescues the man who best represents the type of world that He had intended in order to begin again.  It is true to say that, within the film, Noah lets his circumstances overwhelm him in such a way that he loses sight of this vision and, consequently, his mental grip.  Ultimately, however, his character is not left in his spiritual mess and invited to rebuild God's shalom once more.

And, in our culture, that kind of truth that could really make some waves.

Starring Russell Crowe, Emma Watson
Directed by Darren Aronovsky
***1/2 (out of 5)

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