Friday, March 28, 2014

NOAH, A Review

Contrary to some reviewers, I am putting a SPOILER warning here. As someone who never read the script or reviews prior to screening, I want to insist that upon seeing the trailer, you haven’t seen much of anything. So, please, don’t spoil anything for those who haven’t seen the flick.

As I sit down to write this, I’m reminded of the controversy surrounding a certain popular pastor’s book. In some sense, it’s funny that we haven’t changed much. In another sense, it is sad that, well, we haven’t changed much.

You know the story well enough. You heard it in Sunday school, or if you were like me, you heard it in high school from a teacher who skipped the nasty bits. If you were like me, those parts were far more interesting than the following material. Set in an unknown frame of time, NOAH is about a dying world that has been given a count down, and there is one man who is called to survive. In the midst of chaos, terror and moral ambiguity, the questions that arrive on screen for us are not easy nor are they something to be dismissed.

Is humanity worth saving?

What does it mean to be chosen by God?

What does it mean to be righteous?

What is mercy and justice?

What’s the big deal?

TECHNICAL

Having sat through Aronofsky’s The Fountain, I was pretty giddy about sitting through a big budget piece (especially since he was tapped early on to do Batman—something I still dream about!). While I couldn’t sit through The Fountain again, Aronosky is the undisputed master of the artful and the weird. The backdrop of NOAH is both parabolic and dystopic; people scavenge about, plants die, and violence against the Creator’s creation (both animal and human). The world is unforgiving, devoid of mercy, love and life. 

The imagery is astounding, with the opening credit sequence a midrash of brutal imagery and theological nuance. No detail is left untouched. The Nephilim are fascinating, able to convey several distinct expressions through light and solid rock.

I could go on, but you didn’t come for the appetizer.

NARRATIVE

NOAH consists of a few short chapters in Genesis, so its difficult to imagine how one could gleam a 2 hour story from such material. Purely on the basis of pragmatism, creative license is required. That said, the film is uneven but never dull. It can roughly divided into four sections, which I will cover.

SPIRAL.

From the beginning, the first section prides itself on establishing Noah and his family with minimal dialogue. This is commendable for a blockbuster, and the writing prides itself on maintaining silence when necessary. The move from low to high upon the mountain involves the climax of two visions. Noah’s calling is clear. This sequence involves slow but methodical pacing, complete inspired by the interesting characters and back story of a crumbling world.

SIN.

From the building of the ark to the judgment, Noah continues, providing a tense family atmosphere with lust, envy and mystery. The sequence is aided by the scenery-chomping Winstone, who adds the necessary external villain. With more characters involved, the stakes rise and everything sets off with an incredible deluge of rain, bodies and death. 

SUFFERING.

Isolation in the midst of unseen terror becomes a palpable element of this sequence, with Noah and his family upon the ark. The pacing slows down, running on steam from the previous section, family members fracturing, introducing a truly complex moral dilemma (one that was spoiled for me) that threatens everything. The emotional intensity was so strong that I had to look away at several scenes. To hear people screaming and banging against the outside of the ark certainly adds a dimension that eluded the storytelling technique of my high school bible teacher.

MERCY.

At the end, mercy is glimpsed and the waters of terror pass. We’re given a new hope, but one that is seen only in the light of suffering, sin and a spiral that may or may not have ceased here. The ending is ambiguous, quiet and significantly underplayed. Which is nice and a great change from the blockbuster elements of the first two sequences.

Russell Crowe was not my first choice as Noah, but he fills the shoes of a man that we all claim to know. Noah is said to be a righteous man, and this is both a gift and a curse. He is, however, outdone by Jennifer Connelly, whose sobering performance anchors the film, adding to the grit and terror of human nature that looms across the firelight. The sons are passable, not given much to do. Emma Watson is lovely and fiery, exhibiting a single-minded passion for life and honor. Ray Winstone is oily and unrefined, a perfect antagonist to the stoic Noah.

Anthony Hopkins is Anthony Hopkins. Creative, sly, and winsome. Always awesome.

But you didn’t come for this part. Onto the meat.

THEMATIC

Let me get this out of the way now. If you are a committed young earth creationist, biblical literalist, anti-environmentalist, then you will probably hate NOAH. If your stomach lining thins when you hear talk that you associate with liberals and hippies, then you will not like this movie.

As someone who is an open evangelical (that means I pour a drink and listen before I hit you with a Bible verse), I couldn’t wait to see where NOAH took me. The story in the text is so vague and general that I was hoping Aronofsky aimed more for the spirit of the text rather than the law.

I won’t be commenting on the negative reactions from many Christians, mostly because I don’t feel like linking their comments here. Besides, you probably know the complaints and could google them yourselves. I’m going to speak positively about the film.

Noah’s character arc is coherent. He goes to the people outside of the camp to fulfill the desires of his son, and witnesses the extreme wickedness of humanity. The misogyny, violence and excess of the camp is an excellent witness to the current first world culture. Like Gibson’s Apocalypto, Aronofsky simply holds up a mirror and asks us to look at ourselves.

The environmental factor is certainly present, but that is because the material is already present in Genesis. When I mentioned this to someone (who hadn’t seen the film), he nodded and confirmed that the topic was there. Gen 6:11-12 states “In God’s sight, the earth had become corrupt and filled with violence. God saw that the earth was corrupt, because all creatures behaved corruptly on the earth.” (CEB). The ESV/ NRSV/ NIV reflects this; the earth was corrupt because of human atrocities and wickedness. Human activity upon the earth, as given by YHWH, is culpable in the corruption. The punishment of humans is linked to their treatment of God’s earth. NOAH reflects this perfectly. So not only is the film a timely story on the dangers of over consumption and excess, it holds up Noah as a righteous man who doesn’t live outside his means. Josephus, a first century Jew says, “When Noah had made these supplications, God, who loved the man for his righteousness, granted entire success to his prayers, and said that it was not he who brought the destruction on a polluted world, but that they underwent that vengeance on account of their own wickedness.” Antiquities of the Jews, 1.3.99.

The world is good because the Creator gave it to him. Because of human sin, we gained death. NOAH has a high view of sin, sovereignty and human freedom. The capacity for choice in the heat of a watery apocalypse comes to a full head in the finale.

Simply, the final 35 minutes involving the planned murder of a woman’s baby is consistent with everything the film has done thus far. Noah has seen wickedness and is fighting to end such evil, yet has become evil. The revelation of the pregnancy is combined with a subjective event (the ceasing of rain) and is interpreted by two characters (Lla and Noah) very differently. Human life is precious, a whole being of sacred material made by God. Noah, having seen absolute sin, acts to end such sin. Noah speaks for some of the audience, who is repulsed by evil. Yet, he undoes himself as he believes “justice” must be carried out. It’s a powerful example of how a righteous man can twist himself to the point of becoming inhuman. 

And that is what Aronofsky was going for. He says, 
"Within our tradition, being Jews—a long tradition of thousands of years of people writing commentary on the biblical story—there isn't anything we're doing that's out of line or out of sync, but within that, you don't want to contradict what's there. In all the midrash tradition, the text is what the text is. The text exists and is truth and the word and the final authority. But how you decide to interpret it, you can open up your imagination to be inspired by it."
Aronofsky also specifically mentioned "justice" and mercy" in the same article,
That was a big part of the movie for us. When Ari and I started working on the project and started reading the Bible over and over, there's this term where they call Noah "righteous," so what does that word mean? There are a lot of ways to define it. So we started talking to a lot of people, a lot of the different theologians and scholars, and looking it up and trying to understand it. We came upon this idea that "righteous" is a perfect balance of justice and mercy. Ari [co-writer] put it a good way by defining it—since we're both parents—as this: If you're a parent with too much justice, you destroy your child with strictness. And if you're a parent with too much mercy, you destroy them with leniency. So being a really good parent is about finding that balance, which I think is in the story of Noah. Actually, it's similar to the story that God goes through. At the beginning of the story of Noah, he wants justice, and by the end he [offers] mercy through the rainbow, and grace. It was that balance that interested us.
Joel Green notes, “In broader biblical terms, this is simply the way of sin. Sin begets sin, one sin after the other. Sin in Genesis 3 is like a contagion, transmuting from shame and vulnerability to heightened alienation, even to the point where Yahweh’s own voice is no longer invitation but threat. Cain’s murderous act results in his exile (4:1-16); a restless, godless society emerges (4:17-24; 5:28-29); global violence leads to global destruction (6:1-9:18); sin within Noah’s family leads to the enslavement of one people by another (9:17-27); and, finally, the imperialism of conquest leads to the confusion of languages (ch11).” Body, Soul, and Human Life, 89.

God’s mercy is evidenced (in survival) by everyone except Noah. The balance of justice and mercy is shown, and Noah cannot see it. Blinded by his own sin (the sin he sought to eradicate in others and himself), he cannot make sense of it all. His journey into the heart of darkness is compelling, terrifying and appropriate.

Plus, let’s not forget that even righteous people act like jerks when their feet are to the fire. Or when we’re late for church.

CONCLUSION

Much could be said, and I’ve said too much already. Should you see NOAH? Yes. Will you like NOAH? Who knows. Only God knows. That said, I found NOAH to be spiritually captivating, theologically rich and cinematically enjoyable. You will not agree with the creative choices (there are parts I disagree with), but the choices will stimulate your spirit.

3.5 out of 4 stars.

--Nick

4 comments:

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