Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Promise and Failure of Aronofsky's Noah

By an unusual set of circumstances, MrsDarwin and I ended up being able to go see the Noah movie this weekend. Knowing virtually nothing about it other than the trailer going in, I was expecting a sometimes over-the-top biblical epic. This was something more interesting, though in the end I think the movie fails. MrsDarwin and I spent a good three hours discussing it afterwards, which is not something you can do with your garden variety movie spectacle.

I'm going to write a more general review first, then put in a spoiler warning, and after that get into the details, because this is a movie that it's impossible to resist discussing and picking apart in detail.

The key thing to understand about Aronofsky's treatment of the Noah story is that he seems quite purposefully to have decided at the get go that this would not be a straight biblical retelling. His Noah is the story of a man who suffers and experiences evil, becomes convinced that he is meant to participate in a plan to wipe out those evils, and becomes so relentless in his pursuit of that goal that he to a great extent becomes what he most hates and destroys what he arguably ought to be saving. It is a dark tale in which a "Creator" sends warnings and supernatural helpers to execute a plan to wipe out the evils to which humanity has sunk, but where that creator does not speak clearly as to what the actual purpose of the plan is. This means that Noah is left to improvise his own sense of meaning, and he does so driven by a sense of justice and hurt which gradually becomes an unbalanced obsession which risks destroying his family and his plan.

The movie has a number of big, CGI-driven spectacle scenes, and it has the seemingly inevitable Big Battle of Ravening Hordes. It has stone creatures called Watchers who, while their mythological explanation works and is evocative, to be honest look kind of silly. The spectacle in the movie is hit or miss. Some of it is good, some of it is bad. And there's enough of it that it's easy to get the impression from a preview that this is primarily a movie about spectacle in the tradition of some of the big bible adaptations of the past. However, the core drama here is intensely personal as we watch, desperately on edge, to see how far Noah will go with his increasingly violent and dark crusade to help rid the world of a humanity of which he increasingly despairs.

One of the key problems with the movie, in the end, is that it builds up Noah as such a dangerous fanatic that I personally was rooting for him to die in order to protect humanity from him, yet although Noah does at the last relent in a key way -- due to a moment of humanity which he nonetheless sees as a failure of nerve -- the movie fails to either mete out justice to him or show a sufficient conversion of character to seem dramatically satisfying. The story of Noah has been changed from one in which God deals out justice to humanity through clear (if dark) instructions, to one in which humanity, in the person of one ultimately powerful and relentless man, must decide for itself what is right and what is wrong. And never even quite does that clearly.

Another key weakness is that the movie is a bit confused as to what kind of evil has to be exterminated. On the one hand, the movie paints a heavy-handed contrast between the "sons of Cain" who have developed an industrial civilization which has all the environmental problems of Mordor and none of its garden spot charms, and the descendants of Seth (Noah and his family) who are vegetarian gatherers, though given where they live they must get by on about 10 calories a day. At times it's suggested that the Creator's reason for wanting to wipe out the Sons of Cain while saving Noah and his family is that Cain's descendants do not respect creation. However, there's also a sharp moral contrast drawn, with the Cain-ites living in seemingly constant murder, rape, cannibalism, etc. At one point, as he starts to sour on all of humanity, Noah tells his wife that even his own family is a blot on the earth, just like the Sons of Cain, but his argument in this case is moral: "We like they would kill, if we had to."

The movie never really settles on which of these is the reason that the Creator wants to wipe out men -- though either way Noah's people become more like what he is seeking to destroy: Just as he uses escalating amounts of violence to support his project, his arc building also wreaks environmental destruction on a literally Eden-like landscape in a way that seems consciously to mirror the destruction left by the Cain-ites, but this tension is never dealt with by the movie.

In the end, the movie is, I think, a failure. Too many things don't make sense, the key personal and moral conflict is never satisfactorily resolved. However, it is certainly interesting and discussable. I naturally find myself comparing it to Gladiator, in which Crowe also plays a costumed relentless killer bent on justice. Gladiator is a successful movie in a way that Noah is simply not. Its spectacle is more sure; its plot works; it resolves. But there are human situations and dilemmas in Noah which are stronger than anything in Gladiator. It's a noble failure in that it tries hard to think about hard issues. Perhaps part of why it fails is that it's based on a biblical story, yet determined to remove biblical morality and the relationship between God and man. Having removed that, it never really comes up with a workable substitute. I wish that someone would do a movie based on pagan mythology that took its issues this seriously, rather than churning out the abysmal sword-and-sandal epics that seem to have come back into vogue. Perhaps then the unwillingness to settle on a coherent message would go down a little better than it does in this pseudo-monotheistic cosmos.

I think Steven Greydanus's view of the movie is far too positive, but Barb Nicolosi's bizarre rant misses the virtues that the movie does have.

Spoilers follow the image.


So for those willing to read spoilers but who haven't seen the movie, here's the key outline of the movie:

We first meet Noah as a child, as he sees his father killed in cold blood by Tubal-cain, one of the descendants of Cain. Fast forward to Noah as an adult, and with three sons of his own, and almost the first thing we see him do is kill three Cain-ites who have just shot a dog-like animal. At least one of these killings is in cold blood: Noah has beaten the group, he stands over the man who lies on the ground. Noah meets his eyes for a moment, then plunges a spear into him. Then he buries the dog and leaves the men to rot.

It that seems like a dark opening for a biblical patriarch, I can only say it's going to get a lot darker before it's over. Noah is worried that the Cain-ites are closing in. That night he has a dream about the mountain where his grandfather Methuselah lives and the world being destroyed by water while the animals seemingly are lifted up to safety out of the waters. He takes his family on a trek to see if Methuselah still lives. On the way, he rescues a young girl from a group of Cain-ites who have been slaughtered by others of their own. She is badly injured with a cut to her stomach, but Noah's wife Naameh predicts that she will heal if the fever doesn't kill her, though she will never be able to have children. She does heal, and over the following years of story time she grows up to be Emma Watson (though in the film they call her Ila) who is like a daughter to Noah though to his older son Shem she is something much more interesting than a sister.

Noah has a discussion with with Methuselah and a couple more dreams, and realizes that he is called to build an arc which will save him and "the innocent" (animals) from a flood that will wipe out sinful humanity. This seems tricky when they live in a barren wasteland destroyed by the Cain-ites, but Methuselah gives Noah as "seed from the garden of Eden" which Noah plants and miraculously produces rivers of water and vast forests of trees. He also has supernatural help from the Watchers, semi-fallen angels who disobeyed God to come help fallen humanity, and as a punishment were imperfectly made corporeal with giant bodies of misshapen rock.

The Watchers build the massive, rectangular Ark, and providence brings streams of animals to the ark, two of each kind, whom Noah's family then puts to sleep with the smoke of herbs that will make them sleep until the end of the flood. The family is, meanwhile, getting restive. It isn't lost on them that they'll be the only humans left after the flood, and with Shem in love with the barren Ila (who is refusing to marry him because she thinks he needs a wife who can have children) and the other two boys single (and Jennifer Connelly looking good but too old to have more children as Noah's wife Naameh), there's a real problem with the future of humanity. Noah promises that the Creator will provide wives, and shortly after a large, ravening camp of humanity shows up under the leadership of Tubal-cain, who wants to take over the Ark for himself and his people. Noah goes into the Cain-ite camp to find wives for his sons, but he's so horrified by what he sees there (fighting, raping and meat-eating) that he decides that the Creator want humanity wiped out, even his family once they've done their job, and he goes back and tells his sons so.

Time is running out. Ham runs off to find his own wife and meets Na'el, an innocent and wronged girls in the Cain-ite camp. He starts to bring her back as his chosen wife. Shem and Ila both set off (separately) to find Ham. Ila runs into Methuselah, who gives her his blessing -- a blessing which immediately cures her infertility. She can tell and immediately runs into Shem and consummates a marriage with him. (This sounds dumb, but as done in the movie the blessing and natural marriage is actually one of the better and more movingly human parts of the marriage. Emma Watson and Jennifer Connelly are two of the stronger actors in the movie and do very good work.)

Now the rain starts and everyone (including Tubal-cain's ravening army) rushes for the ark. Ham and Na'el are almost there when she puts her foot in a bear trap which the Cain-ites have set. She's trapped and rolling on the ground in pain while Ham seeks to free her and the army rushing on when Noah appears. For a moment they think they're saved, but Noah, rather than helping, grabs Ham drags him away, leaving her to be trampled and killed by the army. Noah shuts is family in the Ark, and he and the Watchers set about slaughtering the army of Tubal-cain which is trying to break in. Hundreds if not thousands are slaughtered, including all the Watchers, who return to the Creator, apparently forgiven. Then geysers of water end it all. The only two survivors are Noah (who is such a bad mofo that he's killed his way through and makes it back into the Ark) and Tubal-cain, who is an equally bad mofo and cuts his way into the ark in an unseen corner. He is wounded, but protected by Ham who had a grudge against his father over Na'el's death.

The Ark rides the rough seas and what at first sounds like the wailing of the wind proves to be the sounds of thousands of people crying out in despair as they are struggling to stay afloat, and at last drowning. Against this background, and the survivors sit cringing in pain for those outsides (Ila wants to try to rescue people, but Noah fiercely refuses) Noah provides a re-telling of the creation and fall. This is a fascinatingly done set of imagery, and worth seeing the movie right there, ending with a stylized silhouette of Cain killing Abel which turns into a stylized representation of war and violence all through history.

Everyone is dead now except the occupants of the Ark, and the results of Methuselah's blessing now become apparent: Ila is pregnant. She and Naameh are worried about what will happen. Shem and Ila go to Noah for their blessing, but he is furious. He doesn't see this as a sign from God, he sees it as ruining his plan. He says that if it's a boy, he will let the child live, and he will be the last human being. If the child is a girl, Noah will kill her. Needless to say this puts a damper on family closeness.

Time passes. Ila is near her time. She and Shem have built a raft on which they plan to leave the Ark, even though the birds sent out have not yet found land. Noah, however, gloweringly shows up and sets their raft on fire as they've about to leave. Ila goes into labor. Shem sets guard and says he will kill Noah if he tries to take their child. Ham, who has nursed Tubal-cain back to health, now makes his play and the two of them try to kill Noah. There's a big fight between Noah and Tubal-cain while Ila is giving birth. Ham stands by with a knife, ready to kill Noah if necessary, then intervenes on the other side (killing Tubal-cain) when Tubal-cain brags that after killing Noah the women will be his and he will found a new race in his image. At this moment the Ark runs aground. Ila has given birth to twin girls. Naamah tries to convince Noah that this is a sign, but he is relentless in his determination to kill both. However, at the last moment, standing with his knife above the babies, he loses his nerve and walks away.

The water falls, plants grow, the animals wake up, and Noah's descendants start a settlement. Noah is meanwhile growing grapes and getting drunk on wine because he is disgusted with himself for failing to kills the girls. He tells a surprisingly empathetic Ila that he feels it was all for nothing because he failed to assure the extinction of humanity, but that when he looked on the girls he felt nothing but love and could not kill them. She tells him that perhaps the Creator wanted to give him the choice whether to let humanity survive, because the Creator trusted him. After this semi-reconciliation, Noah simply goes back and rejoins his family, while Ham goes off, unwilling to be part of it all. (I'm kind of with him on that.)

So, having laid all that out, here's the problem: I think Noah clearly does take on basically all the evils that he's trying to get rid of. The first thing we see him do is gratuitously kill people, and his violence only escalates throughout the movie, until he is on the point of killing his own newborn grandchildren in cold blood. He stops short of that, but there's no clear conversion of heart. He just stops short.

The way that I most wanted to see it end, was I wanted his sons to kill him, or see him washed over the side of the Ark. It's clear by this point in the movie that Noah have become everything that he's seeking to rid the world of, and the best way to assure that the Creator's plan is completed is to get rid of Noah. The rest of those on the ship are innocent. Noah is not. In the unforgiving logic of the movie, he should die.

An alternative would be a true conversion of heart. This would mean going Christian places that the movie seems hesitant to go, but there would have been an easy way to do it. There's a long moment, one of the most fraught and terrifying I've seen on film in a long time where Noah stand poised over Emma Watson (who holds her babies in her arms) reading to murder them. She won't look away, and the look for grief and horror and pleading on her face is one of the most powerful things I've seen on film in a while. If in that moment Noah had truly realized that he was wrong (not just that he wasn't strong enough to do what he wanted, but that he was wrong) this could have allowed the movie to resolve satisfyingly without killing him. The dove comes back with its olive branch only shortly after. If it had handed on his hand as he was poised to strike and he had finally, in his hardened heart, accepted this as a sign in a way that he was not willing to take the barren Ila conceiving as a sign, or the twin girls as a sign -- if he had dropped to his knees and wept and seen how wrong he had been -- that too could have saved the movie.

Yet another option would have been the sacrifice of an innocent. Noah's youngest son is still young enough to function in this role. If the young Japheth had somehow thrown himself in the way of his father's blow and been killed, and if this had somehow broken the hardness of Noah's heart, this would also have provided a strong enough change to make the turn work.

What does not work, what fatally does not work, to my mind, is the ambiguous non-ending to the key human drama that we see: Ham leaving rather than live with his father, Noah returning to his family but never really acknowledging that he was wrong to seek the life of the innocent. In the end, the movie as it stands grapples with tough moral and dramatic issues, but it never resolves them.

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