When I first heard that Darren Aronofsky was directing an adaptations of the flood story from Genesis, I was reasonably excited. Aronofsky has a reputation for making movies with bizarre, striking visuals and complex, psychologically damaged characters who tend to remain very sympathetic as they make really horrible decisions (Require For A Dream, one of Aronofsky’s most famous movies, is particularly good, though I’ve only ever managed to sit through it twice).
This formula seemed like a great fit for the flood story, since it features a lot of surreal imagery, like the fact that Noah’s family fits multiples of every animal on the ark, and Noah’s own character has some interesting facets (is he pleased that God’s going to destroy everything, or does he go along with the plan because he’s terrified of disobedience?).
The end result is kind of mixed.
On the visual front, I love everything about this movie. This is a retelling of a pan-cultural myth, and the entire look of the film appeals to that mythic quality. The people are clothed in a pseudo-medieval fashion and make use of anachronistic Iron Age technology indicates clearly this is a story set outside of history, dealing with themes that are bigger than a simple account of what happened in the past. Also, the fallen angels, while a little goofy in execution, are delightful to watch. Besides the general look, Aronofsky also employs some of his signature cinematic techniques, particularly the rapid cut through a series of thematically significant images.
It’s really in terms of character where the movie falls short. The protagonist Noah begins relatively sympathetic with his simple goal of protecting his family and treating the earth well in accordance with the ways his father taught him. When he receives his vision from God, it takes him some time to piece together what’s going to happen. This is where Noah goes off the rails as he interprets the flood as a sign that God wants all of humanity destroyed (this interpretation emerges after Noah witnesses the squalor and barbarism of Tubal-Cain’s followers), including his own family once they finish their job. The fatalism isn’t problematic in itself (it’s quite an interesting commentary on pessimistic readings of the creation story that suggest humanity is inherently hostile to the order of things through our contamination by Original Sin), but the way it’s expressed reeks of sexism.
It goes like this: Noah believes God wants humanity to die out after the flood, so he instructs his family on how they’ll live out their lives, letting his youngest son Japheth be the last human on earth. When he learns that his oldest son Shem and his wife Ila, whose uterus was damaged by an injury she received as a child leaving her presumably barren, are going to have a baby, Noah flips out and say he’ll kill the child himself if it’s a girl because he doesn’t want to risk anymore humans being born. Everyone else can see that Noah’s plan is horrific, but there’s no real commentary on the absurdity of reducing the role of women to their capacity for childbearing. Ila, who bears a name that seems to have been invented for the character specifically for this version of the story, is one of the best characters in the story with a variety of motivations, aspirations, and complex relationships with the rest of the cast, but Noah reduces her to her uterus in the film’s last act. Instead, it would have been more interesting, given Noah’s obsession with what he sees as the inherent evil in humanity, to highlight the fact that Ila comes from the tribe of Tubal-Cain (this version of events has the descendants of Cain and Seth being at odds; Noah and his family come from Seth’s line, and pretty much everyone else in the world comes from Cain’s) and she’s fully adopted the Sethite tradition as she’s grown up (contrasted with Noah’s middle son Ham, who finds Tubal-Cain’s philosophy appealing, and who eventually parts ways with Noah after the flood ends). I think that aspect of the story is built into the film, but it’s not nearly as prominent as everyone’s obsession with the fact that Ila can magically have children again.
It’s a big disappointment.
Overall I’m not in love with Noah, but I do appreciate its attempt at adding complexity to its source material. If you have an urge to look at a slightly different take on a major western cultural myth, it’s worth checking out.