I get it. Noah wasn’t your cup of tea. I didn’t intend to like either, I went purely out of curiosity for what Aronofsky could have possibly wanted with so ludicrous a picture. Surely, it wasn’t mere folly? No. No! Look, I insist. The man actually knows what he’s doing. I realise you think the premise is simply too ridiculous to bear, and I would agree, were it not for the fact that Aronofsky clearly figured out something of substance to do with it. I’m a firm non-theist agnostic, yet I was still brought to tears by the beauty and raw emotion in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ (a film which made the Noah controversy seem completely trivial). Much in the same way, though to a much lesser extent, I appreciated the truth of the story on the screen completely separately from any expectation for it to either portray the literal reality I inhabit, or to serve as an accurate adaptation of a story I heard once. Is that why you don’t like the movie? If so, I suppose I get it, the movie certainly attempts to do neither. You’re missing out, though, by not being more open to what the movie does do!
I’ll admit that the beginning of the film had me worried. The actual opening, that sets up the background of the film’s pre-existing conflict, seems like an after-thought, complete with a Papyrus-like font that, frankly, they could simply have done better than. This then transitions to show a young Noah losing his father to the sneering, scenery-chewing Tubal Cain, played by Ray Winstone. I had to remind myself, in those moments, that this is essentially a fantasy movie, and the next hour or so supported that theory nicely. This allowed me not to take too much of what happened on-screen too seriously. So I get why you hated those sillier aspects, such as rock-giants, over-acting villainy, over-earnest heroes, and the general tone of the movie’s first half, but you’re wrong.
First of all, it all looks fantastic! I could have been shown this vision of a “land before time”, so to speak, at times desolate as the moon, at others as fantastically lush, for a good while longer before becoming bored. It quite frankly simply does not look like anything – I understand it was filmed in Iceland, and I can tell that a good amount of it may well have been shot on-location outside. That being said, I can’t help but think that a lot of the backgrounds were either painted or composited from two very drastically different landscapes. Aronofsky fully succeeds in creating something that looks fake in the most wonderful way conceivable, in the sense that it is truly outside of our previous experience entirely. Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, which, while depicting fantastic technology, largely relied on real-world locations. Noah, on the other hand, recalled in my mind the painted backgrounds of Georges Méliès’ films. Similarly, the rock giants, while clearly CGI, move in a way reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons – imbued with enough fluidity to not be an eyesore, and yet not perfect enough to be forgotten about, or to seem properly of this world. The shot where one of them chases a kid darting through his massive legs is at once adorable and visually pleasing in a way I cannot fully describe. God does not speak directly to Noah (a booming voice from the sky or Morgan Freeman would have been a tad much), but instead presents gloriously shot dream-like and appropriately apocalyptic visions. The director of Requiem for a Dream is a natural fit for these sequences. Then, of course, there is the creation scene which is, in a word, one of the best pieces of cinema you’ll see all year:
Secondly, I really understand that the first few acts are almost absurdly banal. Crowe’s Noah is a great guy (though perhaps overly devoted to his cause), and when he’s visited by visions he spends a little while questioning them, but ultimately really believes in both the existence and the beneficence of the creator, following his instructions as he understands them. He’s aware of the coming flood, builds an arc, all the while having to defend it from some evil humans (led by his father’s killer), with the help of some giants.
While that is an accurate representation, I would argue that the apparent simplicity of that plot is there to lure one into a sense of normalcy, of “I’ve seen this before!” before delivering the one-two gut punch at the midpoint (much like the fictional play “The King in Yellow” is said to do in Robert W. Chambers’ stories). Noah goes into town to procure wives for his sons (I love the preservation of the Bible-logic here), but receives another vision. He witnesses horrible decadence in the world of men, and ultimately witnesses a doppleganger of his partaking in it, deciding from this that he is not meant to be saving humanity at all. Instead, that he is meant to preside over its end. This is a chilling concept, and despite it occurring before the deceptively climactic battle, is the turning point for Noah’s character. Noah was a vegetarian before, and certainly demonstrated the belief that animal life was as precious as a person’s. It is here, however, that he makes the utilitarian calculation that humanity is fundamentally bad for the whole of the creation, and should be allowed to perish in the flood. This is not only a dramatic and interesting twist – it is actually the logical extrapolation of his mission statement. If humanity was bad for the world, its loss would result in a net positive. Noah does not do so out of misanthropy – he does not hate people on an individual basis, and is clearly capable of compassion. He only does as his conviction demands. This is merely setup, however. The true drama occurs after the arc is in the water.
Eventually, the storm comes, the battle for the arc happens towards its beginning, and the arc takes off, carrying Noah, his wife, two sons, adopted daughter/daughter-in-law Ila (Emma Watson), and unbeknownst to him, Tubal Cain. The film that was an epic fantasy before this becomes the last six people on earth stuck on a boat together, deciding the future of humanity. This is why the deceptively melodramatic and stereotypical first half of the film was necessary – the characters had to be archetypes, because they represent physical personifications of radically different viewpoints. Noah, of course, is the radical ecologist – humanity has clearly been bad for the world. It would be better off without us. His wife Naameh, Jennifer Connelly, on the other hand, is more compassionate – despite clearly seeing the damage, she cannot help but see the potential for good in people. Before the storm, she pleaded with Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) to do something, and he healed Ila of her infertility. Therefore, Ila is now pregnant, and poised to be the mother to all of mankind. Her boyfriend, naturally, is prepared to do anything to protect his unborn children. Noah declares that if the babies are born female, he will kill them instantly, preventing the future of humanity. Tubal Cain, having previously declared that he will do anything necessary to survive, resents Noah’s unique relationship with God. He is, ultimately, a humanist, despite also being a bloodthirsty, cruel tyrant. He refuses to submit to a higher good – and ultimately, is not the survival of us and ours not what we work for most of the time? Winstone’s snarling villain is the will to survive, to make the best of his situation. He is the human-centric viewpoint, the incessant presupposition by most people that we are above nature. I think it would be inaccurate to say that he is completely wrong, but he is the complete opposite of Noah’s viewpoint – the two are poised perfectly to clash.
The true conflict is within the family, however. Upon learning of Ila’s pregnancy, Noah becomes a villain in the eyes of the audience. At the beginning of the storm, he rebuffs his family’s requests to save the horribly screaming, drowning people just outside the arc. He is determined that the earth would be a better place without us. Crowe’s character definitely does not relish this task in the slightest, and despite his complete unwavering, it’s clear he would rather give in to his wife’s compassion. It is brought closer home, of course, when he’s confronted with the very real possibility that he may have to slay his grandchildren to keep his word. He is ostracised by his family, becomes the bald, weird creature in the depths of his arc, the religious zealot. He knows he’s right, and while his actions are without remorse, this does not mean it is lacking in the man himself. He does his best to carry out the act when Ila gives birth to twin girls… and ultimately cannot. Noah is reduced to weakness through compassion, and fails to deliver on his promise to end humanity.
This is not a fully happy ending. To start with, his inability to finish humanity off renders his previous acts of necessary cruelty unnecessary in retrospect. They could have saved the poor drowning souls, the screams of which tortured them. And ultimately, whereas it was an act of compassion that stayed Noah’s hand, the decision to go through with the plan may have been more so. The general note is that in the end, humanity will only screw up again, and have to be wiped out all over again. By killing two, he would have prevented the birth, and therefore suffering, of billions in the future. Methuselah warned Neelah against this – in the end, it will only come around to Noah’s way. Mankind will make the same mistakes again, and will be destroyed again through their hubris. Knowing the result of his actions, Noah is shown getting drunk in the first scene off the boat, trying to drown his awareness of Earth’s fate.
These are the reasons I appreciated Noah – a drama about the nature of humanity, and whether it deserves to continue, thinly disguised as a fantasy action movie. And yet when I look online, I largely see comments of either “OMG that’s not how it really happened” or “LOL that could never really happen.” I submit that both responses are equally ridiculous – this is a movie, that is intended as entertainment of one end of the spectrum, and allegory on the other. It is not meant to either be a faithful adaptation, or a statement of fact, but a beautifully conceived treatise on our responsibilities on this Earth – I suggest you try and take it to heart.