In Medias Res | Noah Film Review

Gustav Pysander Einar Björnsson Joel Åberg 1912 Sandviken

I am in awe.

Noah was everything I didn’t know I wanted in a “Bible movie.” With complex, conflicted characters (not caricatures), pouncing questions, and some good ol’ fashioned wrasslin’ with God, Noah roars with intensity, floats a specific vision, and creaks with whispering questions that haunt the viewer. Meant as a cinematic midrash (a Jewish way of filling in the gaps of bible stories), this is not your typical “Christian” movie (should that word ever be used as an adjective?). The film blends the biblical flood narrative, chops it up with apocalyptic tone, and adds a dash of fantasy to leave viewers drowning in questions, reverence, terror, and – ultimately – worship. Granted, it takes some liberties, but what can you do with a story that lasts 96 verses and where the protagonist only speaks once?

Since its announcement, the film has heard its share of controversy. I mean, we are talking about a known atheist/agnostic making a biblical epic. However, in recent weeks the criticism has reached a new pitch, mostly from (surprise!) Christians that hadn’t seen it yet (while of course Son of God and God’s Not Dead are held forth as examples of “faithful cinema”). This was mostly started by an alarmist Washington Times article that quoted Aronofsky as calling the film “the least biblical biblical movie ever made” and claiming that God is not mentioned once in the movie. Known culture-warrior Glenn Beck (the champion of credibility) denounced the film and welcomed its possible failure at the box office. Online and in churches, various pastors condemned the movie, saying it fails to resemble the biblical narrative at all and encouraging their congregations to boycott the film. I even saw this unwarranted hostility regurgitated by my students at an (admittedly conservative) Christian high school. In every period, when I mentioned how excited I was to see what Aronofsky would do with a biblical film, most students took off their thinking caps and essentially recited their reactionary, cultural disengaging objections with memory verse-like precision (#EducatorFail).

Therefore, to begin, let’s disarm the critics. First, a significant amount of haters are claiming that Noah amounts to a film inspired by the biblical story, but painted over with a heavy coat of environmentalist propaganda. Not true. To be honest, the movie really just promotes good stewardship of the earth (something North American evangelicals like to ignore). The movie rails against what essentially amounts to a perversion of the creation mandate in Genesis 2, culminating in a Tolkien-esque rejection of misappropriated industry (think Isengard). The descendents of Cain are essentially raping and pillaging the earth, and Noah disagrees. We should, too.

Quickly, the claim that Noah doesn’t mention God once is simply untrue. The movie is awash with references to “the Creator” from whom Noah receives prophetic dreams of the coming deluge. If people are seriously miffed that the word “G-O-D” isn’t in the movie, then they need to re-read their Bibles and consider that God didn’t even reveal his name to mankind until Moses, and (spoiler alert) it wasn’t “God”.

Next, The Nephilim: scholars don’t really know what do with them. Widely thought to be fallen angels that mated with human women (though that is certainly not the only, or best, explanation), these creatures are mostly a mystery. Aronofsky takes some creative license here and casts the fallen angels as embodied rock monsters, mighty golems who help Noah build the ark and later defend it from sinful stowaways. To this imaginative liberty, I say, “Who cares?” Is that really how things went down in Genesis? Probably not, but you have to remember this is a midrash, an interpretation. Now, Aronofsky also treats them sympathetically, like heavenly Prometheuses, which can appear problematic. But if you have a problem with that, Paradise Lost’s treatment of Lucifer is probably a bigger issue.

The last criticism to be levied against the film is that Noah is portrayed as a drunkard. We can dispense with this quickly. He was (see Genesis 9:20). People tend to forget that part of the story.

The first thing you notice about the film is the enchanted and even otherworldly setting. The antediluvian (pre-flood) world is almost magical in its strangeness. Most of the film was shot in Iceland, which lends itself to unfamiliar landscapes. This natural beauty is contrasted with the mess that the line of Cain has made of the earth. We see scores of cut down trees and burnt fields. We’re told that Cain and his people built cities (which is biblical), while pillaging the earth for a precious mineral called zohar (an explosive, golden rock) to fuel their industry and “progress.” This film should be commended simply for making the familiar strange. Noah isn’t in ancient Palestine, putzing around in a robe and sandals. This sentiment is also echoed in the coolest and only existing theistic evolution montage that almost made me abandon the literal six-day creation position altogether (put the stones down, people. Let’s leave that conversation for another article.)

Thankfully, Aronofsky supports his ark of a film with stable acting. Russell Crowe, with the tensile strength of steel, demonstrates Noah’s intense (and borderline frightening) conviction. Logan Lerhman, who plays middle-child Ham, bolsters the film through an incredibly realistic performance as a teenage boy who fears he will die a virgin (in all seriousness). Jennifer Connelly also balances the tension with an empathetic and human portrayal of motherhood. Lastly, Ray Winstone, as King Tubal-Cain, upholds the antagonist side of things with a persuasive and humanistic take on what it means to be the (fictional) bad guy in this story.

The director provides a primary conflict for the characters that serves as a catalyst for all sorts of tension, questions, and character exploration. Aronofsky only provides one wifey, Ila, for the three boys, and she’s into Romeo Shem. Oh, and Hermione Ila is also barren. Uh-oh, Noah thinks. He puts two and two together and deduces that God the Creator doesn’t want to save Noah’s family, just use them as facilitators to usher in a humanless, sinless new creation. They are supposed to die out with no progeny. This take on the character was a welcome surprise, fleshing out a character and giving Noah some issue to grapple with. Noah’s conviction is prompted when he takes a secret visit to Tubal-Cain’s camp (to find some potential wives) and sees nothing but humanity enslaved to its lusts and sin. Seriously, it’s haunting.

Noah’s existential crisis and the deconstruction of his “righteousness” allow the film to explore what it means to be chosen by God. The film (and the Scriptures) turns the worn-out Sunday-school “Noah is the only righteous guy on earth” version of the story on its head. Noah wasn’t chosen because he was a good guy; God found favor with him. That’s it. Noah is not a perfect, biblical hero to be emulated, but instead a marvelous example of God’s grace.  This is emphasized in the film by his despair and crazed fatalistic quest (which I won’t spoil here).

Ultimately, through Noah’s survival and tribulations, the film gives a balanced view of the human person. We are still totally depraved, but not utterly depraved. We are still made in the image of God and still capable of doing good. We are still capable of love. Noah gets a little help with this from another character. However, despite all of this, the film places a little too much responsibility on Noah for the survival of the human race (you’ll see why), ruffling my Calvinist feathers a bit.

Recently, Derek Rishmawy (@DZRishmawy) tweeted, “I think the fundamental divide in Evangelical approaches to art is illustrated in whether you’d rather see #GodsNotDead or #Noah.” I think he’s hit the nail on the head. Looking back to the above objections, it seems that unfortunately most evangelicals miss the forest for the trees, getting caught on the branches of “literal,” didactic interpretations of bible stories. However, Christians should praise godly art, rather than pious propaganda. Instead of a movie chock full of stereotypes or poor writing, Noah presents a vision of grace, justice, and election that ignites our imaginations and captures our hearts for the gospel. Either way, go see the movie, and use your brain (and heart) to think critically for yourself, rather than digesting what the culture-warriors tell you.

Rating: 4.5/5

Former intern at iNVERSION, Justin Worley lives in Orange County, CA with his wife and teaches high school English. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinWorley_

14 thoughts on “In Medias Res | Noah Film Review

  1. Joshua Ross

    One thing I have to say is that the movie does not share the gospel. It paints the marcionite heresy. That the God of the OT is an evil wrathful God who won’t save anyone, and the God of the NT is the loving God who wants to save everyone. Now I’m not saying that I expected this movie to have biblical fidelity, or even some good theology, but I could to many specific examples to where almost the movie mocks the Biblical story. The first example would be that Noah needed “the watchers” to build the ark, almost to say that he certainly could not of done with just his family as the Bible portrays. The second would be Noah and his family having to put the animals to sleep, which in essence say that all of these animals could not be on the ark together, they would have obviously killed each other! In the small things, the movie makes jabs at the truthfulness of the biblical account, not only taking artistic freedom but injecting the whole thing with a big fat helping of post-modern uncertainty about anything.
    As for the story in the biblical account only being a few verses long, maybe we should take that as a hint that biblical accounts are not supposed to be made into movies. The second command is pretty explicit as to not make images for worship, and if your statement is true in the first paragraph that this is movie supposed to incline our hearts to worship, maybe we need to reconsider our motives in seeing these “biblical” movies. Because God has commanded specific ways in which he is to be worshiped and movie going is not one of them.
    The movie did shine in portraying man as wicked. However, it is only profitable in the grand scheme of God’s plan for man to be wicked only if Christ is seen clearly, and this movie didn’t do that. Your assessment is correct that Noah is a wicked man and the story in the Bible is about God’s grace being bigger, yet the movie didn’t paint that picture, it painted a silent God of weakness and capriciousness, this is not the God of the Bible, and I would discourage anyone from seeing it.

    Reply
    1. Neil Shearer

      Hey Joshua. Look man, I really think you’re doing a lot of projecting here. Seeing God as being weak and capricious because of perceived silence is an example of that.
      In short, can I simply encourage you to think about the ways God works (Romans 11:33) and to read the article Justin wrote? He did a great job of offering a perspective on the movie that is both open-minded and discerning.
      -Neil

      Reply
  2. Justin Worley

    Hi Joshua,

    Thanks for the thought-provoking comment; I wanted to take some time to respond to a few things. First, I’m not sure if the claim of Marcionism is valid. I didn’t get that at all. The movie only took place in the Old Testament and from the point of view of Noah. There isn’t really any comparison between the Old and New Covenants in the film. Therefore, I think that claim is based on presumption of the viewer projecting his or her perception of (a merciful, NT) God and contrasting it what is going on in the Noah story. That type of dissonance is not content to rest in the tension and ultimate justice of the Creator doing what he wills with creation and yet still loving it.

    Secondly, I do not believe Aronofsky is mocking the biblical story with the Watchers or sleeping animals. The bible never says the animals were awake, so to be honest I think that’s a bit of a jump to claim that he is mocking the text by attempting to show a possibility of how it worked. Also, the Bible never tells us how the ark is actually built, nor does it claim it was specifically built by Noah’s family; that is an inference (look up Genesis 7). So I feel like Aronofsky can have some creative license there.

    Mostly, I want to address your comment about the second commandment and the purpose/role of a biblical film. The second commandment reads

    “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:4, ESV).

    Read in full, the second commandment is clearly addressing idolatry and worshiping the created thing (or image) in place of the Creator. If you read my article, I’m not sure that you can come away with me advocating worshiping an image (the movie). What I am saying is that the movie Noah prompts us to ruminate on the mercy and justice of God, to view OT patriarchs not on a pedestal but as recipients of grace, and to marvel at the glory of creation and stewardship. This causes our hearts to worship with thanksgiving to the glorious God of the (entire) Bible, who in the truer and greater act of mercy sent his Son to die for humanity. The same sentiment could be said about The Lord of the Rings, for instance.

    Now, you claim that “God has commanded specific ways in which he is to be worshiped and movie going is not one of them.” Can you expand on that a little more? Seems like a pretty big claim that I don’t think is found anywhere in Scripture. In contrast, I think God can be worshiped on a hike, while I’m eating an excellent steak, listening to (Oh no!) “secular” music, spending time with my wife, sharing a nice bottle of wine among friends, washing dishes, or smoking a good pipe and reading a book.

    I suppose what I’m asking is, can God only be worshiped in church?

    P.S. – I think this interview might be helpful in understanding the director’s vision:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/03/the-terror-of-em-noah-em-how-darren-aronofsky-interprets-the-bible/359587/

    Reply
  3. Dan Bowen

    Nice review, Justin. We talked about this at length via text, but I think the film was thought-provoking and profound. I didn’t walk into the theater expecting an exegesis of Genesis like some people were apparently pining for (I ended a sentence with a preposition, Justin!). I though the movie provided a startling vision of man’s depravity and important lessons on stewardship. I don’t think Aranofsky was trying to make a blasphemous apocalyptical tale about the perils of enviro-terrorism, nor was he trying to blaspheme the Torah.

    The story of Noah (both the Biblical account and cinematic version) is horrific and hopeful. I feel that the filmed captured these ideas well. One of the things that stood out to me (other than the Watchers-they seem helpful, I wanted one) was Noah’s inner turmoil regarding God’s calling for his life. Our understanding of Noah and his journey is through the Biblical account, which is told entirely in hindsight. Noah wasn’t told “to be fruitful and multiply” until he reached land. I can’t imagine the struggle and confusion he must’ve felt on the ark. Did God want humanity eliminated entirely? Was Noah and his family simply spared the terrors of the flood with the purpose that they would still die, albeit a more gentle death? If nothing else, I think the film made Noah feel more human and vulnerable.

    His story is harrowing, but confusing. Despite its liberties and variables, I didn’t find the film blasphemous. Also, I want one of those armadillo-deer creatures as a pet. They seem cuddly.

    Reply
  4. michelle

    just had to chime in that none of the things that you said the Christian reviewers bothered them bothered me. however, the biggest sticking point for me was the lack of wives for the brothers. that is very clear in the bible so it was a liberty taken by the writers to make it more dramatic. from threats to killing babies to Noah blessing the twins at the end ….of course they got the drunkard scene partially correct….I lost interest almost as soon as they got on the arc and the doors were shut. although it may have been biblically inspired, just like most movies based on books, it left me disappointed.

    Reply
  5. Catherine

    Instead of setting up the straw men of faulty arguments made against this movie, just to knock them down and proclaim that (while flawed) it is essentially good, I think we need to look at the movie itself and what it says/shows.
    “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14)

    For a truly in-depth look at this movie BEFORE you either speak out for or against it, or go support it with your $, check out this link from a panel of reviewers at AiG:
    http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/noah-movie/detailed-review

    For those without the time to read the in-depth article, here is a quick movie review:
    http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/noah-movie/review-noah-movie-unbiblical?

    Reply
  6. Sarah

    Thoughtful, interesting review. I have wanted to see this movie since the initial trailer – I think my exact words to my family were: “I want to see this movie more than I’ve ever wanted to see anything.”

    That being said, I haven’t seen the film yet, but have heard almost all of the arguments you ably answer above. Sometimes Christians like their heroes to be free of fault, but that is neither accurate nor biblical. Thankful for the radical, freeing, tragic, comic, unexpected grace of God.

    Reply
  7. Beth Walters

    Justin, can you explain to me what you meant by “Known culture-warrior Glenn Beck (the champion of credibility) “? Thanks.

    Reply
  8. Dan

    I just have a quick question. What do you suppose the bible meant in Genesis 6:9 when it says “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God”(NIV)? Of course Noah wasn’t perfect. Jesus was the only One who can claim that, but perhaps you should read the biblical account before throwing out the “worn-out Sunday-school version”.

    Reply
  9. Brian

    Justin, I liked, and mostly agreed with the majority of what you had to say about the Noah film. I agree with Dan that you might want to re-read the text of Genesis and rethink your position on the kind of person Noah was. My problem is with your final paragraph where the grace you want others to show to the producers and lovers of Noah, you failed to show to those who hold a different opinion than you do about the film. Referring to God’s not Dead as “pious propaganda” and implying that those who fail to appreciate the “godly art” of the Noah film are somehow spiritually, intellectually and culturally inferior, are both examples of the arrogance that ruined what was an otherwise good perspective on the film. As you are obviously knowledgeable, I encourage you to add to your knowledge… brotherly kindness and to brotherly kindness… love. For if I have all knowledge and have not love, I am nothing.

    Reply
  10. Justin Worley

    Sorry, I haven’t checked the comments in awhile. I’ve considered and learned a lot in the past couple of weeks since the movie came out. While I still stand by my position(s), I wanted to take some time to address the concept of Noah’s righteousness brought up by Dan and Brian. I want to clear up any misconceptions and expand more on my point in the movie review. I have read the biblical account and that’s how I arrived at my conclusion regarding Noah.

    These are my words in the article:
    “Noah’s existential crisis and the deconstruction of his “righteousness” allow the film to explore what it means to be chosen by God. The film (and the Scriptures) turns the worn-out Sunday-school “Noah is the only righteous guy on earth” version of the story on its head. Noah wasn’t chosen because he was a good guy; God found favor with him. That’s it. Noah is not a perfect, biblical hero to be emulated, but instead a marvelous example of God’s grace.”

    I am aware that the Genesis account describes Noah as “a righteous man, blameless in his generation. [He] walked with God” (Gen. 6:9, ESV). However, the question really becomes “what is the meaning of “’righteous’”? Does it mean morally upright? Perfect? What is it? It seems we can all agree that Noah was not perfect (as a descendant of Adam that is impossible) and only Christ is perfect. Okay, well does that still mean that Noah was a pretty good man who did a lot of good deeds? Not necessarily. Let’s look at the text:

    The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
    9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth” (Gen. 6:5-9, ESV).

    Okay, so in verse 8, we see that Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. This is crucial and is the only way that verse 9 makes sense. Verse 8 ends a section and verse 9 begins a new section. Modern chapter divisions can be misleading. 6:8 is essentially a crazy twist ending to God’s sorrow and wrath on the world. Verse 9 is a common heading in Genesis (see Gen 2:4, 5:1, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27, 25:12 & 19, 36:1, 36:9, and 37:2), acting like a zoom lens to focus on a particular character/clan. word “favor” in verse 8 is the same word in the Greek Septuagint as grace (charis) in the New Testament. Grace is unmerited favor; it is according to nothing you do, but is just the pleasure of God. Accordingly, the word “righteous” in verse 9 is from the word (dikaiosune) used in the New Testament repeatedly for the state of being “in Christ” and being essentially justified before God. Therefore, one can see that verse 9 is seen as a result of verse 8. This brings to mind the entire concept of salvation in the Old Testament. Before Christ, one’s faith in Yahweh was credited to him as righteousness. As Paul says of Abraham, “What then shall we say was gained by[a] Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4:1-3, ESV).

    Here, Paul explains how Old Testament salvation really worked (i.e. not by fulfilling The Law). Abraham believed in God and therefore he was declared righteous by God. We can infer that the same is true of Noah. While I don’t doubt that Noah wasn’t as utterly depraved as most of his peers, we must recognize that he was not chosen because of his good works. It is contrary to a whole host of Scripture. Plainly put, Noah was chosen to build the Ark and preserve humanity simply because God felt like it should be him. That is what grace is: unmerited favor. Noah was righteous because he believed in God. Now, he may have been the only person on earth who still believed in God, and that’s why he was “blameless in his generation.” But the point of my article was that kids are commonly taught in Sunday school (implicitly or explicitly) that God saved Noah because he was a “good boy.” This is a terrible misreading of the text. And we wonder why our kids essentially believe in moralism and not the gospel of Christ!

    On a last note, and considering the current sermon series, the author of Hebrews has something to say about Noah and faith:

    “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. 7 By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith” (Hebrews 11:6-7).

    Anyway, I hope that answered your questions and made my point more clear. Sorry if it was long. :)

    Reply
  11. Josh

    Justin,

    Sorry for the late, late reply. Also sorry for the ugly format I’m writing in, I’m typing on my phone. However to respond I will defend my claims in the same pattern you responded to them.

    1. My observation of the Marcionite heresy, I may have come to this conclusion rashly as I originally thought about this, now however, I am sure it is Marcionitish in its approach. I say this not because there isn’t a clear conparison between the Old and New testaments specifically, but because in actual history the new covenant has been revealed. To isolate this movie from actual culture breeds am environment to critique the movies biblical approach solely on its own grounds. instead of seeing the potential problems this movie may cause in the minds of its viewers, which I see as causing the Marcionite heresy, we or at least those who like this movie based on its own merits see it for all of its benefits instead of seeing sheep who may potentially be led astray by a movie like this (yes, this is melodramatic, but if one sheep be led astray how terrible it is for this movie to exist). Again I bring up the fact that in this movie God spoke clearly and concisely to Noah, something that the movie does not portray at all. Which doesn’t seem to me the director using creative liscence to advance the movie in all of its artistic splendor, but to detract from the orginal beauty and original intent of the biblical account. To distinguish even more, I think that the covenant of grace which takes it’s fulfillment in the New Testament is not isolated to the New Testament but prevalent from Genesis 3:15. I make this distinction to emphasize the importance in a movie like this not only to express the depravity of man, but also clearly emphasize the grace of God. Which some would say this movie does perfectly, yet I liken this movie to a sermon that paints “the creator” as a mean distant God who demands much of man while giving nothing return. Instead the emphasis should be on mans inability and God providing not only adequately enough for the human race, but he does exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think. My main point in this in summary: God is the same gracious God in both testaments and this is seen just as clearly in both testaments and the director does not give that same clarity, now seeks too.

    2. As for the small jabs that I see the director putting in the movie, they very well may not be blatant but they are rationalism bound up in quant ideas under the title of creative freedom. I don’t believe man is free to distort scripture where it is not clear not needs to be, especially for a director to make the movie seem more plausible. It’s like liberalism in movie form.

    3. A good and necessary consequence of the 2nd commandment is to worship God in the ways that he has appointed. If the commandments tell is what not to do, how are we supposed to know what to do. The 7th commandment says you shall not steal, the opposite of that would be “thou shalt take what is only rightly yours” so the inverse of the 2nd command would be “thou shalt worship The Lord in no other way than prescribed.” Because to make any particular instance of the inversion of that command would be superfluous.

    4. As for the question, “can we only worship in Church?” Yes and no. This is the distinction the distinction between the reformed an Lutheran principles of the RPW and/or latitudarian principles of worship. obviously I hold to the more strict RPW. Both John Calvin and Martin Luther are very helpful to read in understanding how the bibles principles of worship play out.

    Thank you for your gracious and insightful review(which I did read) and you insightful responses. They are very beneficial to me and the whole discussion.

    Reply

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