While not a literal translation of the Old Testament story, “Noah” serves as a unique and decent-enough adaptation with some beautiful visuals and engrossing action sequences. Crowe brings solidity and weight to the role of this apocalyptic prophet, and even his occasional bit of singing (to address another amusing and tangential question) is commensurate with the movie’s needs.
Unfortunately, while Aronofsky offers some intriguing exploration of Noah’s prophetic visions and psychological headspace, on the large scale “Noah” is not one of his most resonant works. Aside from any fantastic quirks, the movie seems a bit more straightforward than Aranofsky’s other efforts (especially Black Swan and The Fountain); the director’s touch is most obvious during Noah’s prophetic dream sequences and the way he doesn’t flinch when showing the horrific outcomes of individual choices. Violence and emotions in this movie at times can be raw and explicit.
While Aronofsky has not literally recreated the story as Western Christians learned it as children on Sunday morning, it’s clear that he did his homework since even the stuff that left Baptists squirming in their seats has basis in Christian lore. For example, according to Genesis, there were angels that fell to earth to bed human women, and the offspring of that damned union were referred to as the Nephilim or (as often translated, correctly or not) “giants.” The Book of Enoch delineates further, listing the names of these fallen angels (called Watchers) as well as the specialized information that each imparted to humanity much as the Greek Hephaestus and Athena shared knowledge of the arts with men.
Aronofsky adapts this source to support the themes and plot of his narrative. Here, the Watchers were angels who came to earth against the Creator’s will out of compassion for humanity, so He punished them by stripping off their wings and smothering their holy brilliance within grotesque shells of twisted stone. Now shambling rock giants, the Watchers bequeathed their knowledge to humanity, but men were unworthy and used that knowledge to not just destroy each other but lay waste to the planet. By the time Noah comes around, the world more resembled “Mad Max” than any proverbial paradise. Seeing the extent of their mistake, the Watchers finally threw in their lot with Noah, the Creator’s foreordained; and the Creator’s response to that choice can now provide a moral map to Noah as he struggles to reconcile the Creator’s judgment with His mercy. (The Watchers not only offer insight into the divine heart but also patch up weak spots in the narrative’s hull, justifying how Noah could feasibly construct such a huge boat so quickly, as well as defend it against the desperate human hordes that would steal it to survive.)
Aronofsky liberally adds other details to the mix. The character of Methuselah helps explain everything from where all the wood came from to how barren women might eventually become pregnant. He also establishes the character of Tubal-Cain not just as a physical foil but a moral contrast to Noah: The men offer competing visions for humanity between which Noah’s children must eventually choose, and Aronofsky avoids the temptation to stack the deck. Tubal-Cain raises some good points.
While none of those particular details occur within the Genesis account, they all help set up Aronofsky’s point of interest in Noah: How does a prophet of doom perceive and process the notion of mercy… if such a thing is even possible? Prophets are naturally severe in personality and perception, they foretell judgment on the community for good or ill; and for a man to persevere in such a large undertaking in the face of permanent human extermination would suggest that Noah by nature was an unyielding man, full of conviction that humanity deserved death for its crimes against innocent creation.
Aranofsky not only explores how that perspective might have developed in Noah as a boy, but he accentuates that bent to its logical conclusion and thus sets up the largest moral crux in the movie. Noah’s family is not exempt from corruption, they are all as human as those whom the Creator has destroyed; they are all descended from the first two people who ruined Paradise. So he must consider, what if his family was not chosen to be saved and restart the race of men, but chosen simply to bring the innocent animals to safety and then to complete the destruction that the Creator began, to prevent the world from being ruined yet again? Because of the severity of his loyalty, Noah must contemplate terrible actions in order to remain faithful to what he perceives to be the Creator’s intent, regardless of the cost to his family and whether anyone agrees with him. That final struggle, the battle within Noah’s heart, is one reflective of human beings in general: Is there a way to reconcile judgment with mercy… and how?
Even after Noah makes his decision, there are still ramifications to his past choices that the family must deal with. Perhaps the earth has been wiped clean of its current corruption, but only the future will tell whether that choice was effective.