Roundtable: Noah (2014) Part 2

Part II of the Brothers Noah roundtable. Read Part I here.

Anders: A lot of the so-called controversy over the film has come from the fact that conservative Christian groups feel that the concerns of Aronofsky’s film clash with what they call “biblical” concerns, but I think that this is patently ridiculous. I think the biggest concern they have is that the film emphasizes an “environmentalist” message, and while that is clearly one of the film’s concerns, I was kind of surprised at how up front the film is in presenting the notion that humanity has become sinful and violent and that is the root cause of God’s desire to wipe out humanity.

Anton: I’ve heard Noah described as a biblical epic for the twenty-first century. Whatever that means, Noah is very different from most of the biblical epics Hollywood made during the twentieth century, many of which were tamely pious but not entirely "biblical."

Firstly, Hollywood biblical epics are rarely interested in mythology. They tend to present themselves as history, and share a lot in common with other Hollywood period pieces. The only exception I can think of is John Huston’s The Bible (which has some utterly bizarre and intriguing moments, and is considered a commercial failure and oddity).

Secondly, they are generally moralistic and conventionally reverent, not alive to deep spiritual yearnings, which might give rise to spiritual questioning, as Noah does. They're generally less about addressing what is true and what is good, and more about punishing what is conventionally deemed bad.

Thirdly, and especially in the films of Cecil B. DeMille, the biblical epic was intensely ambivalent towards sexuality. Period pieces generally allowed for the opportunity for more skin to be shown, but this eroticism was always contained by the highly moralistic messages of the films, most evident in their pious endings. Noah is barely interested in sex (especially in its erotic and non-procreative aspects), and the great sin it addresses is our treatment of the created world God gave us.

Anders: The other great sin is how we treat each other. I think that in the effort to paint the film as “environmentalist” (whatever that means to them) people are forgetting that violence and the quest for power are central to the film’s interests as well. Humans have destroyed the world in their quest to dominate one another, not unlike in the stories of Atlantis or contemporary stories about post-nuclear wastelands. The environmental devastation is a by-product of human violence and greed.

This fits with the notion of the film as being more of an apocalyptic film than a traditional biblical epic. I mean apocalyptic in the cinematic generic sense, rather than the biblical generic, though there are elements of Revelation in the film, in Noah’s visions for instance. The film is more Mad Max than Ben Hur, with the heroes making their way through a barren wasteland, avoiding looting marauders, and carrying with them the possibility of hope. The closest thing I can think of in comparison in a recent film was The Book of Eli, which also recognized the strong biblical resonance of more common Hollywood conceptions of post-apocalyptic worlds such as The Omega Man. But like The Book of Eli, Aronofsky's film can’t fully contain the tensions within it. The idea should work on paper, but in giving in to the blockbuster conventions it mutes the more serious tone. I guess I want to see a serious, religious apocalyptic film that is more The Road than I Am Legend.

Another really interesting aspect of the film is that it is as if we are already plunged into a post-apocalyptic state of sorts when the film begins. Within ten generations of Adam and Eve, humans have already laid creation to waste. And God’s solution is to just go ahead and finish the job! Okay, that’s not entirely fair, since Noah and his family will save the animals and plants, but still, God’s plan in both the film and the Bible is more a “year zero” kind of Soviet-style societal reconstruction! And like those ill-fated twentieth century attempts at re-creating  society, within a few generations of Noah, humans will screw up again and create the Tower of Babel. So, I do appreciate the film's addressing Noah’s internal torment and his knowledge that humanity's sinful nature is carried on in him and his family.

Anton: The prologue reminded me of The Lord of the Rings, even the font of the titles, as did the Watchers, which recall Ents. I honestly don’t know if this is conscious, or if The Lord of the Rings has just exerted such a strong influence over Hollywood epics and blockbusters in general.

Aren: I can imagine the Tolkien influences are deliberate. On the one hand, almost any Hollywood film in the last decade and a half that could be termed “epic” shows its Lord of the Rings influences. But on the other hand, I can imagine a smarmy studio executive from Paramount pressuring Aronofsky to make the film "cooler," you know, like those Hobbit movies. I’ve seen some images of the Watchers from Aronofsky’s graphic novel that he created to pitch the film to the studios and they’re definitely not rock monsters in that medium. Instead they're 20-foot tall giants with six arms, more similar to the Tharks in John Carter than what we get in the final film. I can only imagine that in the process the studio coaxed Aronofsky to transform his vision of these warrior angels to hue closer to Jackson's Ents combined with Transformers, with big rock hands ready to bash away at the throngs of people that will attack them in the inevitable war sequence.

Anders: I kind of both like the Watchers and their kind of cheesy Harryhausen-esque appearance, but also wish that they had been more unique in their appearance. You mentioned the Hobbit stone giants, but others have mentioned the goofy rock monster from Galaxy Quest.

Aren: I’m getting a little flippant here to make a point. Noah is undoubtedly the result of some studio tampering. In some ways, I see Noah as a fascinating case study for how studios craft movies today and how audiences react to those movies. Aronofsky pitched the studio a radical version of a familiar tale. It appeased the studio’s desire to have a pre-established fan-base (i.e. believers), so they allowed him to make it. The Bible is a pre-established franchise that you don’t have to pay for the rights to, so expect more biblical epics to show up in the near-future (the first of which is Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings this December). But they had to change it to accommodate their fascination with CGI battle scenes and climactic showdowns.

I remember reading a few years ago that the script was undergoing major rewrites, primarily to make Tubal-Cain more prominent as the human villain of the film. In the studio system, conflict is of paramount importance, and that conflict needs a human instigator. It wasn’t enough that within the story of Noah all of humanity is evil and that Noah is struggling against the evil of the world in his quest to save the animals in his Ark. No, Noah needs a physical antagonist  to overcome, preferably in a physical contest near the climax. All the parts of Noah I didn't like are its most conventional moments, moments it shares with a dozen other current blockbusters that seem to be working against the fascinating, estranging moments that I love. If you want a look at how studios grasp onto a daring, original vision and change it to conform to their ideas of how big movies should be, look at the creation of Noah.

Anders: Yes, it’s almost as if all the interesting characterization is mashed up with a Robert McKee screenwriting manual. The effect is to mute the internal conflict that seems to be the most interesting to Aronofsky, as per our discussion of his interest in the themes of obsession and self-doubt. It also makes the film more Manichean, introducing themes of dualism and the externalization of evil.

Aren: But then, on the other hand, take the reactions to the film. Critics are mostly positive—it has a metascore of 67 on Metacritic, meaning “generally favorable reviews”—but their quibbles have to do with how it lacks a unified vision. Like myself, they believe the blockbuster and the Aronofsky film are at odds with each other. But audiences on the other hand, the ordinary people I sat next to when I saw it, don’t care for the Aronofsky-weirdness on display. They want something more palatable, less distancing. They were laughing at the wrong moments in the film, weirded out by the non-traditional elements like "zohar" and the Watchers.

If the film were entirely how the studio wanted it to be, if it lacked Aronofsky’s handprints and fascinations, I imagine audiences would embrace it more. It has a “C” rating on Cinemascore. Divergent has an “A” Cinemascore. I think this fact allows us to put aside the idea that studios are forcing things on people that they don’t want. When studios fall over themselves backwards to give the people a slavishly faithful version of a popular property, like they did with Divergent, people like it. The fanbase embraces it. When something more bizarre like Noah comes out, that distances its audience with daring changes to the story and exposes people to their own evils, they feel uncomfortable and that leads to dislike. There’s no wonder conservative Christians are uncomfortable with Noah. It’s not a work of evangelism and is making a pointed Biblical argument about something many of them reject as nonsense or even evil: environmentalism. Noah is not the story they’re familiar with.

Anders: Noah is also weird in terms of its mode of production: it is one of those blockbusters that have sprung up in recent years that are made and envisioned by former indie/art house directors like Aronofsky or Christopher Nolan, who have now taken over Hollywood. But Aronofsky isn't able to harness the tensions between big budget blockbuster action and art house themes and ambiguity as well. But it’s also his first time out with a budget of this size, so it’s understandable that he may not have had as much free rein as he, or I,  would have liked.

Anton: The sequence relating the story of creation was amazing! I am intrigued by how Aronofsky stops the progress of evolution just before full humanity is achieved, and then switches to a highly mythical visual style. Adam and Eve are glowing beings. The tree looks like something out of an altarpiece. While he feels free to reinterpret, visually, the creation of the world, he seems to feel that the myth of the Garden and the Fall is not compatible with the Progress of Evolution myth, and switches gears.

(And by "myth" here, I mean a particular series of events, a narrative pattern, a story, that gives us special meaning. I’m not interested in debating creation and evolution here, and am not hinting towards the actuality of either right now.)

Aren: The creation sequence is my favourite scene in the film as well. It’s a powerful sequence, eloquently getting at the Fall’s universal ramifications. In essence, it demonstrates (as Jewish theology argues) how every generation of humanity has repeated the sins of the Fall. I also find it interesting that it shifts the focus from Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel, as if saying that that act of murder is the definitive human event, not Adam and Eve’s prideful fall. And that act of murder, of humanity committing violence against itself, transfers to violence against the world.

The pattern of three images (serpent, fruit, rock) showing up throughout the film also recalls Aronofsky’s editing repetitions from films like Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, as Anton mentioned. Aronofsky understands that repetitions in editing are essential to getting across certain points in filmmaking. Not every edit needs to be invisible, as per the rules of studio filmmaking. Making the edit visible proves a valuable point, which, here, is that humanity is bound to repeat the process of Temptation, Transgression and Consequence throughout all of time.

Anders: I’ll echo the praise for that sequence. Really, it’s these aspects that keep me from rejecting Noah as a mess. There’s just far too much of interest. I love the idea of a filmmaker of Aronofsky's skill being allowed to really tackle something on a large scale, and I hope it does well so that we can continue to see these passion projects materialize. Megan Ellison can’t fund everything, so on some level co-operation with the studios is going to have to happen.