It’s not easy being clean.
Nobody’s puppets, Noah and his family still try to live as cleanly as possible—to live as the Creator meant them to live. And they’re doing it in a very dirty age long before Babylon held the fertile crescent, before Egypt’s pyramids sprouted next to the Nile. They work in harmony with nature. They don’t wantonly kill either man or beast.
They don’t, in other words, operate like those other guys—the descendants of Cain who dominate the planet. Those thugs are fighters, not lovers, and they’ll kill anything that gets in their way, be it animals, people or the planet itself. They even went to war with the mysterious Watchers—towering rock-encrusted beings who, at one time, taught and guided humanity. These Cainanites are turning the Creator’s amazing work into a planetary landfill.
And the Creator has had enough.
He gives Noah a vision, showing him a world submerged in water. Noah, disturbed, treks to visit his grandfather, Methuselah, who holds what you might call a fruitless court in a cave. There, Noah receives another picture from heaven: a huge boat, bobbing on the water, animals swimming to meet it.
The Creator, Noah deduces, is going to push the reset button, destroying all that is bad so that things can begin anew. “The storm can’t be stopped,” Noah tells Methuselah. “But it can be survived.”
Noah has always followed his Creator’s wishes—but the way ahead is now unbelievably hard. Not only must he, his family and a few helpful Watchers build a massive ark, they must use it—as the rest of humanity screams and drowns beneath. They must be strong. They must show no mercy.
And what if the evil doesn’t die with the descendants of Cain, but lives inside Noah’s own family too? Does imperfect man have a place in the Creator’s perfect plan? Wouldn’t we just mess the world up all over again? Aren’t we all sullied by weakness and sin? Dirtied by fatal flaws? Even the righteous Noah himself?
Not easy being clean? It’s downright impossible.
[Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Not all the morals of Noah, the movie, are likely the same ones you’d glean from the biblical narrative. The two stories are far too different for that to be possible. But there are worthwhile points to ponder here:
Noah teaches his boys what he believes the Creator would have him teach. And he always tries to follow his God to the very best of his ability—no matter how hard or painful the task ahead might be. He twists things up sometimes, for sure, and that turns him into a bit of a madman for a while, but Noah always sees himself as a servant—a tool in the hands of a mighty God—and thus is willing to subjugate himself to, by definition, a greater good.
Noah’s wife, Naameh, loves him through all of this craziness, sticking with him through, literally, high water if not hell itself. That loyalty, though, doesn’t dim her vision of what right is and how wrong looks. When Noah begins to believe that their own family should not be exempted from God’s righteous wrath, she furiously works to rein him in—to show him that love is just as important as justice and judgment. Likewise, Noah’s son Shem and his new love, Ila, staunchly protect their baby children, risking their own lives to keep them safe. And Ila spearheads the family’s rescue of an injured little girl whose own family has been killed.
The Watchers—who are said to have been created on the second day and then punished by the Creator for helping the sons of Cain and then slaughtered by Cain’s offspring for their trouble—take a cosmic risk by again aiding mankind. They help Noah build the ark and, when the evil Tubal-cain leads an army against Noah, defend the family and the ark with their lives.
Noah and his family are seriously committed vegetarians. But the movie’s environmentalism isn’t merely a call to stave off global warming by recycling: It’s used as a deeper metaphor, a way to further distinguish the mindset of Seth (which responsibly fosters God’s creation) with the mode of Cain (which is to pillage and destroy). Even a flower, Noah tells his son, serves the Creator’s will better in the ground than in someone’s pocket. “They have a purpose,” Noah says—to spread seeds and propagate. Or, as he will later say, to be fruitful and multiply.
Noah goes pretty far off the Sunday school flannel board to tell its story, beginning with “the beginning.” Noah recounts the story of creation to his children, reciting what happened on each of the six days. Using time-lapse photography, his account blends the Bible with Darwinian evolution, as animals change into other animals in rapid-fire sequence. (And most of the creatures on the ark appear to be evolutionary forebears of the ones we live with today.)
Noah acknowledges that it didn’t take long for mankind to start messing things up. We see glimpses of Adam, Eve and the forbidden fruit, with Satan creepily slithering out of another snake. And Cain’s murder of Abel is seen as a critical turning point for humanity’s relationship with its Creator.
The Nephilim (who make just a cameo appearance in Genesis 6:4) are given significant roles here. They’re meshed with the concept of the Watchers (angels mentioned in Daniel and fleshed out in the apocryphal books of Enoch), and we’re told that they’re angels who were made into rock-like creatures as punishment for helping humans after the Fall. It’s said that God (only called the Creator here) has rejected them and refuses to let them return home even when they die. But after they help Noah, we watch them zoom up to heaven in a beam of light, finally accepted back into the Creator’s good graces.
Unlike the direct commands issued by God to Noah in Genesis, His will is obscured in Noah. The titular character receives only visions, their meaning never fully clear to him. And because Noah and his family deeply desire to do God’s will exactly, this exacerbating lack of communication creates some serious conflicts—an echo of sometimes our own uncertainty of what God would have us do now.
Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather, wields some mysterious powers: He puts Noah’s son Shem to sleep with a touch and, through his blessing, heals a wound. (Whether this is sorcery or a gift from God we’re never told.) A magical seed he gives Noah (he says it’s from the Garden of Eden) produces, when planted, a flow of water and then an entire forest of trees on a barren plane.
Shem playfully tackles Ila in the forest and kisses her passionately, his mouth working its way to her belly, where she bares a deep scar. Ila makes him stop. She is, we’re told, barren because of a childhood injury, and she tearfully pleads with Noah to find Shem a wife who can provide him children and, thus, happiness.
In another scene Ila runs to Shem and begins kissing him like crazy, hurriedly stripping off clothes. (The camera briefly spies skin and then moves away.) Later, she discovers she’s pregnant, and the ecstatic couple ask Noah for his blessing.
Adam and Eve are seen naked (they’re glowing and the shot is from a distance), as is a drunken Noah. (Nothing explicit is seen.) Naameh’s draped top reveals quite a lot of cleavage in one scene. In a town, girls and women are traded for food.
We repeatedly see a silhouette replay of Cain killing Abel with a rock. And at one juncture, the sequence morphs into warlike conflicts throughout the ages, with the killer and victim becoming soldiers from ancient to modern times. In ditches and valleys piles of dead bodies and/or skeletons are seen multiple times. We watch men pull down and kill the giant Watchers. A fiery cataclysm decimates a throng of warriors. Fire from heaven kills even more. People are bashed and stomped and trampled and stabbed and hacked and, of course, drowned.
Tubal-cain kills Noah’s father with a hatchet blow to the head, with blood-squirting results. Noah kills quite a few assailants, showing himself to be pretty handy with a blade. Angry that hunters have shot an animal, he plucks the sharp projectile from the beast’s bleeding side and uses it to fight the four men responsible, killing at least a couple of them. Other animals have their throats cut or their guts grotesquely spilled. In a bloody marketplace, live animals are torn apart and eaten raw. Noah has visions of countless drowned humans and animals, and he walks on ground saturated with blood. A girl gets caught in an animal trap (metal points piercing her leg).
Noah comes to believe that God means to end the human race entirely. He tells his family that once they arrive in a cleansed world, they’ll all grow old and die—forbidding his children to take wives (and also actively thwarting them). When Ila gets pregnant, Noah tells her that if the baby proves to be female (and thus a potential mother), he’ll kill the infant as soon as she leaves the womb. Indeed, later we see him clutching a knife pointed at a baby’s face. And for much of the movie, Noah stands as a fearsome figure of death, glowering with his unsheathed blade. In one case, he callously allows a young woman to die by way of a trampling horde when he refuses to help her.
“D‑‑n” is uttered four times. (But in context, the word is used correctly, with Tubal-cain declaring that he’ll be “damned” by the Creator no matter what he does. And because he does what he does, he is indeed damned.)
Noah, believing he let the Creator down, gets rip-roaring drunk, spending what would seem to be days guzzling down wine. He finally passes out, naked. (We see him from a distance, lying face down.) Methuselah gives Noah some tea that appears to be drugged, leading to a strange vision.
A prideful power play develops between Noah and his son Ham, leading the lad to nearly betray his own flesh and blood, and finally leave the family altogether. “Love” is said to be the “only thing they need to be good.”
Long before its release, Noah was deluged in controversy. Some Christians praise the film for its themes of redemption and love winning out over malevolence, others revile it for taking so many liberties with the biblical account.
Director Darren Aronofsky offers a spectacular and often moving story, but it’s obviously not the story of Noah. There’s more Tolkien than Torah here, really, and more of Aronofsky himself than both of those. Perhaps this director made the Creator in his own image—full of mercy, magic and environmental sobriety. If you uncouple the movie from the Bible and take Noah as imaginative, fantastic fiction, it can begin to work. But hooked as it is to such a sacred narrative, well, let’s just say it’ll be hard for some Christians to swallow whole this fractious fable.
Harry Potter fans expect Harry Potter movies to stay mostly true to the book. History buffs are known to require historical dramas to follow actual history. I think it’s reasonable, then, for Christians to ask that the stories most precious to them be treated with faithfulness—and that movies based on them would, y’know, stay at least in the ballpark. But Mr. Aronofsky has chosen a different tack, and so the ancient truth about Noah becomes more of a pretext for Middle-earth rock monsters and a tormented, half-mad Noah ready to kill his own kin.
Still, Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, believes there is redemption to be found. “Darren Aronofsky is not a theologian, nor does he claim to be,” Daly says. “He is a filmmaker and a storyteller, and in Noah, he has told a compelling story. The film expresses biblical themes of good and evil; sin and redemption; justice and mercy. It is a creative interpretation of the scriptural account that allows us to imagine the deep struggles Noah may have wrestled with as he answered God’s call on his life. This cinematic vision of Noah’s story gives Christians a great opportunity to engage our culture with the biblical Noah, and to have conversations with friends and family about matters of eternal significance.”
What kind of conversation might that be? Well, possibly one exploring just who God really is. We see glimpses of His character in Noah: His beautiful design, His sorrow that humanity ran away from Him, His righteous anger and determination to wipe the slate clean and start again. He chose Noah—whom the Bible calls “the last righteous man”—because he’s the guy who best understands God’s sorrow and anger and justice. Or, as Noah himself puts it, “He knew I would complete the task, nothing more.”
And sometimes it’s even in the things the film changes that spiritual lessons emerge. One example: As Noah drifts into the idea that he’s been tasked with ending all human life on earth, he comes to believe that the Creator is calling on him to kill his own granddaughters. He’s desperately determined to follow through … until it comes time to actually complete the terrible charge.
“I looked down at those two little girls,” he confesses, “and all I had in my heart was love.”
It’s poignant that Noah, the last righteous man, felt such love in that moment. Because that’s what God feels when He looks down on us. We are sinners. We constantly fail Him. We deserve death, He tells us. But in His eyes, we’re also beautiful. And God’s love for us—His mercy and grace—ends up saving us.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.