Why I Loved the Noah Movie

Last Tuesday I finally got to watch the controversial Noah movie—and I loved it. I’m a pastor and a Christian, and I still loved Noah. It’s not a perfect film by any means, (artistically, the movie sometimes drifts towards the overdramatic and cheesy) but it was emotionally gripping and it caused me to think (and talk) about it non-stop.

There are many Christians who don’t feel the same about the movie as me, and I think that’s totally fine. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you if you don’t like this film. But there are some critics of the film who have violently opposed it (many without even seeing it) because they believe it’s blasphemous. 

You’ve all heard, no doubt, about the infamous “rock people,” the violence, the environmentalism, how God is never mentioned, or how dark the movie is. Many Christian critics are angry at the film because they believe it makes a mockery of the original text in the Bible (Genesis 5-9) and of the Christian faith. One reviewer said that only elitist, “self-loathing,” hipster Christians who want Hollywood to love them will like this movie. In the most respectful way possible, I think they missed the whole point of the movie.

To fully discuss Noah, I feel compelled to talk through some very significant plot points that would be considered spoilers (and they go far beyond the fact that there is a flood). So here’s your spoiler alert.

Don’t think of this essay as a movie review (a movie critic I am not). Think of this as a companion piece to the movie for those who have seen it or those who wish to know more about the movie. Because this is a thorough examination of the movie and not a review, it is long. Please bear with me and take the time to read the whole thing before coming to a conclusion. 


ARONOFSKY’S VISION

Many naysayers denounced Noah because Darren Aronofsky, an atheist, said in an interview that he was going to make the “least biblical biblical movie.” People heard that statement, out of context, as an admission that he was going to make a movie that subverted the Bible and undermined the story of Noah. But that couldn’t be farther from Aronofsky’s intent. In fact, Aronofsky loves Noah.

If people did a quick Google search and read some interviews of Aronofsky, people would see that this isn’t some plot by secular Hollywood to make Christians look like it idiots. This was Aronofsky’s passion project. This was a movie he’s wanted to make since he was a child. Ever since the 7th grade, Aronofsky, who grew up culturally Jewish, has been captivated by the Noah story. He even wrote a poem about Noah that won a contest at the UN. Aronofsky has been trying to make this movie happen for the past fifteen years. And so, any effort to put Noah on the screen was not going to be with a hidden agenda, but was going to be a tribute.

Knowing Aronofsky’s heart for the Noah story, the next question inevitably asked is, “Why did he change so much of the story?” Aronofsky’s intent was never to improve or devalue the story of Noah in the Bible. Instead, he sees his movie as following the Jewish tradition of the midrash. The midrash is a type of rabbinic commentary in the form of narrative. Instead of going line by line—“this means this, and this means this”—the midrash expands, elaborates, and even speculates about the story in order to better develop and discuss the themes of the original text. By presenting the story in a fresh way, the themes of the original text can hit us anew, challenge our original ideas, and even shake us out of apathy. In a way, the movie reminded me of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, an epic poem of Creation and the Fall (and most Christians are okay with Paradise Lost). Of course, this isn’t proper form for a sermon (although I’ve definitely heard homilies that tip-toe this line). But as a movie and a work of art, Aronofsky and Ari Handel (his fellow screen-writer) make use of this tradition in a fascinating way.

Ari Handel explains their intent: 

     We read Genesis as kids and young adults—but what we had in our minds was a Playmobil ark and as for animals, pet stores. And that’s the way the Noah story has gone into the pop consciousness. It’s a very, very, very different story than what we saw when we opened Genesis again as middle-aged men and thought seriously about what’s there. To get people to grapple with it and to see it fresh, we wanted to break expectations. Some of them we wanted to break that are just incorrect—like the idea of what the ark looked like. It was purposeful.

     What I’d tell people is it’s very important to us that nothing we actually did directly contradicted the Genesis story. There are some places where people think we did, and I’d just say, “We didn’t.” It was all grounded somewhere. It wasn’t just the Genesis story the way you expected it. But it’s grounded. Anything we did that isn’t explicitly there isn’t arbitrary. There are themes in the Genesis story that we wanted to dramatize and make people empathize with.

Understanding Aronofsky’s heart for the Noah story and his methods behind the madness is essential for understanding Noah the film. I can’t stress this enough. Aronofsky through this movie is not trying to condescend or subvert Christian truth. This isn’t part of some Hollywood conspiracy to mock Christianity. He’s trying to help us wrestle with the issues of the Noah story, even as he wrestles with them himself. 


ADDRESSING CONCERNS

Although most things in the movie may not have contradicted the account in Genesis, there are plenty of things that are different. These differences are what most people have been concerned with. Although I just do not have time or space to interact with every single thing in the movie, I do think it’s necessary to interact with a good portion of them.


CHANGING THE STORY

Much noise is made about how Aronofsky "changed the story,” but the reality is that he didn’t take away most of what is actually stated in Genesis. What he did do is add a lot to fill in the gaps. 

There simply is not enough in the original text for a two-hour-plus movie. Noah doesn’t even have any recorded dialogue until after the flood. If a Christian made the Noah story into a movie, they also would have to invent a lot of things to simply make it a bearable movie. 

Adding material to the story to make a good movie is not an uncommon thing for a biblical movie. Son of God added things. Passion of the Christ did it. So did The Nativity Story. Definitely The Prince of Egypt. Don’t even get me started about Veggie Tales. But even the beloved Ten Commandments adds a lot to the story that simply isn’t there. For some reason, Christians seem to be fine with those changes but not with those in Noah. 


THE CREATOR

One of the most common complaints about the movie is that God is never mentioned, but is only referred to as “The Creator.” Many have seen this as another underhanded move by Hollywood to subvert the Bible and the God of the it. But in all honesty, I think I liked it better that they referred to God as the Creator. Noah takes place only ten generations removed from Adam, which is not that large of a gap because of how old they got to live. God’s act of creation is continually brought up and referred to. The film does not feel that far removed from Eden. It makes sense that He would be referred to as the Creator. 

Also, God doesn’t seem to mind being called the Creator either. “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 40:28). We need not get worked up since God’s personal name is not even revealed until the time of Moses (and it’s YHWH, not God).


SAVE THE TREES

As to the environmental elements of the movie, it was less heavy-handed than Happy Feet. Albert Mohler, who really did not appreciate Noahpointed out that there are elements of environmental themes in Genesis 6-9, although he felt the movie overemphasized them too much. Mankind was given dominion over the earth, not to suck the earth dry but to steward it (Genesis 1:28-30). Aronofsky’s emphasis of mankind’s wasteful use of the earth is a direct way to show how humanity rebelled against one of God’s first commandments in the Bible.

As for Noah and his family’s veganism, most people miss that this is actually what Bible Noah and his family were (or at least were supposed to be) before the Flood. Before the Flood, man’s authority over the animal kingdom did not include using them for food (Genesis 1:29-30). As much as it pains me to say, God’s original design for us did not include steak and ribs. It’s not until after the Flood (Genesis 9:3) that God says humanity can eat animals. The movie uses this fact as a symbol of Noah’s faithfulness to the Creator and the rebellion of the descendants of Cain.


THE WATCHERS

In regards to the “rock people,” known in Noah as, the Watchers, they are angels who rebelled against God and were tossed out of heaven, cursed to carry Creation on their backs. Their biblical counterparts of are known as the Nephilim, which many interpreters believe were the giant offspring of fallen angels who mated with humans (Genesis 6:1-4). In my opinion, that’s even more fantastical than the Watchers. 

The thing I liked the least in Noah was the Watchers. They did not seem to fit the gritty, earthy tone of the movie but instead added a sort of cartoonish interruption. But with the source material that offers you the mysterious Nephilim, I could see how Darren Aronofsky's imagination ran wild.


NOAH

For most critics, the character of Noah (Russell Crowe) was probably the biggest hangup about the movie. To be fair, Noah is a very, very dark character in the movie. His character arc moves from a compassionate father, to wrathful prophet, to crazed madman convinced that God doesn’t want humanity to continue after the flood. Most of what Noah does and says is almost absolutely not what the real Noah did. 

The high point of his insanity occurs when he finds out that Shem’s wife, Ila (Emma Watson) is pregnant on the ark. Sure that the human race is not supposed to continue, he vows to kill the baby if it’s a girl, who could bear future sin-riddled children. Ila goes into an early labor and she eventually gives birth to twin girls, probably the worst case scenario for them. Noah traps Ila on the roof of the ark while she's holding her two newborns. Noah raises his knife to finish off the humanity, but instead he kisses his granddaughters on the head, drops the knife, and walks away. 

Noah later says, "I looked down at those two little girls and all I had in my heart was love.” It was love that kept him from destroying these little girls, just like it was love that kept God from destroying Noah and his family. The human race is able to go on, not because it deserves to, but because of love.

How the heck do we reconcile this maniac with the Noah of the Bible who was declared, “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Genesis 6:9)? I 100% admit that the Noah of Darren Aronofsky is not the same person as the Noah of the Bible, but they are more alike than you would think. It first starts with understanding what righteousness is.

What is righteousness? In the Old Testament, it's aligning with God’s justice. It’s not just being a good person. It’s having the same judgement as God. 

The Noah of the Bible may not have threatened his granddaughters with slaughter, but he did condemn the whole world, because of that judgement, he “became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith” (Hebrews 11:7). The Noah of the Bible sat and watched the whole world suffocate, sink, and drown. He heard the screams of helpless people and he did nothing. He didn’t open a hatch and throw a rope out to help them. He also didn’t try and save the “innocent,” those too young to even understand what sin is. There were thousands of babies that were washed away and drowned in the flood, wiping out future generations of sinners. Noah, in the movie, reflects God’s wrath by focusing on just two more babies. In neither the movie nor the Bible, does Noah relish or delight in the deaths of others. In both stories, Noah is driven to drunkenness over it. It grieved him, just like it grieved God.

Noah is actually supposed to be a dark character, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Dark doesn’t mean a lack of righteousness. Remember how dark Good Friday was?

So why would Aronofsky choose to point his story in this direction? He wanted to explore the grief, wrath, anger, justice, and mercy of God and so they placed that journey onto Noah. When we watch Noah relent and drop the knife, it’s a small picture of what it may have been like for God to relent and choose to save Noah and his family on the ark. It puts the dilemma of the Flood on a personal level and depicts it in a way that will stay with you for a long time.

Noah was righteous because he reflected God’s righteous wrath and justice towards sin. But, Noah was also righteous because he reflected God’s mercy. Arononofsky just decided to display this in a more intimate, and intense way. Before we go criticizing Aronofsky for this narrative turn, of almost having Noah kill his offspring, let’s not forget that God actually did command Abraham to do this very thing. 


SIGNIFICANT MISSTEPS

Don’t misunderstand me though. There are still significant missteps that Aronofsky took in making this movie. The first one is the lack of covenant in the story. It’s implied in the end, with the appearance of a super sonic rainbow blasting through the sky and Noah repeating God’s mandate to be fruitful and multiply, but there is no explicit covenant mentioned at all. 

In Genesis, covenant language is all over the Flood story. Aronofsky missed an opportunity to make God’s mercy in spite of our wickedness that much more powerful. A covenant is an unbreakable, unconditional promise. No matter what, God is committing to save Noah’s family—not because they earned it, but because He chose them. No matter what, even if mankind becomes worse than ever before, God is committing to never flood the earth again. That’s not just mercy—that’s amazing grace.

The second major misstep of Aronofsky’s was to make the Creator in Noah distant. The God of this movie doesn’t speak with words to Noah, like He does in Genesis, but speaks through vague visions. These visions, though powerful, are hard to decipher and can (are) misinterpreted by Noah. This effect makes the Creator look less like a person and more like a force. All you learn and feel about the Creator is just through the lens of Noah, and that is a blurred lens indeed.

Aronofsky explained that he didn’t make God speak with words because of artistic reasons. It’s just too hard to make God speak on screen and not make it look cheesy. I understand that tension. You can only have Morgan Freeman or Liam Neeson be a god-like figure so many times before it just becomes lazy, but I feel like there still could’ve been a way to depict God as a character. Yes, we feel God’s grief over sin through Noah’s grief over sin, but because Noah is already an unreliable character, it does not give us a powerful sense of who the Creator truly is. 


A BIBLICAL MOVIE

In spite of those theological missteps, Noah is a good movieIt’s a good film as entertainment, but also as a biblical movie. It’s not a biblical movie in the traditional sense of making a line-by-line adaptation of a Bible story. In fact, I would say that Noah really isn’t the Noah story at all. And that’s fine by me. It’s a parable of who man is, what we have done, what we deserve, and what we really need to save us—mercy. 

Noah was created with a very conscious view towards the whole book of Genesis. Noah is deeply rooted in the stories of creation, the fall, and Cain and Abel. The movie recognizes that the Flood is a direct result of that previous chain of events, something I think many Christians miss. But more than that, there are echoes of Babel, and even echoes of Abraham and Isaac. There are even faint shadows looking forward in the narrative arc of the Bible, such as when God will finally destroy the earth with fire. Most Bible movies treat their story likes it’s a standalone episode with no ties to the rest of the biblical meta-narrative. Aronofsky is a storyteller, and so he understands that the Bible is not a series of unrelated events but one massive story.

Human depravity is on full display in Noah. Just seconds into the movie, we see Adam and Eve pluck the forbidden fruit off of the tree. Seconds after that, we witness the silhouettes of the first murder, Cain killing his brother Abel with a rock. Aronofsky repeatedly brings up this picture of the first murder, again and again in the movie. Whenever human sin is talked about or pondered, Cain’s raised fist holding a rock is displayed on the screen. This murder is the picture of ultimate human sin, taking life, something only God has the right to do. The villain, Tubal-cain actually uses the very fact that he can take life as a claim that he is like God. Taking life when it is not necessary is an affront to the Creator and His creation. This is why Aronofsky also pictures human sin through the killing and eating of animals. It has less to do with an environmentalist agenda. It’s to display just how far removed from Eden we really are. God’s original design was that there would be no death in Creation, but after the Fall, mankind let death spread throughout the earth like a virus. 

In one vivid scene, Noah roams around one of Tubal-cain’s villages and he witnesses within the span of several minutes the deep horrors mankind is capable of. Women and children are traded for food. Rape and cannibalism are implied. Animals are ripped open while still alive. It’s a brutal and horrible place. There are mass graves filled with discarded bodies. The scene itself is gruesome enough to make you want to take a shower afterwards. It shows that mankind really is deserving of righteous wrath. As Noah is shocked by everything he sees, he witnesses a half-crazed man running around from tent to tent. The man stops and looks at Noah and he is horrified to see that the man is actually himself. Noah realizes that even though these people are engaging in gross evil that he would never take part in, he is just the same as them. Sin is more than just something you do—sin is inside of all of us.

This scene is the turning point in Noah’s thinking and drives him to believe God wants mankind to be wiped out completely. They deserve to be. When Noah reveals this notion to his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), she disagrees and argues that their family is good. But Noah counters her arguments. He points out that even the good things their sons do are rooted in sinful motivations. He also asks her how far she would be willing to go to protect their sons. Naameh reluctantly admits she would kill to protect them, committing the ultimate sin.

Understanding that no one deserves to survive is what makes the ark so compelling. It’s what makes God’s mercy so baffling. After the Flood, one of the characters points out that the Creator has given them a second chance. A chance to start over and build a better world than the one previous. But those of us watching know what happens later in the story, and so does Aronofsky. The Tower of Babel arrives in just the next chapter of Genesis. Man fails again. God knew this would happen, but he still allowed mankind to survive on the ark. That’s mercy beyond comprehension.

Ari Handel, Aronofsky’s co-writer, said in an interview  "One of the questions we hope people come out of the film with is, to remember that we’re living in a second chance. And to ask ourselves, 'What are we doing with that second chance? Are we doing well with it?’” 

That’s a question we all ought to ponder and ask ourselves daily. We haven’t just been given a second chance, but billions of chances. In light of such mercy, what are we doing with it? 


WHY THIS MOVIE MATTERS

This movie matters, not because it gives a blueprint for how to make a Bible movie, but because it shows what a biblical movie, or a general faith-based movie, can be. It can be artistic. It can have solid dialogue and great acting. It can develop theological themes, and explore spiritual issues without being didactic and heavy-handed. I have not stopped thinking about this movie for a week now. That is the mark of a good movie.

Yes, Aronofsky added a lot. It didn't feel like the Noah story but I was okay with it because it was about much more than Noah. I understood the changes, even though I would have never made them myself. It was to examine the questions of the sinfulness of mankind, how justice and mercy can work together, and even what it really means to be made in the image of God.

One of the most powerful images to me from the whole movie occurred while Noah recounted the Creation and Fall story to his family while on the ark. He talks about Creation. He talks about the Fall. And then he talks about the first murder, and that silhouette of Cain smashing Abel’s head in with a rock appears again. Noah then says that man has been killing each other ever since. The clothes on the silhouettes modernize and so do the weapons, all the way through history with knives, hatchets, arrows, muskets, and rifles. It's here we see that this isn't a movie about Noah at all. It's a movie about ourselves. It’s a movie about who we are and what we deserve, today. We haven't become better since the ancient times. We haven’t evolved. We are just the same.

In light of such human sinfulness, what do we deserve? It is very clear from this movie that we deserve judgement. That would be what justice calls for. But God, knowing that mankind cannot bear such wrath, decides to offer us mercy.

This movie was bold. It ambitiously grappled with deep questions and gave better answers than probably most Christians could’ve given—definitely better than most Christian movies.

It isn't the Noah story, but it never mocks it's source material. It never talks down to those who hold this story so dear. If anything, because it's foundations are found in something we value, and because we know the rest of the story, I really think a Christian could have the most enriched viewing experience of Noah than any other person. We know what it truly means to get a second chance. We know what it means that water cleanses. We know what it means that we are so wicked and deserve destruction. We know that a greater Adam, one far greater than even the real Noah, walked this earth, and brought about our rescue, giving us the greatest act of mercy and grace, and new life.

To Christians who saw the movie and didn’t appreciate it, I hope that you will think about these things and perhaps give the movie a second chance. You don’t have to like it, but you don’t need to demonize it. It’s far more Christian than you think.

To Christians who haven’t seen the movie, I don’t think you have to see the movie, but I encourage you to do so. See it, not just to enter into the national conversation, but also for yourselves. See it to wrestle with these questions. See it to once again encounter the truth of how sinful we truly are. See it to once again savor how great God’s mercy is.

Can’t wait to do this all again when Exodus: Gods and Kings comes out.