So I very much enjoyed Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, a cinematic meditation on death, dying, awe, and letting go. It's pretty esoteric and I think works better if you're thinking in Buddhist terms going into the movie, but I appreciate directors who make movies that swing for the fences, even if they don't get there entirely. I'm glad that we have such movies and such directors, because if all we had were paint-by-the-number movies or directors, cinema would be much more boring.
Noah also swung for the fence, even if it also didn't get there entirely.
First off, let's just say that I went into the movie with no expectation of it being a "literal" biblical movie. The story of Noah in the Bible takes like two pages, so of course there was going to be artistic interpretation. Such changes don't bother me at all. The ancient inspired writers of the early parts of Bible were more storytellers than historians anyway (we Latter-day Saints are very spoiled in that regard by Mormon himself), so if you re-told a story that they themselves had given you, but changed it a little to make a different point, they wouldn't mind so terribly.
Besides, since any thinking person would acknowledge that artistic license needs to be taken, we should be careful to throw stones at someone whose artistic license differs from that of our own. Look at these two screenshots, one from a trailer for Noah, another from the beginning of The Prince of Egypt.
Clearly those marketing Noah were taking a page from the creators of The Prince of Egypt. I bet most people who thought Noah was unbiblical enjoyed The Prince of Egypt. If you say "it wasn't biblical" and you really mean "I didn't like it," then you're silly. The only thing truly biblical is . . . the Bible. Besides, we have the advantage of all of the biblical story, all the way down to the merciful son of God, Jesus Christ. We hence forget that if all we read was Genesis . . . well, there God's more about wrath than He is about Mercy. I can't fault Aronofsky for focusing just on the God presented in the Noah account, the God who literally wants to drown humanity.
Also, everybody complaining about the fallen angel storyline needs to go read them some Bible. I mean, like really read it. Giants and fallen angels? It's all there, we just don't talk about it in Sunday School. The early parts of Genesis are far weirder than we imagine, written by people with a worldview far different from our own, and who were telling stories that were about events thousands of years in their past. Still scripture? Yes. As far as it is translated correctly.
Things I liked about the movie:
The fallen angel storyline was, to me, at least slightly compelling. The idea that these beings of light took pity on humans and came down to help us, but were cursed in doing so, resonated with me. How often do we do the right thing for a wrong reason, or the wrong thing for a right reason, and suffer the consequences? The pathetic, misshapen, awkward bodies of the giant fallen angels evoked the idea of creatures doomed by their own choices. It made me think of all of us, here on this earth, bound down by sin, pathetic and misshapen without divine intervention.
I also liked that Aronofsky really tried for some reinterpretation of the story. Why did man need to be wiped out, according to the Genesis account? Because they were evil. But what form did that evil take? The text does not say; it just says that humans were wicked continually. To have a more environmentalist form of wickedness be the reason is not a bad interpretation. The question to ask is "if God were going to destroy us today, why would He do so?" It's not unreasonable to think that our overuse of his gift to us, using up resources faster than we should for a sustainable world, is a sin. (However, more on this general environmentalist theme later.)
The character of Noah is also given a compelling storyline, more or less. Getting vague details in a revelation from the Creator, then allowed to work it out for himself, yet being torn about the death he was about to see, with a healthy dose of survivor's guilt, and then also feeling like he had failed in his task on some level-those are all character arcs that I can enjoy, because I see some of them in my own life.
There are a few nods to things that might seem weird to a standard Christian audience, but that feel right at home to a Mormon audience. Glowing rocks that help light the ark (like in Ether 6:2) is just one.
Noah's telling of the creation story was also quite well-done, because it evokes what we now know scientifically about the creation of the world. Good scripture should resonate with all of us through the ages, and the simple creation account from the scriptures (in the LDS case, Genesis, Moses, Abraham, and the temple ceremony) should do so. To see something out of a science documentary with Russell Crowe narrating a paraphrased creation account from Genesis 1 . . . yeah, I dug it, even if it was very short.
Also, if you haven't seen Terrence Malik's Tree of Life, this version of the creation is also cinematically brilliant, and worth spending 15 minutes of your life on. (I'm not sure the rest of the movie is worth spending the time on, but this part was for sure.)
What I would love to see is something a bit of a combination of these two, something out of a science documentary juxtaposed with the biblical text, yet not over as quickly as the story is told in Noah. It can still be narrated by Russell Crowe.
P.S. You can be a Mormon and still believe the earth is billions of years old. Really. You can.
The biggest weakness of the movie was, in my opinion, that though Aronofsky went for a different interpretation, he simultaneously went for three of them. Let me explain.
What is man's wickedness? The movie answers it two ways. First, the environmental explanation, which I talked about above, and rather liked as a modern take on an ancient story. However, if your theme is the environmental one, then you need to focus on that more consistently. In the movie it kind of disappears after the first half or so, only brought up later in dialogue as Noah contemplates ending the human race, and dialogue isn't cinematically compelling. The earlier vistas of devoured forests and barren landscapes made this point better.
Second, the more standard answer about humans being murderers and a war-like race. This is mostly shown in the movie through the character of Tubal-Cain, who gets a single verse in the Bible (Genesis 4:22). To be a man, in his view, is to take control of your destiny and to do whatever it takes to survive, independent of morals or any divine commandment. He throws enough scriptural phrases around that you know that he is aware of the garden story and Adam and Eve, but has taken much the wrong meaning from them. He hates and blames the Creator, instead of looking inward to discover why the Creator has done these things, and wondering if He might be just in His judgment. He perpetuates the violence of his worldview onto the ark itself as a stowaway, which I found a little weird. More violence before the flood, and none after, would have adequately made the point about the worldview of Tubal-Cain and others like him.
So those are the first two themes. The third theme is the question "Is man worth saving?" Noah himself gets this question, and has to answer it. We all know, of course, at the end he chooses to answer the question that "yes, man is worth saving," but only after nearly killing his two infant female grandchildren. (What? Yes, that's right. Noah nearly becomes an infanticidal maniac, with more than a few hints of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac.) If your question is "is man worth saving?" again, there would be better ways to answer that question than to have Noah contemplate killing his newly born grandchildren. There are enough flashbacks to Cain killing Able or scenes with Tubal-Cain that you could have used something like those to make the point.
The problem comes that each of these three themes, compelling and interesting in and of themselves, don't exactly match up when all mashed together. If you want to do a commentary on the wickedness of man as evil and murderous, then don't have Noah know how to fight at all (and he shouldn't be carrying weapons in the posters advertising the movie). Certainly don't have him contemplate for nine months the murder of newborns. Because Aronofsky was going for a mishmash of different themes, the character of Noah himself suffered some continuity problems.
So, I suppose my point is this. To make this movie more consistent, Darren Aronofsky should have picked one of these three, and then stuck with it:
1. The wickedness of man is murder and violence.
2. The wickedness of man is the horrible misuse of God's creation.
3. Is man worth saving? (I suppose you could do this with either 1 or 2, but not both.)
The mismatch of all three of them meant that no one was developed as well as it could be. Better to pick one and run with it. In this way, it could be like The Prince of Egypt vs. The Ten Commandments. Is the fight between Moses and Ramses a sibling rivalry (Prince) or largely over a woman and over hubris (Ten Commandments)? Both are perfectly good character motivations and arcs for those two characters, but mixing them together would do those motivations a disservice. I'm glad that those two movies picked one theme for that relationship and then ran with it. Noah did not, and suffered for it.
So, as I said at the beginning, I'm glad that such a talented filmmaker took a rich story, like the account of Noah, and swung for the fences with it. I don't think he quite reached the fences, but it wasn't a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination.
Some additional reading, for those interested:
Christians who liked it.
One biblical scholar's take on some of the weirdness (which is actually straight out of the real biblical text).
I couldn't find any Christian criticisms of the movie that didn't descend immediately into idiocy. ("But it never even says the word 'God.'" "Oh please. The bible is quite clear (or is it?) that God wasn't known by his name until Moses' time, as per Exodus 6:3." "Noah wasn't a vegetarian!" "Yes, actually, he would have been, as humans are allowed to eat meat only after the flood, as evidenced by Genesis 9:3." Just two examples of nuance.) (That's right, I just did a double deep parenthetical remark.) I'm sure good Christian criticisms exist, I'm just not going to scour the internet so I can link them here.
Muslims banned it because it shows a physical representation of a prophet, and most schools of Islam ban such representations. That's a religious objection, not a critique of the movie itself.
One reviewer from The Atlantic who had some interesting insights on the juxtaposition of Noah and Tubal-Cain. Maybe I didn't give that dynamic enough thought.
Here's someone who took issue with the overly-simplified environmentalism of the film.
And finally, a fascinating interview with Aronofsky himself. (He wrote a poem about the Noah story in 7th grade and has been working through the implications ever since. So naturally, he put his 7th grade teacher in the movie.)
Score: 80/100. This gets a B-, mostly for what it was attempting to do, which I can appreciate, opposed to what it actually did.