Over the past month, faced with a torrent of criticism from Christians in the U.S. and Muslims abroad who say his interpretation of the Bible as blasphemous, the director Darren Aronofsky has taken to calling his new movie, Noah, a midrash, after the stories that ancient Jewish sages told to bulk up sparse passages in the Hebrew Bible. It’s an apt descriptor for a film that turns a few hundred lines of scripture where the protagonist never speaks into a 140-minute meditation on the folly of humankind. In keeping with the Jewish tradition of layering commentary upon commentary, Aronofsky and his co-writer, Ari Handel, scoured Jewish apocryphal texts and rabbinic midrashim for detail about Noah’s world. Often, these interpretations give snippets of backstory, making the Biblical patriarchs less mysterious and more human. One famous midrash explains why Moses—who tells God he is “slow of speech and of tongue”—was such a clumsy talker. (The answer: As part of an elaborate test from Pharoah, baby Moses briefly put a coal in his mouth. Thereafter, adult Moses suffered from a perpetual burned tongue.)
These commentaries invest Noah, at its best, with a moral urgency that’s alien to the Bible-epic genre. Rather than reanimating a familiar tale with crashing water and hammy mayhem, Aronofsky uses the film to grapples with the question: What would it be like to be an Old Testament prophet, commanded to abet God in a scheme for near-total genocide? Noah, played by Russell Crowe, is a zealot of many stripes; he’s a militant vegetarian and environmentalist, horrified by the ease with which mankind laid waste to the world after being expelled from Eden; he’s a religious fanatic incapable of questioning God. For most of the film, Noah is profoundly anti-heroic (a role which Russell Crowe, lumbering sullenly through the CGI wasteland, embraces wholeheartedly). His lack of empathy with the fallen human race revives a story that’s been reduced, in modern American culture, to a smiling bearded patriarch herding pairs of giraffes and bears onto a boat, into a disturbing ethical challenge. Should Noah have disobeyed God? How should we—faced with an impending environmental apocalypse of our own—think about our responsibilities to one another, not to mention our planet?
These are the questions that Noah raises in its first ninety minutes, elevating Noah far above the Bible epics of yore. Aronofsky’s vision is less triumphal than if it had been fashioned by Cecil B. DeMille, but it’s truer to the dark spirit of Genesis, where all of the patriarchs find themselves caught between a displeased God and his fickle creation. But before it has the opportunity to delve into the richest parts of the Noah story, which come at the end—the covenant Noah makes with God after the flood, where God gives humans dominion over the earth, and the curse Noah metes out to his son’s descendants, sentencing them to an eternity of slavery—the movie switches gears, transforming from a vivid midrash into a stock Christian epic, full of rainbows and cheap grace.
This sentimental turn is especially disappointing because if there were any director who could plumb the Old Testament’s forbidding depths, it’s Aronofsky. We’re dealing with the director of Requiem for a Dream, the same guy who allowed Natalie Portman to bleed to death at the end of Black Swan. The cheesy Bible epic is nothing new (just last month, Jesus came to the multiplex in Son of God) but in the first two-thirds of Noah, Aronofsky promises more than a children’s story. He departs from scripture to deepen the story, not to change it.
The ending feels unnatural not because it’s inaccurate—it isn’t scripturally precise, but neither is the rest of the movie. It’s a cop-out for Aronofsky because it makes Noah into a savior he was never meant to be. Noah has never been universally praised; in ancient Jewish commentaries, some rabbis blamed him for spending ten years constructing the ark, instead of warning humans to repent. Noah’s last act in the Bible is to establish a social hierarchy for his sons’ descendants—slave, master, and servant. At the end of Noah, however, the hero gets a hug and a lesson about the value of love. The tone is more New Testament than Old, a sign of the extent to which watered-down Christian values infiltrate even the bleakest and most controversial of Biblical adaptations.
After test screenings for religious audiences last fall, Christian conservatives lambasted Aronofsky for his aberrant departures from scripture, eventually forcing Paramount to slap on a disclaimer. But as others have noted, their demand for Biblical literalism was absurd; of course Aronofsky took some liberties with the text; otherwise, he’d have no movie. In Genesis, Noah doesn’t get a speaking part until well after the flood; his wife, like most Biblical women, has no name. Aronofsky doesn’t conjure the characters that roam his blighted post-Eden out of nowhere. The Watchers—a race of giant, crusty fallen angels who help Noah build the ark—get a brief mention in the Bible and even more airtime in the Book of Enoch, a Jewish apocryphal text. Tubal-Cain, the leering, pointy-bearded villain who tries to hijack the ark, and Naamah, Noah’s wife, are both borrowed from Genesis 4, a few chapters before the Noah story.
Even Aronofsky’s initial venture away from scripture feels like an embellishment, not a revision. Described in Genesis only as a “forger of brass and iron,” Tubal-Cain is the king of humanity, ruthlessly determined to get on the ark and save his people. He is an all-too-obvious foil for Noah, but he isn’t evil—he wants to survive. The epic battles between Tubal-Cain’s barbarian hordes and the Watchers as the rains begin to fall are standard blockbuster fare. When he’s alone, though, Tubal-Cain asks disquieting questions. Why, he wonders, does God refuse to speak with him? Why would God abandon his creation?
Tubal-Cain is a wise addition to Noah’s universe, but a second turn from the text introduces a familial dilemma that simply doesn’t work. The beleaguered Noah, having stoically watched the floodwaters drown all but a handful of the earth’s inhabitants, decides that God doesn’t want his own family to repopulate the earth. Unfortunately, his daughter-in-law, once infertile, is now miraculously pregnant, thanks to Methusalah’s shamanic powers. The ensuing intra-family drama over the possibility of infanticide consumes most of the rest of the movie and culminates in a scene on top of the ark that feels more like the binding of Isaac than an account of Noah’s flood.
Without getting too caught up in the details of this foray into psychosis, suffice to say that love triumphs over the hero’s increasingly pathological obedience to what he imagines God’s will to be. Noah comes to recognize sparks of goodness within humanity and, after two hours of dolorous scowls, Russell Crowe finally cracks a smile. There’s talk of redemption and rebirth, and all the colors go pastel; it feels a lot like Easter. It’s not quite the uplifting Christian rock song that Paramount played over the credits in one of its many test versions, but there are some psychedelic rainbows.
Aronofsky was brave for sticking to his grim, unrepentant tone in the first two-thirds of the movie, even at the expense of scriptural literalism. But then he abandons the darkest, most morally challenging part of the narrative. Arguably the most important part of the Biblical story is the covenant that God makes with Noah after the ark lands. This pact, in which God promises never to drown the earth again (ironic, since global warming seems poised to do just that) and allows humans dominion over the earth, provides the foundation for God’s relationship with Noah’s descendants for the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Man may not have the right to bite the head off a living snake, as Tubal-Cain does at one point in the movie, but “every moving thing that lives” is a gift to Noah and his descendants. There’s a strong case to be made that after the flood, it’s Tubal-Cain’s vision of humanity that God sanctions, not Noah’s. How would vegetarian environmentalist Noah have reacted? The covenant would have given Aronofsky the opportunity to humble his protagonist and make Tubal-Cain less of a cartoon.
The final chapters of Noah’s story offer even more moral ambiguity. In Genesis, Noah’s second act upon reaching dry land—after sacrificing to God and receiving the covenant—is to plant a vineyard, get drunk, and pass out naked. (Hard to begrudge him a little liquid oblivion—after all, he just spent months trapped on an ark with his family, after witnessing the destruction of the world.) Noah’s son Ham stumbles upon his intoxicated father, seeing his nakedness and refusing to help him; his brothers arrive moments later and cover Noah up. Following this humiliation, Noah speaks for the first and last time, cursing Ham’s offspring to an eternity of slavery. Millennia later, Christians in the South interpreted this episode to provide a Biblical justification for African Americans’ enslavement.
Remarkably, even in a film steeped in Jewish apocrypha and commentary, Christian messages about the need for rebirth and redemption seem natural and universal. “At the beginning of the film, Noah clearly wants justice, very much like God,” Aronofsky told one interviewer. “By the end, when the rainbow happens, he has learned mercy, forgiveness and grace.” Omitting the curse entirely, Aronosfky sends Ham into the wilderness on his own volition and draws Noah back into the arms of his smiling family, ready to begin rebuilding the world.
The Old Testament tells a different story. A chapter after Noah’s death, humans have once again succumbed to hubris in building the Tower of Babel. It’s not long before the only people in the world who remember God are Abraham and Sarah. If this were a Jerry Bruckheimer flick (Pirates of Canaan 7: Noah and the Curse of the Flood), the pastel finish would have been one thing. But Noah isn’t your average Bible blockbuster, and it shouldn’t end like one.