The hardest part in writing or talking about Noah is knowing where to begin and what to focus on. The film is chock full of ideas, themes, characters, and visual motifs that you could probably write ten different articles on ten different subjects and still not cover the entirety of the film. For the sake of brevity and my own sanity, I’ve decided to focus on the thing that fascinated me the most: the pre-flood world.
The story of Noah is one of the more mythic tales of the Old Testament. This is a world before the historic figures of Abraham and Moses. Before the lands of Egypt and the empires of Babylon. A world before rainbows, before even the rain. Who are we to say what it should look like? In this regard, Noah has more in common with a fantasy along the lines of Lord of the Rings or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad than it does with the Biblical epics that came before.
Those looking for a strictly Christian representation of the flood narrative are bound to be disappointed, or at least pretty confused. The message and story beats are still there, but the retelling has been embellished, some of which comes from Aronofsky’s own imagination, while the rest has its roots in Jewish mythology. They had these stories before the rest of us, so it only makes sense that Aronofsky, a cultural Jew himself, would delve deep into their extra canonical writings.
In the Jewish faith, there are vast libraries of literature and entire schools of thought about what different passages mean, why certain words are used, and what their intentions are. These interpretations have led to several imaginative elaborations upon the often sparse scriptural narratives. This is called the Midrash, and it takes into account these extra canonical sources like The Book of Enoch and The Book of Jubilees (in fanboy terms, think of it as the Biblical equivalent of the Star Wars expanded universe). So perhaps that’s the best way to look at Noah, not as a literal adaptation of the Genesis story, but rather as a cinematic midrash.
Aronofsky wastes no time in establishing this mythology. Within the first few minutes we realize that we are in a different world, perhaps even a different planet. The Icelandic shooting locations, previously used for sci-fi films like Prometheus and Oblivion, give the film an otherworldly vibe. Even the skyline has been digitally altered. This is a place outside of time and history. In fact, if the film didn’t adhere itself so close to the ten generation separation between Noah and Adam and Eve, one could make an argument that the story is actually set in the far off future (the production and costume design often reminded of the post-apocalyptic sequences in Cloud Atlas).
Halfway through the film, safe and sound aboard the ark, Noah gathers his family together and tells them the first story his father told him and the first story he told to each of his children: the creation of this world. In a scene that plays like am abridged version of the opening to the The Tree of Life, Aronofsky does a remarkable thing: reconciling scientific cosmology and evolution with the creationism found in Genesis. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
But the pre-flood world is not a fully evolved one. Instead of ushering lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) onto the ark, Aronofsky uses this as an opportunity to experiment and tweak with the animal kingdom. I don’t know if I saw an elephant in the film, but I certainly saw something that looked like an elephant. Early in the film, Noah saves a small dog from a gang of poachers. But upon closer examination it appears to be closer in nature to the missing link between a dog and an armadillo. Yet, this is not the strangest thing Aronofsky has to offer. Despite setting this film in a world where science and creationism coexist, Aronofsky isn’t afraid to throw in some good ol’ fantasy and spiritual mysticism to round things out. Which leads us to The Watchers, or, as you’ve probably heard them unaffectionately called: ROCK MONSTERS.
The Watchers, or Nephilim as they are sometimes known, appear twice in the Old Testament, once in Genesis and other time in The Book of Numbers. But what were the Nephilim? Were they angels, or perhaps just the descendants of Seth? Regardless of your interpretation, pretty much everyone agrees on one thing: these guys were big, perhaps even giants (not unlike Goliath?). But what are we to make of them? Perhaps the most popular (and somewhat controversial) answer comes from The Book of Enoch. In it, there’s a large section about the Nephilim, and how they are the offspring of angels known as the Watchers, who fell from the grace of God and procreated with human wives.
But according to the film’s mythology, The Watchers and Nephilim are one in the same, angels who took pity on mankind and provided the technology to the line of Cain that led to the destruction of the earth, disobeying God and thus tarnishing their illuminated bodies with molten rock, trapping them in a stone exterior that gives them a strong resemblance to the golems of Jewish folklore. The Watchers are crippled, with their six arms and legs wrapped in uncomfortable contortions around their bodies, their stuttery movements more akin to a creature out of an old Ray Harryhausen film than a work of modern CGI. For me, they are the visual highlight in a film full of visual highlights.
But the Watchers don’t exist just to look cool. Their rock casings are the embodiment of souls steeped in sin. The film’s theme is centered around judgment and mercy, and whereas the righteous are saved and the rest of humanity is washed away, The Watchers embody the idea of forgiveness, something I think is more relatable to our everyday lives. Rarely will we be in a rapture or flood scenario where God “chooses” (probably not the best word, but just go with it for now) who should enter and who should stay behind. Instead, we make choices day to day, and it’s not until we accept and follow God’s will that we’ll be truly free. The Watchers disobeyed God, and it’s not until they follow and accept his will again that he accepts them back into heaven.
Sure, it may not be theologically correct, but then again Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t exactly either, now is he? Rarely do cinematic angels ever adhere to theological ideals. Instead, The Watchers’ purpose is rooted in mythology and in the film’s story and themes, and as long as those themes are good and faith affirming (which I believe them to be), then I’m okay with a little theological incorrectness if it’s something small like this.
All of this is merely scratching the surface of this mythology. I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather and a wizened old man who provides him with a magic seed with which to grow a forest for his ark. In a flashback to his younger days, Methuselah is seen saving The Watchers from the line of Cain, wielding a flaming sword and decimating an entire army with its power. In an alternate universe, Noah is a Ralph Bashki 2D animated fantasy film in the vein of Wizards or Fire and Ice.
But alas, this world is not to last. The rain falls, drowning all of humanity and eroding away the old earth. The flood waters subside and the world is again familiar to us. No digitally altered skylines or alien landscapes. This is the beginning of the world as we know it, signaled by God’s covenant with Noah and the appearance of the first rainbow.
I don’t know if giant rock monsters ever walked the earth, or that a single seed once had the power to grow an entire forest overnight. But Aronofsky has made a film that taps into the same sense of wonder and awe that made me fall in love with the worlds of Star Wars and Sinbad the Sailor. Perhaps these things never happened or could never happen, but there’s part of me that revels in the idea of “why not?” Our world is a strange and beautiful place, and as science seems more content to try and explain every facet of it, I appreciate the opportunity to once again look at it with blissful eyes, even if it is just on film.
Noah is currently playing in wide release.
Nick van Lieshout is an aspiring filmmaker and screenwriter. You can follow him on Twitter @Shout92.