Monday, March 31, 2014

Noah: A Disaster Movie of a Different Sort

This movie is a disaster.

     If you now think that you know what I think of the movie Noah, you are wrong. Read on.

     I read a myriad of reviews about Noah before going to see it. When I saw the first trailers, I was pretty excited to see this movie. I didn't know anything about it besides what I saw in the trailer. However, after reading many reviews, mostly from Christian reviewers, I was convinced it would be a waste of my time. I then watched a podcast by The Blaze featuring Greg Thornbury, president of King's College, who not only had seen the movie but had the opportunity to be a part of a small group with the director himself. Hearing his evaluation of what was done with this movie; to the story, and to the theology, made me rethink whether I would see this movie or not.

     Noah hit the theaters on Friday. I was still wavering between seeing it or ignoring it. Then a friend on Facebook linked to a review of Noah by William P. Young, author of The Shack. He hated it. My mind was made up, I was going to this movie and I was going opening night.

     Many of my friends from around the country went as well. To a one, they disliked this movie. There are a couple who I haven't read their thoughts yet. They are writing their own reviews which I will post here, unedited. I am anxious to read their thoughts.

     As I thought about this movie and the controversy surrounding it, it seemed to me there are three areas where this movie needs to be evaluated. How faithful is Noah to the actual story? How accurate is Noah to the theology of the story of the Flood? How does Noah stand as a film?

     I sat down in my seat at the theater with my extra-buttered popcorn and my diet Dr. Pepper. What I was expecting to see was the "christian" version of Avatar.  As I stood up from my seat to toss my bucket of popcorn crumbs floating in a liquid that is clearly not real butter and my empty cup into the trash, I knew that what I had watched was not Avatar. Not by a long shot.

Grizzly Adams...I mean Noah
     Probably the most controversial part of Noah was the apparently dramatic departure from the Biblical story-line. To be sure, there are significant changes to the story of the Flood found in the Bible. All the ages of the characters were modified greatly. Noah was 500 years old when he was instructed by God to build the ark. His sons were around a hundred years old. How was this supposed to be accurately depicted?  We have no sense of reference when it comes to a person that old. The world was a vastly different place at this time, how does a man look and act, who is 500 years old and still capable of building a large ship? I have no problem with the changing of the ages. It would have been more accurate to have the sons already adults and married, as they were in Scripture, but this doesn't make a huge difference for me. While the movie does accurately place 8 total members of Noah's family on the ark, the circumstances of them coming to be on the ark are very different. Again, I am not too concerned about this change.

Noah's young family
     Here is where we must admit, and understand something very important about the making of this story into a movie. In the Biblical account of the Flood, precious little happens. There are almost no details. This being the case, it is required of the maker of such a movie to create a story nearly out of whole cloth. This is the story that Aronofsky came up with. I might have created a different story. It wouldn't have been any more or less accurate or better than what he designed. There is really nothing to go on.

     Some of the other variances include the death of Lamach, Noah's father. The only thing we know about Lamach's death is his age. But since the ages in the movie are totally changed up, it is very difficult to complain about this. My suspicions are that the direction Aronofsky took in this regard had much to do with answering the question as to why Noah went to see his grandfather Methuselah rather than his father.

     Probably the largest departure from the Biblical account is the handling of the angels or "sons of God", who came to the earth and defiled themselves with human women. This is the aspect of the movie that is most derided by the people I have read. In the movie, these angels came to earth to help mankind after they were banished from the Garden. In the Biblical account, the only motivation for coming to earth was to fulfill their lusts, which is a very different motive indeed. For me, this is the greatest disappointment I had with the movie. If Aronofsky had stuck to the real story in this area, it would have made for some very dramatic and epic scenes. It would have brought the evil of mankind to a whole different level. But he chose to go a different route. I will let you be the judge on whether that was a good idea or not.

A Watcher coming to Earth
     This brings us to what I believe is the deciding factor to evaluating Aronofsky's faithfulness to the story. Nearly every one of what has been attributed as departures from the Biblical account of the Flood story are aspects derived directly from the Book of Enoch. If you are not familiar with the Book of Enoch, it is a book contained in the Apocrypha. It is thought to have been written in about 300 BC. Though it was a book read and used by the Jews of the day, it was not considered in the canon of the Old Testament. However, the Book of Enoch is quoted in the Book of Jude in the New Testament and many other phrases contained in the New Testament seem to be derived directly from the Book of Enoch, such as "King of Kings" and "Lord of Lords". Interestingly, the major focus of the Book of Enoch is the pre-flood world of Noah and the events leading up to the Flood. Aronofsky, rightly in my opinion, garners most of the story he uses to fill in the blanks left by the Biblical story from the Book of Enoch. Since the Book of Enoch is quoted in the New Testament and was clearly a book known, read and trusted by both Jews, before and during Jesus' ministry on earth, and the Christians of the early church, there can be no complaint that I would entertain about Aronofsky's use of its details in this movie.

     Still, Aronofsky chooses to create an amalgam of the details found in the Book of Enoch about the angels. Maybe he felt that a faithful rendering of this aspect of the story would complicate things too much and take away from the real focus of the story. I can only speculate of course, but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

     In the Book of Enoch, the angels that came to earth and defiled themselves with humans were called Watchers. They came and did what they did out of selfish lusts and rebellion against God, not for benevolent reasons as described in the movie. I can surmise he changed this aspect of the story because of another change he made. In Enoch, God sends angels to help Noah build the ark. In the movie, the damned Watchers help Noah build the ark. This can only make any sense if the Watchers had good motives to begin with, however misguided they were.

     In Enoch, the punishment for the Watchers who came to earth was to be encased in stone in the earth. This is why the angels were represented in the movie as these weird, Transformer-type, stone giants. (Contrary to many reviews  have read, there are no Nephilim in the movie)

     In Noah, the Watchers end up being the angels who help Noah and his family build the ark, and in the final twist to the story, when the Watchers petition God for forgiveness, as they indeed do in Enoch, they are forgiven and returned to Heaven. In Enoch, they are denied their petition and damned forever. Scripture would suggest a similar fate.

     Another aspect people seem to have an issue with is Noah's struggle to come to terms with any reason for any of mankind to survive the Flood, including himself and his own family. In my estimation, I think this part of the story was an answer to a very important event that happens after they eventually leave the ark. This is a huge part of the story of Noah. After the flood waters subside and Noah and his family have survived, Noah inexplicably gets drunk and is found by his sons passed out and naked. Through this event, Ham is cursed and the cycle of evil continues on the earth. Why does Noah, a man who "walked with God" and had just survived and witnessed such an incredible event, end up in such a drunken state? Neither Genesis nor the Book of Enoch lend us a clue. Aronofsky, showing his absolute dedication to faithfully expressing the true essence of this story, couldn't leave this out. But he needed to give us a reason for it. His answer was to show Noah's struggle with the fact that though he was the only one on earth who still followed God, there were still aspects of what made the rest of mankind evil within himself and each member of his family.  Can anyone argue with this? I think it was brilliant, and it is one of the most powerful messages of the entire movie because what is lifted up and glorified through it is the love, mercy, and faithfulness of the Creator.

     This brings me to the theology of the movie. What does the movie Noah say about God? This movie presents God as the Creator. Not a "Force" or an "alien", but as a supreme Creator. And not just that, but a Creator who cares about His creation. A Creator who is actively involved in His creation.

     What does this movie say about Creation? It shows a Creator who created the universe in six days. It shows a Creator who created each creature after its own kind, especially and extravagantly, human beings, Adam and Eve. It presents Adam and Eve as husband and wife. In direct contrast to our current world's diminishing of that truth in the promoting of promiscuity and homosexuality. The depiction of Adam and Eve in their glorified, "in the image of God" states is stunning. It does continually refer to the animals as "innocent" which, of course, is not a correct view of creation. All of creation was affected by the Fall, including animals. And Scripture makes it very clear that all of creation needed to be destroyed, not just humans.

     There is a scene near the beginning of the movie where a dog-like creature is fleeing from some hunters and comes across Noah and his son's path as they gather plants for food, the result being a statement clearly establishing Noah as being a vegetarian and the other men as being meat eaters. I have read many who have cried about this making Noah out to be some environmentalist wacko. If you read the Genesis account, you will see that God did not give the animals over to be food until after the Flood. He actually gives this command to Noah at the same time that He instructs him to take dominion over the earth and populate the earth. So this representation of Noah is 100% Biblically accurate, if we are to believe that Noah "walked with God". It is speculation, of course, that the other men would have been meat eaters but it is certainly not far-fetched since God had not allowed such a thing yet and men were wholly rebelling from God in every conceivable way.

     In the end, theologically, this movie is absolutely sound. This realization stunned me to be honest. In a world where every new movement in the church is trying to pull us away from Scripture and particularly, Genesis and all of its truth, to have a movie directed and written by two men who are not explicitly Christians and released by a wholly secular company, is nothing short of amazing.

Dream sequence of the killing of Abel
     So, how about Noah as a work of art? If you have watched any of Aronofsky's other films, you already know that he is unconventional. If you want to experience a cohesive and consistent film, an Aronofsky creation is not for you. Noah is no different. Aronofsky uses several different mediums to tell this story.  I am not a student of film enough to know all the proper terms to adequately describe the different forms he uses throughout the movie. Just know that while the majority of the movie is filmed in a very crisp and realistic way, there are dream sequences and visions that take on an entirely different look. There are scenes that are very "artsy" for a severe lack of a better word. There is CGI as one would expect. Some of it is very good, such as the flood waters. Some of it is in sci-fi action movie styles such as the Watchers. Some of it is rather poor, such as the dog creature in the beginning of the movie. I think the biggest failure in this regard is the varying styles force our minds to constantly shift our expectations of what we are seeing or should be seeing. When I go to a LOTR's movie, I am not surprised by an Orc. But when I am watching a movie presented in such a realistic manner as Noah is, my mind has a hard time processing the Watchers. Or the almost Japanese martial arts style flinging of and drowning of people in the flood scenes. Not to mention the huge visual deviations in the vision sequences and the telling of the creation story. There is so much going on from scene to scene that my mind had a difficult time following it. Not that what I was seeing didn't make sense from a story standpoint but rather from an artistic standpoint. It caused me to be discombobulated and uncomfortable throughout the movie.

     Another aspect this brought into play was the world that was presented to us. Somehow, and I have no explanation as to why, it lacked the vastness that the movie required. This was a story of the entire earth, and it was presented that way, but it felt like it was taking place in very small settings. It felt very claustrophobic to me. One reason this might have been is that we are never taken to where the rest of the men live. We only see what they have left behind. We meet them in both small groups and large armies appearing out of nowhere, but we never see them in their own habitat until they become camped out in the forest surrounding the ark. At that point in the movie it seems as though everyone on earth is in one place, and though there is a huge landscape for them to camp, they choose to set up so confined together that they are literally walking over each other. It all seems very suffocating. And while there are a huge amount of people there in relation to the few members of Noah's family, there just doesn't seem to be a lot for the entire earth's population. If we were given an idea that there were other similar tribes of people around the world, maybe it would have seemed different but just the opposite was communicated to me at least by the fact of their leader was a direct descendant of Cain and the very same person who killed Lamach.

     There were scenes that communicated how large the scheme of things were, like when the entire planet is shown engulfed in dozens of hurricanes covering its entire surface. What an amazing graphic that was! But those were fleeting moments and did little in relieving the feeling of this world of Noah being very myopic.

Ham and his bride to be,
     The other area that made this movie feel lacking for me was the poor character development. This is such a vague thing for me. Maybe others understand it as a science but I am never able to put a finger on it. Some movies spend a full thirty minutes at the beginning of the movie developing the characters and it makes no impact on how I feel about them, while other movies develop deep characters that evoke immense feelings from me in three minutes. This movie somehow failed at creating characters that pulled me one way or that other. Take Ham as an example. His appearance made me sympathize with him, even while he was betraying his father, scheming for his death. I found myself hoping against hope that he would turn from what he was doing and become a part of the family. I shouldn't have. I should have felt contempt for him. I didn't. Even as he walked away at the end, I felt sorry for him. Feeling sorrow for him would have been better than that. But I wasn't invested enough in him for even that. And it was like that with every character in the movie, except the king of men. He was aptly repulsive. Oddly, the character that seemed to connect with me, and even the rest of the theater, from what I could tell, was Methuselah. I say oddly, because he was introduced late in the movie and shared very little screen time. A perfect example of how great character development can be had in mere seconds. He was a deep character and probably one of the most emotional points of the entire movie was his search for the ever elusive berry.  How that could trump the death of tens of thousands of people, I don't know.

     The end result of this poor development of characters for me was a suffering of an edge and intensity when it came to several climatic scenes. This movie should have invoked fear, dread, disgust, horror, sorrow, trepidation, and great relief. It just didn't do this for me. I found myself asking why. I found myself trying to search for the emotions within myself during the movie. Trying to dredge them up to match what my eyes were witnessing and my ears were hearing. But I couldn't. When Lamach was murdered I should have felt anger and anguish. When Noah was in the midst of the horror that was the encampment of men, I should have felt disgust and sorrow. When Noah was about to murder his two infant grandchildren, I should have felt extreme sadness and dread. When the rain finally stopped, I should have felt amazing joy and happiness. I just didn't. I can't explain why. Something didn't connect. Something didn't click for me. Maybe it was uncertainty. Maybe it was being thrown so far off balance by the retelling of a story I thought I knew in my head that I had guarded my emotions or was simply unable to access them. Whatever the reason, the moments of impact were great, but not very impacting. And that is too bad.

     Despite all of that, there were some great things about this movie. If you like abstract and artsy movies, you will enjoys aspects of Noah. It is Aronofsky's calling card. He does it well and this movie is no exception. The script is really good. It has its subtleties and its self contained history. It has humor and passion and conviction. And it relays incredible truths. The more I think about the dialogue and the words used, the more I am amazed at this script. It astounds me that something as banal as Evan Almighty had Bible study material made for it, whereas Noah is being shredded on all levels despite being incredibly well written.

     The acting is top notch. Outside of possibly a poor choice in the casting of Ham, every actor and actress in Noah does a magnificent job. And there are some absolutely amazing scenes in this movie.

     The telling of the creation story is the best I have ever seen. When God said "Let there be light" I was literally pushed back in my seat. What followed was an ultra fast paced visual journey through the six days of creation, culminating in the Garden of Eden and a wonderful depiction of Adam and Eve. Again, the best I have ever seen. I wish I had always envisioned them in this way. I will from now on.

     Something that was repeated throughout the movie was looking to the sky longing for some sign of the Creator. That was probably one of the most emotion evoking parts of the movie for me. It was different characters at different times in the movie but each time it became more and more filled with anxiety. I strained my eyes to see even the slightest sign of God emanating through the clouds. My heart yearned for the hope that something would appear. But there was nothing. It really drove home the idea of what it must have felt like to be one of the only people on earth who still believed in the true Creator during a time when God was mostly silent. We cannot imagine what that would have been like. We have the Holy Spirit who speaks to us daily. Noah had nothing but stories and faith.

     And then there is the moment when the flood finally strikes and Noah and his family are huddled inside the ark with only the pounding of the water and the screams of the dying, echoing in their ears. What horror! The scene then moves outside the ark and we see one of the last of the mountain tops, covered in people trying to escape the waters, only to be swept off the rocks by enormous waves. It was a scene I will never forget.

     But the scene that hit me the hardest was the final time we look up into the sky. It is the last moment of the movie. And a rainbow breaks across the sky. If you are not one who understands the significance of that scene, then its magnitude is probably lost one you. But for those who understand, that last moment is incredible. The promise, the love, the mercy, the faithfulness, the hope for mankind and the sign that the Creator is indeed there and has not forgotten us was absolutely devastating in its power.

     The story of Noah is that a God who created the universe and then specifically man, in His own image, is heartbroken when Eve takes the forbidden fruit. He heart is wrenched when even His angels desert Him and His beloved children become vile, evil creatures, destroying all He created. But yet there was one man who still followed all he could of what he knew the Creator wanted him to do. Noah wasn't perfect. He had in him the same sin that destroyed the rest of mankind. But he had faith in God. And the Creator was faithful to him. He rescued Noah and all of creation through him. God loved, He showed mercy, He executed justice, He was faithful to His Creation. He never deserted them even when they did so to Him. That is the story of Noah. And that is the story told in Noah, the movie. I challenge you to go back and read the story of the Flood in Genesis and see if you could do better. Maybe you could. I know I couldn't.

     So then, why do I say this movie is a disaster? I say that because of how it was marketed. The way it was presented to the Christian community in particular does the movie a disservice because it created expectations that could not be met by this movie. Paramount knew what was in this movie and should have never suggested that is was specifically the re-telling of the Bible story. If they had simply said it was based on a true story or something of that nature, people would have accepted that. At least most people would. What has happened instead is that many people are not even going to go. They are going to simply react by what others have said and they are going to miss out on one of the greatest telling of a Biblical stories ever to be put on film. This is not a children's tale. It is sophisticated. It requires thinking. It requires understanding. It probably requires multiple viewings. This was a disaster because it is not going to accomplish half of what it could. The result is that a movie that accurately depicts the Creator in a way that is not even guaranteed from our own pulpits on Sunday mornings is going to be buried and lost because of poor marketing. That is a disaster.

     When all is said and done, I would encourage you to see Noah for yourself. Discard your preconceived notions at the theater door. Allow the Holy Spirit to speak to you and reveal the true God of the universe to you through this film. If you have already watched Noah. Go again. Watch it with a fresh eye. Let it teach you of God's everlasting love and mercy. It was a great miracle that Noah, his family and all the creatures of Creation survived the Flood. But it is also a miracle that this film ever got made. It would be a disaster of an entirely different kind if someone missed out on its true message: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth...and He loves us.

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