Film & Television / Theology & Spirituality

So, is ‘Noah’ a good movie or not? (Part I)

This is it, guys. Look no further, because this is THE definitive review of the movie ‘Noah.’ I’m going to tell you right here, right now, exactly how high or low the quality of this film is. Okay? Okay.

Is ‘Noah’ a good movie?

Eh…

What? You want me to be more specific? Sigh. Fine.

I went into this movie with the mindset that I wasn’t going to be nit-picky and judge it on the liberties Darren Aronofsky took with the original text. The things Aronofsky added to the narrative were necessary. The Biblical story of Noah is, what, two or three pages? Of course he’s going to have to add stuff. It’s so obvious that I’m not even going to talk about it. Lord knows enough critics have done that already.

Besides, there’s much more interesting stuff to talk about anyway.

I went into this movie thinking of it the same way that I would normally think of an adaptation of a book. Film and text are two totally different mediums. What works well for one, in terms of storytelling, may not work for the other. I tend to judge book-to-movie adaptations on two separate scales, 1) whether or not it is a good translation of the source material (in the sense that it preserves the original message), and 2) whether or not it is a good standalone film. For the sake of organization, I have divided this review into two parts based on those two scales.

As far as Scale #1 goes, Aronofsky himself said that ‘Noah’ was going to be the “least Biblical film ever made.” So what did everyone expect? Perfect, cookie-cutter good guy Noah and his perfect family hugging fluffy animals on a big, fun party boat singing Kumbaya/Hooray Everyone Is Dead But Us?

 I don’t know about you, but this is what I was picturing.

That would have been the most boring adaptation of Noah’s Ark EVER. And it probably wouldn’t have ended up being very spiritually valuable, either.

So, instead of talking technical details, let’s talk theology.

There has been a claim made by theologian Dr. Brian Mattson that this film is basically a poster-child for Gnosticism (his article can be found here). While I found his take to be interesting, I was uneasy with much of what he was saying about the film thematically.

Mattson is correct about some things. For example, he does point out that the film borrows from Kabbalah, which is a kind of Jewish mysticism. Upon reading this, however, I got excited instead of being shocked and appalled, like Mattson clearly wanted me to be. I’m an Orthodox Christian, okay? Orthodoxy came from Judaism. In a lot of ways, Orthodoxy has closer ties to Judaism than it does to Western Christianity. Sure, we’re Team Jesus and they’re Team Not-Jesus, but whatever, right?

As far as Kabbalah goes, however, I was pretty clueless. What is it? How integral is it to Judaism?

Kabbalah is a school of thought within Judaism that explores the relationship between the spiritual and the material. It is mysticism though, so it’s difficult to pin down with a cut-and-dried definition.

As Mattson rightly points out, some Kabbalistic teachings do show up in this film. For starters, Adam and Eve are shown briefly as luminous beings rather than your average flesh-and-blood Joes. There are fallen angels featured in the film who end up being redeemed by the end. The human race is depicted as being segregated into two groups: the nice descendants of Seth, and the not-nice descendants of Cain. Not your typical fundamentalist Christian back-story.

Why can’t I get Jergens Natural Glow Daily Moisturizer to do that?

But then, Mattson takes things a little too far. Because these particular Kabbalistic teachings are similar to some of the teachings found in Gnosticism, Mattson decides that the entire philosophy of the film must be Gnostic. He then proceeds to try and make everything else in the movie fit into this ill-founded, preconceived notion.

For example, he states that Gnosticism teaches that the world was created by a lesser, nastier god, and since this movie is so clearly Gnostic, then the Creator referenced in the film must be a portrayal of that lesser god.

Oh gosh, really? That sounds like a pretty substantial claim. He’s probably going to back that up with some evidence or something oh wait no he’s not. I guess we’ll just have to take his word for it, then.

While it is true that Gnosticism borrows from Kabbalistic teachings (as do many other belief systems/celebrities trying to be deep), the overall attitude of Gnosticism differs vastly from Kabbalah. Gnosticism asserts that creation is bad and that the only goodness lies with the immaterial. Conversely, Kabbalah views creation as being damaged, but ultimately redeemable.

Now, Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ exhibits great respect for creation, so Mattson’s interpretation here is significantly misguided. Also, Mattson’s claim that the Creator in the film is silent, evil, and generally contentious is simply not accurate at all. Nowhere in the film is it indicated that the Creator is the mustache-twirling villain. Nowhere is it indicated that, as Mattson puts it, “the serpent was right all along.” In fact, the exact opposite is insinuated. Any doubts Noah has about the Creator’s plan, and any of the heinous actions he takes that he thinks are in service of the Creator are contradicted quite strongly by the other characters in the film whom we are meant to like and trust.

There was one thing in this movie which Mattson mentions in his article that actually did put me off when I saw it: the snake-skin.

For those of you who haven’t seen the film, the snake is shown shedding its skin before approaching Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as part of the film’s back-story. That snake-skin is then treasured as a relic, and passed down through Seth’s bloodline from generation to generation. The film actually opens with Noah as a young boy being blessed with the snake-skin by his father Lamech (until Lamech is killed and the snake-skin is stolen by the film’s main villain).

Initially, this creeped me out. A lot. But then I read this article by Orthodox film critic Peter Chattaway, in which he debunks Brian Mattson’s article and explores the influence of Kabbalah on Aronofsky’s interpretation of the story of Noah. In his review, he gives credit to several other writers who observed that the snake is originally depicted in the Garden as a glowing, beautiful creature, similar to Adam and Eve, until it sheds its green skin and becomes black in color. The skin itself can then be interpreted as a reminder of Creation’s original goodness, not as a thing of evil.

So, is this film a good translation of the source material? I think I would say yes. It isn’t the adaptation that the fundamentalists were hoping for, but it’s definitely a much more interesting one.

Read Part II.

 

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